The challenge of building loyalty

The IPL's future could well rest upon the ability of the league to build fan loyalty; Flippant team revamps and seasons without home games won't help

Rahul Oak
Sanju Samson had his own set of fans in Abu Dhabi, Kolkata Knight Riders v Rajasthan Royals, IPL, Abu Dhabi, April 29, 2014

The IPL needs to safeguard fans' loyalties if it wants to court longevity and worldwide appeal  •  BCCI

"Now that the IPL is over, I have no idea what I'm going to do after work. It was the one thing that kept the entire family interested - I love it, my wife preferred it to melodramas, even my six-year old son would rather watch the IPL than his cartoons. I suppose it's back to soaps for my wife and cartoons for my son; what am I supposed to do with myself?" - One of my friends who lives in Mumbai told me this after the last IPL.
Regardless of whether you are a steadfast Test lover who considers T20 to be strictly hit-and-giggle, or think the IPL should be the only acceptable form of the game, the fact remains that the IPL is here to stay. Personally, I'm somewhere in between. Although the quality of fielding and umpiring is sometimes atrocious, there is some high-quality cricket in between and the condensed format makes drama almost impossible to avoid. However, as I semi-passively followed the seventh season, I couldn't help get the feeling that despite its widespread appeal, there are a few flies in the ointment. There is one really important element that needs addressing if the IPL wants the worldwide appeal and longevity of it's inspiration, the English Premier League. Loyalty.
For the average English or Spanish soccer fan, that is a simple question. His father or grandfather supported the local club and he ended up following weekend matches on their knees and the choice of which team to support was not so much a choice as it was a legacy that was handed down, like a worn jersey. The widespread reach of sport via television and the internet has meant a wider fan base and these days, a Manchester United cafe is as likely to sprout in Kuala Lumpur as in Manchester.
Cricket, for the most part, has no history of club-based competition. T20 started this trend and the IPL has been the torch-bearer in pushing the franchise model to a point where every cricket-playing nation has tried to emulate its success. However, since there is no precedent, it is doubly important that the league breeds loyalty. You would imagine it depends on three major factors - where you grew up, where your team plays and where your favorite cricketer plays. The trouble is that the IPL makes it hard to support a team based on any of these counts.
I grew up in Mumbai, and have supported the Indian team as far as I can think. I've grown up worshipping Sachin Tendulkar, admired Anil Kumble and believe Sourav Ganguly to be the best captain India ever had. Which team do I support then?
I live on the other side of the globe now so I can't physically go to games. Mumbai's Ranji players have been spread out across various teams. I follow cricketers in every side and can't see myself wishing for Ajinkya Rahane or Suresh Raina to fail when Lasith Malinga is bowling at them.
I understand that I'm not really the target demographic. That is the kids who grow up in this T20 world and feel the kind of emotion about their IPL team that Preity Zinta feels towards Kings XI Punjab. And currently, there are two real problems that need to be addressed to ensure their continued support.
Firstly, the IPL needs to decipher a sustainable model for player transfers. The auction-based approach worked fine for the first season, but entire teams being thrown away and new ones built in their place every three years makes my head spin. Consider Robin Uthappa's journey: He began as a Mumbai Indian, got traded to Royal Challengers Bangalore, where he played for two seasons, before moving to the newly-formed Pune Warriors. After the Warriors were disbanded, he ended up moving to Kolkata Knight Riders where he recently won his first IPL title.
Four teams in the span of seven years. Of course, his transfer from Mumbai to Royal Challengers was the result of an old-fashioned trade and, later, the fact that his employers ceased to exist was beyond his control, but I wouldn't be surprised if Uthappa gets confused over whom to trade high-fives with, or whom to glare at in a heated moment. Why not allow teams to trade in order to balance the team without having to go through a complete overhaul?
Chennai Super Kings, in particular, have reaped the benefits of sticking to a core and building a successful team dynamic. It's natural that a string of losses brings out everyone's inner Roman Abramovich, but a total reset is simply an escape hatch and you still need good players and an able team management to get the results. Don't believe me? Ask the Delhi Daredevils about their 2014 season.
The other issue is that the IPL tends to take the concept of home games rather lightly. The fact that Chennai did not play a single game at the MA Chidambaram stadium is a travesty. I find it hard to imagine the Milan clubs not playing at San Siro, or Boston Red Sox choosing a home other than Fenway Park. Though the elections pushed the tournament overseas twice, the organisers should be more meticulous, considering they know it happens once every five years.
One of the stands at Barcelona's Camp Nou display their famous slogan: mes que un club or more than a club. Although a large part of this slogan is politically motivated, it represents what the club seeks to be - an institution, a tradition, a sporting dynasty and far more than just the beautiful football that's played on a weekly basis. That's the kind of commitment the IPL needs to build.
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