Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo
The financial might of the IPL was on display again on Sunday when Pune and Kochi became the league's two new franchises, being sold for a value in excess of the original eight franchises combined.
The Sahara group, the biggest patron of sports in the country, became owners of the Pune franchise after offering a staggering US$370m. The other new franchisee is a consortium of five companies called Rendezvous Sports World, which bid US$333.33m for Kochi. There were three other qualified bidders, including Adani Enterprises and VC digital solutions Pvt Ltd (Videocon), who were in the fray to become part of the IPL, which will be heartening for any existing franchise owners looking to offload their stake.
"It only shows there is no recession for the IPL and it is on the upswing," Lalit Modi, the league's commissioner, said after announcing the new franchises in Chennai.
Sahara, who have been sponsoring Indian cricket for the past 15 years, had bid for the same amount for three cities, but ultimately chose Pune over Ahmedabad and Nagpur. "When we considered the cities, in terms of infrastructure and logistics, Pune came first," Abhijit Sarkar, the head of Sahara's corporate communications, said. "Ït is also close to Mumbai - the commercial capital of India - and Aamby Valley (an upmarket township owned by the Sahara group)."
Ajay Shirke, president of the Maharashtra Cricket Association (MCA) and a prominent businessmen from Pune, said he was obviously happy about Pune being rated as the most popular venue at the auction with three out of the five bidders preferring Pune as their home base over the rest of the 11 cities. Puneites have been hungry for top-quality cricket for nearly half a decade now. The last international match played in Pune was in the 2005 ODI series between India and Sri Lanka.
"MCA has always maintained that we will support all bids that are made for Pune," Shirke, who was present at the auction venue in Chennai, told Cricinfo. "That only increases Pune's association with cricket manifold.
"What they [the bidders] would have kept in mind was the market of Mumbai and Pune are nearby. Then there are private cities like Lavasa and Aamby Valley, which are about 20 kilometres from the ground."
According to Shirke, the Sahara franchise would have its home ground situated on the outskirts of Pune city, in Gahunje, which is on the Mumbai-Pune expressway. The ground construction is already underway with Shapoorji Pallonji being the main contractors.
He was confident that the ground would be ready in time for the IPL's fourth season when Sahara would unveil its team. "The construction work has already started and it should be ready by March 2011," Shirke said.
While Sahara have a long history of sports sponsorship and are a high-profile corporate group, little is known about the winners of the Kochi franchise. It is a consortium with five partners - the Rendezvous group, Parini developers, Anand Shah Estate, Anchor Earth Private Limited and Film Waves. Minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor was involved in bringing the group together, but has no stake in the franchise.
In fact, Tharoor clarified to Cricinfo that he had no stake in the Kochi franchise and that his role was limited to encouraging the consortium that bagged the team. "My role consisted only of encouraging and blessing the venture, and steering it to Kerala," he told Cricinfo.
"Tharoor was involved in facilitating and trying to get a team for the state," Modi confirmed. "He is an ardent fan of cricket and he has been trying to get people from Kochi to bid for it. I think his involvement ends there."
Modi said the tournament's organsiers would provide the Kochi franchise a home ground till the Kerala Cricket Association completes construction of its new stadium. "Kerala Cricket Association is in the process of building the infrastructure and as when the stadium is ready teams will play there," he said. "But till the structures are ready, the IPL will provide them with an alternate venue."
Speaking to reporters, Shailendra Gaikwad of Rendezvous World Sport said, "We have closely been following every development within the IPL, right from the inaugural year. Today, I am very happy for our consortium of Rendezvous World Sport and the people of Kochi as we finally have a team to call our own in this amazing city-based sports franchise"
While the huge money offered by the new franchisees shows the health of the IPL, Modi said there were no plans in the near future to further increase the number of teams involved. "We also have no plans to expand further immediately. In fact I don't foresee an expansion in many, many years to come but then you never know."
The IPL will now feature 10 teams and - if the current format is retained - a total of 94 games, from the existing 60. After the first season in 2008, the league has already expanded its reach to other centres such as Cuttack, Ahmedabad, Nagpur and Dharamsala.
The franchise auction process was to have been completed on March 7 but was postponed by two weeks after the bidders and the BCCI objected to stiff financial clauses.