May 27, 2012

Fun for the whole family

Twenty20 has always been pitched as the cricket format with the most crossover appeal. The success of this year's IPL is living proof

The IPL faced a stern test ahead of its fifth season: given the audience apathy towards the previous edition, the underwhelming recent performances of the Indian national team, and a generally depressed economic climate, this was tipped to be a make-or-break season. Well, the people have voted - with their feet. Yes, television ratings continued to head downward, there have been off-field controversies, and tickets have been expensive, but stadium attendance figures have been consistently high and the public seems to have loved the show. In a tournament made for TV audiences, gate receipts have, ironically, been the talking point of IPL 5.

Evening commuters on Mumbai's local trains have got used to seeing families carrying pennants and sporting the local franchise's blue and gold on their way to late matches. The new metro station at Bangalore's MG Road is only a ten-minute walk from the stadium, perfect for groups of young fans sporting the Royal Challengers colours.

As important as the numbers has been the mix of people flocking to the grounds. It has not been uncommon to see toddlers with their team's acronym painted on their cheeks being bounced on their mothers' laps on camera. What was it that drew all those millions of people - not the stereotypical male-dominated cricket audience, but grandparents, housewives, college students, career women, retired folk and schoolchildren - many of whom belong to India's working middle class? From convenience, to the novelty of the IPL experience, and better facilities in the stadiums, many elements have played a part.

"Twenty20 cricket, and the IPL in particular, fits the bill of family entertainment," says Latha Krishnan, a banker in Bangalore. "As much as I would love to spend the day at a one-day international, I just don't have the time as a working mother. Even if I did, my two children [seven and five] would not make it through the eight-hour match. But this is like going to a Hindi movie, an outing that lasts just over three hours. And you've got so many other families in the stands - it just makes me feel more comfortable than I would at an ODI, where the men outnumber the women and boisterous college kids constitute the bulk of the children around."

A common charge levelled at the IPL is that it's not just cricket - but this works in the tournament's favour as far as the spread of its crowds goes. The sideshows keep everyone in the family interested. At the Wankhede in Mumbai, you could have your photo taken with life-size cardboard cutouts of cricketers. Matches in Mohali, home to Kings XI Punjab, are preceded by performances by popular local artistes. At Bangalore's Chinnaswamy Stadium you just might spot a popular local actor driving around the periphery of the boundary, like in a parade of floats. Then there are the cheer girls, the DJs, the fireworks…

"We went to three matches in Mohali - my 13-year-old twin boys and I love cricket, my husband not so much, but we pulled him along. It was pretty festive," says Bandna Singh, a Chandigarh-based architect. "Agreed, watching the matches on TV allows you to see things in a lot more detail, but it just doesn't match up to watching the cricket live. It's a chance for the kids to catch up with their friends. I could leave work at 6pm and still be in time for the game, there by 7.30. Sometimes I feel the IPL misses out on the essence of cricket - I'd give the IPL five out of ten for cricket compared to a one-day game or a Test - but it's still great fun with all the theatrics."

Santosh Desai, a social commentator and advertising professional, argues that at the IPL, cricket is the sideshow. "It can be compared to a trade fair that people go to just because there is some chaat available. The non-cricket events have become the experience. It's just one more public spectacle with some cricket elements thrown in."

That recipe works for some. Vinay S, a travel agent from Chennai, says that the IPL's freshness and scheduling make it a hit with his family. "My daughter's school is closed for the summer. She's just nine, but like most kids today, always wants to try something new and exciting. An annual summer trip to Ooty doesn't satisfy her anymore, and with our finances, we can't afford vacations abroad. In that regard, the IPL has proved to be a great option for a bit of unique family fun."

Where the IPL scores as a viewing experience over other cricket in India is in the basic amenities: there is, for the most part, good food, readily available filtered drinking water, and decent sanitation. For a Rs 1000 ticket at the Chinnaswamy, you can have a variety of food - cold coffee, iced tea, popcorn, pizzas and sandwiches - brought to your seat. Compare that to last year's World Cup final at the Wankhede, where all you could get were a few samosas and a cola in a stand where you paid Rs 5000 per ticket. And, come an ODI or Test match, getting safe drinking water is a chore at most stadiums in India.

