April 5, 2012

Part cricket, part entertainment, part comfort food

Season five of the IPL, which attempts to strike a fresh balance between hype and sport, is being pitched as a recovery from last year's poor numbers. Time will tell

When did IPL season five really begin?

On Wednesday evening, as is faithfully shown on the fixtures list, with defending champions Chennai Super Kings taking on Champions League T20 winners Mumbai Indians at the MA Chidambaram Stadium?

Or when 15,000 turned up at Chennai's YMCA College of Physical Education grounds for an opening ceremony that led the audience obediently into mass gawping? Poetry was read, oaths were taken, in keeping with an "honourable IPL tradition", spirit-of-cricket pledges signed, and song and dance burst forth from nimble entertainment heavyweights. Some did look like they were having fun, others watched the evening's "entertainment" as if they had just swallowed a spoonful of bitter tonic after a bout of jaundice. Had the backdrop been changed from "DLF IPL Opening Night 2012" to "Annual XYZ Movie Awards Nite 2012", it all would still have fit. India loves cricketers wherever they turn up anyway.

Yet regardless of where season five began, it is how it finishes that really matters. After IPL4's tepid returns - in terms of TV ratings, audience response and general perception - IPL 5 needs to last its seven weeks like a star cricketer does on a successful return after injury - reinvigorated, refreshed and reinvented.

The IPL has now become a key component of world cricket's economy. If it falters and fails because it is not alert to the audience climate around it, the domino effect around the cricket world will be damaging. Cricket's superstar status in many parts of its empire will be downgraded from club class to cattle class - all holy cows included.

Hanmer MSL, a multi-discipline communications firm, prepared a 14-page document about the last two seasons, concluding that Brand IPL was in "choppy waters". The league needed to win back the confidence of "stakeholders" and the BCCI needed "a stronger game plan to rejuvenate the brand".

Season five is significant because it must wipe out the bad memory and the poor numbers from season four. It is the season that will point to the direction the league wants to take and the road down which it is headed.

Whether it was viewer fatigue after the World Cup or a shuffling of players between teams after a fresh auction in December 2010, IPL 4 saw TV ratings drop by 29%. The 2011 final, between Chennai Super Kings and Royal Challengers Bangalore, was the first final to draw single-digit TV rating points - 6.96 from the high of 12.85 in 2010. While broadcaster Set Max did maintain that the viewer numbers had risen, from 55.49m to 58.83m, the time spent by those millions on every IPL match had dropped. Half-empty grounds that made for bad television viewing, though, sent out their own message.

Brand value consultancy Brand Finance, which had pegged the IPL's value at $4.13b in 2010, downshifted it by 11% to $3.67b in a 2011 study. Due to corruption controversies and governance issues, the study said, the IPL had begun to represent "the dark microcosm of an epidemic of corruption and short-term frenzy to make a fast buck which has swept India like an avalanche".

At a franchise workshop held in Goa earlier this year between franchise owners and the IPL governing council, aggressive marketing to promote season five occupied centrestage. It was accepted that while the IPL could well be India's single most popular sporting event, people could not be expected to turn up at games or switch on their TVs just because they had done so earlier. Middle-class India had other sources of entertainment, and so all promotion needed to drive home the originality of the IPL and the importance of the fans.

With that conclusion, the league is actually back to where it started: trying to perfect a perennially precarious balancing act between cricket and entertainment.

In the first three, "Modi", years, entertainment, pom-pom girls, mandatory after-parties, Rs 40,000 ($800 approx) tickets, and ad-spot friendly "strategy" breaks overwhelmed all else. Season four, the first minus Modi, had shorter strategy breaks, and offered two new teams and playoff games. Its timing, just after the World Cup, however, was way off and the commentators were still hollering. Fewer folk wanted to come to the party, because there had been far too many parties that year and after a while they really needed to stop.

Early glimpses of season five indicate that this tussle for territory between the sport and the entertainment is still on. The league's opening statement was Bollywood-awards-night-style entertainment intended to grab eyeballs. Without the cricket or the awards.

The event's own ad campaign, features a glorious slow-motion beyond-all-boundaries montage of on-field action, and scenes from a carnival. Broadcasters Set Max have kept cricket deliberately off-centre in their set of adverts. They promote season five as a mauka (chance) to enjoy summer evenings with family, friends and an egalitarian audience of "100 crores".

An advertising executive involved in the Set Max campaign explains its subtext: "Don't talk about cricket, because it's a thorny topic. Don't talk about Lalit Modi, he's controversial. Steer clear from cricket and talk about entertainment. The question being asked is, 'Won't you have a good time? Won't it all be fun?' " We will know in two months.

Along with the audiences, it is the IPL's advertisers who will answer that question. An industry insider says, "This year sponsorship will be about the brave and the convinced." What the brave and the convinced are banking on, Hiren Pandit, from media planning giant Group M, says, is an easily entranced audience. "This is a big year for everybody. For Sony, for BCCI, for everyone… At the end of the day, it is going to come to viewership. If you don't get the viewers, nothing can be done."

It is the world of advertising that is the real frontline of the IPL's growth. It is victories there, through TV ratings, audience involvement, spectator size, that lead to growing investor numbers

India's disastrous tour of Australia could have led advertisers to believe that the IPL was not worth investing in, but Pandit reminds us: "Viewers are very fickle. One victory, two victories and the whole world changes. A couple of good matches and the whole world will say, 'Watch IPL.'"

Good matches are what it will hinge on. So never mind the early burst of Katy Perry and Prabhu Deva, it's back to the cricket. Pandit believes ratings will improve from last year, on the condition that, "in the first six matches, you get three good matches. If you have three or four good matches, high scoring and things like that, then suddenly you will see interest in the IPL."

The long Easter weekend will give the IPL "a platform to start off on a good wicket". It is the timing of the IPL itself, right at the start of the school holidays, that can keep it buzzing. Sridhar Ramanujam, the head of brand consulting firm Brand Comm, expects there to be an influx of new viewers from schoolgoing children, even if viewer fatigue leads to old loyalists departing. Ramanujam too returns to the cricket. "The game's interest can never be sustained on hype or PR but on the quality of the cricket and the closeness of the finishes."

It is there that the Twenty20 format has an advantage, with a greater chance of last-over death-or-glory finishes. In the tug of war between cricket and entertainment, Pandit says, "cricket should not take a back seat to glamour. They are two separate elements that need to sit together. You need to build the glamour around the cricket." Cricket remains the adhesive keeping the package together. The entertainment is mere wrapping paper.

It is the world of advertising that is the real frontline of the IPL's growth. It is victories there, through TV ratings, audience involvement, spectator size, that lead to growing investor numbers. In terms of the valuation business, smaller franchises are thrilled by the news that a Kolkata businessman was actually willing to pay $200m to buy a large stake in Rajasthan Royals, which began life as a $67m investment. The recent meltdown in advertising numbers could, franchise owners say, be a mere stock market-like "correction". Just like in their own operations, where, as the seasons have passed, far less silly money is being spent.

At one level removed from advertisers and team owners there is far less gloom around season five. On ESPNcricinfo's Time Out talk show this week, the speakers believed that the prospect the IPL offered, of an India that "could not lose", would come as a relief to fans after all the miserable news around Indian cricket. The new-look IPL: part cricket, part entertainment, part comfort food.

MS Dhoni, captain of India and the Chennai Super Kings, explains away a grim season four, telling the Times of India that the World Cup victory must have been "an emotionally draining experience" for all Indians. "With us having won the ultimate prize and the IPL arriving soon thereafter, there was little interest. This year, though, I'm sure there's going to be a remarkable increase in TRPs."

Amid the din of the opening ceremony came IPL chairman Rajiv Shukla's announcement that IPL 5 was going to be "rocking". That rocking did involve a boat or two. To add to the promise of fun times, Shukla said: "We have told the curators that every match should at least have a 160-run total so that the spectators can enjoy the most." If that turns out to be true bowlers can consider their boats not so much rocked as sunk.

Optimistic organisers, buoyant cheerleaders, nervous sponsors, gung-ho players and the folks on their sofa with the remote control in their hands.

IPL 5 is going to be one hell of a shootout.

Sharda Ugra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo, Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor