March 30, 2012

Is the IPL still the ticket?

Season five will tell how disillusioned the Indian fan is with the national team's recent performances

A new financial year and a new test for Indian cricket. The first week of April will give us an idea of what the fan, and those who monetise his passion, think about the future of Indian cricket.

A bit like a mid-term poll, the BCCI has asked for a new television partner midway into the arrangement with Nimbus, which is an acknowledgement, maybe, that Indian cricket was overpriced, given that the last deal was valued at the same price as the one before it. Remember, this is not as much about the price as about the returns at that price, something investors in stocks know very well. A State Bank of India share might be a very good asset to possess at Rs 1500, but not quite as good at Rs 3000 maybe.

People good at assessing risk and evaluating assets will take a call on the valuation of Indian cricket early next week. They will budget for the fact that Australia, England and South Africa are all due to visit India in this contract period; that India play better at home than away, which is a factor; that political uncertainty and the fear of an economic slowdown might hit advertising budgets, even the fear that the big cricket stars are slowly moving on. Why, the future of Tendulkar might be a factor, for there is no denying that he pulls in more viewers than anyone else.

Bidders will have to weigh that against the cost of not having Indian cricket on their channels, for that has a rub-off effect on other programming; it provides bargaining power with cable operators, who, in spite of Direct-to-Home, are significant players in the television industry. Some big names, existing channels, and some who desire to establish themselves, are apparently in the fray, and so the 2nd of April should be an important date.

It is not only the on-field itinerary that counts, though. I hope that there is as much emphasis on the content on television and radio as there is on the price. In good markets, product quality and price have a very close relationship.

The first week of April also sees the start of IPL 5. It is a very important year for the IPL. The viewership and attendance figures will give us an idea of whether it is still the hot property it was in its first three years. The reason for the little suspicion is that IPL 4, by its own standards alone, was a slight disappointment. But it was also a peculiar year because India had just won the World Cup, a deeply emotional event, and the IPL began even before the shadows had lengthened. Not only was there a lot of cricket on television, people had already spent fair sums of money on going to cricket grounds. But there was another factor too.

In the months leading up to IPL 4, the presence of two new teams had necessitated another auction, and that led, however gross the parallel might seem, to mass migration. The relationship between fans and players, at the heart of all sport, was severely affected, and everyone, including commentators, was confused initially about who was playing for whom. Things will be better this year on that front, and given how little India have played in India this year, there might be a greater temptation to head towards the cricket ground. Already the Chennai Super Kings are reporting that all Rs 700 and Rs 1200 tickets have been sold for all home games; apparently internet sales have also been pretty good and these are good signs, even if some commentators have recently been spotted shaking a leg in a promo!

IPL 5 will also test the strength of the disillusionment of the Indian fan over recent performances by the national team. History suggests that such disillusionment tends to be short-lived, that the search for a good meal is rarely hampered by the experience of a bad one. There is also the usual debate in some quarters of playing for money over playing for the country. Most people saying that seem to have few problems with accepting it in football and basketball. Just as there are accountants and politicians and artists of all kinds, so too do we have cricketers of many dispositions. And don't forget, not all of them have the option of representing India. The IPL gives them a stage too. But in the end, like with a free and fair election, the public will vote, and this is a big election for Indian cricket.

Don't discount another factor, though. The front pages of India's newspapers, repositories of bad news, have to outdo themselves these days. Poverty needs to be alleviated as much in public life as in our villages. When the news is grim, entertainment has a chance.

Harsha Bhogle commentates on the IPL and other cricket, is a television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here