"I've known people in the past who've not gone to a cricket match in India since the stadium didn't have a ladies bathroom, but over the past few years the facilities have radically improved," says Joy Bhattacharjya, team director of Kolkata Knight Riders. "The IPL have done very well in this regard. They've set particular standards: this is the level of facilities expected at the venue, and if it's not met, games won't be played there. Remember, now we have to create an atmosphere acceptable to people used to malls. And you need these people for the league to be a success."

Convenience is the new buzzword; wooing the spectator instead of taking him (and increasingly her) for granted. The Wankhede is still a long train ride from home in the Mumbai suburbs for Chandni Kulkarni, but other aspects of the fan experience are improving. "It's convenient. This year the ticket ordering was done online, and a friend's son was later fitted into the plan by calling the ticketing people and asking if there was a seat close to ours, which they found in the row ahead of us."

"Remember, now we have to create an atmosphere acceptable to people used to malls. And you need these people for the league to be a success"
Joy Bhattacharjya, Kolkata Knight Riders team director

Srishti Jain, an engineering student and dance instructor from Delhi, says her IPL experience just might bring her back to international cricket. "I went to see a match at the Kotla with my father and brother. It took us less than half an hour to get in, we didn't have too much of a bother getting in. The overall experience was excellent. We had Brad Hodge, Irfan Pathan and Morne Morkel near our stand and they interacted with the fans non-stop. I'm not a big cricket fan and it was my first time at the Kotla, but now I would consider watching an international - particularly a Twenty20 international."

No doubt, there is always room for improvement. Vinay says the screening process on entry can be better. "What we are allowed to take into the stadium depends on the mood of the security personnel, I'm tempted to believe," he says. "I understand that the authorities have to be careful, but then why allow vendors to sell bugles outside the stadium if you're just going to snatch them away from fans on their way in and throw them in a dustbin?"

Bandna points out Mohali's parking problem. "Mohali is, I think, one of the easiest stadiums to get into. The security doesn't hound you like I've sometimes experienced at a Test match. Kings XI have done a great job in that respect. But the parking is far from adequate - you have to park your car miles away," she says. "My dad loves cricket, but he's 87 and can't walk the one and a half kilometres to the stadium from the car park two sectors away."

Col Arvinder Singh, the chief operating officer of Kings XI, says the franchise has addressed that issue with a park-and-ride shuttle service (though Bandna says she hasn't seen it). "We have 15 buses going up and down, from parking lot to stadium," says Arvinder. "We know what it takes to keep a fan happy, and that's what we focus on. Good music, good food, good ambience... If a fan walks two kilometres after parking their car, we don't want them to then have a sub-standard experience in the stadium. We try and look at the all-round experience, from the time the fans leave their house till they return home."

Despite the drawbacks, in some ways IPL 2012 has surpassed expectations. So it must be doing something right, and it is to the benefit of all investors concerned, says Bhattacharjya. "The varied audience is a really good thing. We can attract a large number of brands with the IPL's universal appeal. If it's only a male-dominated audience, there are about 45-50 brands that we can attract, but there are around 500 non-male-dominated brands that can [now] be drawn in."

If the IPL is to build on this advantage, Desai says, the BCCI can't take fans and investors for granted. "You see a lot of loyalty displayed at the ground, but the moment people step out, or one week after the IPL ends, everyone forgets the franchises. You can't sell Delhi Daredevils merchandise in October, but you see Manchester United merchandise everywhere all the time," says Desai. "One of the major stumbling blocks here is the number of player auctions - you can't foster club culture this way. The BCCI and IPL must take the teams more seriously.

"In commercial terms, the IPL gives you a very defined six-to-eight week window to hold an audience's attention. The brands know what to expect, and more importantly India can't lose in this tournament. All this adds up to a strong commercial proposition. But since everyone wants to take advantage of this, it also means a high cost. So the biggest challenge the IPL faces is not attracting the audience or brands, but to price things such that it stays attractive."

While a few teething problems remain, five years in, the everyday Indian fan's response to the IPL appears to be positive. If handled correctly, the league can settle in once and for all, and then begin to grow.

Nikita Bastian is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo