In its short but eventful life, the IPL, with its combination of cricket and entertainment, has resembled an unstoppable juggernaut. Above all, it has been television-ratings gold, attracting a wide audience, including women and children, that has mostly ignored the longer versions of the game. Even film ticket sales dropped in its wake, with production houses choosing to withhold new releases until after the IPL. Its domination was total, and it seemed like nothing could slow it down.
Until this season.
The 2011 IPL produced the lowest television ratings of any of the four seasons, an average Television Viewer Rating (TVR) of 3.91 per game, down 29% from 5.51 a year ago. Even the final, which pitted the defending champions, Chennai Super Kings, against Royal Challengers Bangalore, failed to draw the bumper ratings of years past, despite the presence of India's captain, MS Dhoni, and Chris Gayle, this season's most explosive and exciting player. Their contest drew a TVR of 6.96, healthy by normal standards but pale in comparison to the 12.85 rating in 2010. It was also the first final to draw a single-digit rating.
The comparatively low numbers represent the first signs that there could be trouble in paradise, and provide empirical data to back up the general perception that this IPL season was lacklustre and suffered in comparison to India's victorious World Cup campaign, which preceded it. But while media experts and the various stakeholders in the league admit there are concerns to be addressed, the consensus seems to be that there is no cause for alarm because the IPL is still the best property on television.
Sundar Raman, the chief executive of the IPL, was measured in his reaction to the ratings when he spoke to ESPNcricinfo two days before the tournament final. Among the reasons offered by media experts for their decline was confusion among fans because of the shuffling of players between teams, but Raman didn't think that was much of a factor. He thought the lack of close games and the increase in the number of afternoon games were likelier culprits.
"I haven't had the opportunity to go into the depth of the analysis, which I will certainly do after the season is over to understand what we can do better, and [if there is] anything that will ensure that we get more number of people watching more amount of time."
Perhaps the problem was how high the bar was set in the first few seasons. "[The 2011 season] was not according to expectations," R Gowthaman, the managing director of Mindshare (part of Group M, India's largest media agency), told ESPNcricinfo. "Definitely below par. If you think of any other programme that will give you a four rating for non-stop [episodes] over six weeks, you won't find anything. Its own performance is its own bane."
Rohit Gupta, the president of Multi-Screen Media (MSM), which owns Set Max, the channel that broadcasts the IPL, differed with Raman, in that he felt the new teams and players switching franchises could have been factors, along with more afternoon games, and cricket fatigue caused by the World Cup. But he said these problems could be fixed.
"There is no World Cup next year. You are familiar with the teams now. Had the reach come down, then there would have been a concern. That means people are moving away from the IPL. That would be the larger concern."
Gupta pointed out that the reach, the absolute number of people who watched the tournament, had risen from 55.48 million last year to 58.83 million. "It shows that people are interested in the IPL. The only thing is they have spent less time than last year."
Set Max is expected to rake in about Rs 1000 crores in revenue this year, a 25% jump over 2010, but they will probably have to scale back their expectations for next year, according to Gowthaman. He expects that 2011 "will be hanging on the head as the Damocles sword in terms of [the] pricing" Set Max can charge for advertising spots next year, but says advertisers wanting a better deal are about as far as the repercussions will go.
"We are now used to consuming 200 days of cricket. After two series, the West Indies series and England-India series, we won't feel as tired as we are feeling now about the IPL. The mood will be completely different at the end of the year when it comes to the bullishness of the tournament."
"Eventually only sport survives. If you celebrate Barcelona today, it has everything to do with the sport. No entertainment show lasts forever. It has five seasons and then it starts fading"
Brand consultant Santosh Desai believes cricket should be the spotlight of the IPL
Despite the lower ratings, Abhijit Avasti, national creative director of advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, said the league delivered for those advertisers who came up with the right approach. O&M were responsible for the Vodafone 3G campaign, which, he said, got a great response.
Avasti doesn't believe a show should be judged solely on the basis of ratings. "If I was to evaluate a media property, I wouldn't get into too much granularity. Otherwise you reach a level where you are evaluating a serial and you say only when one chacha [uncle] comes on, people watch." Rather than going into such detail, he prefers to pick a programme that has the nation's attention, and thinks Twenty20, which requires less time and attention than one-day or Test cricket, is "a great platform for brands to make noise on".
Away from the television screens, the franchises had reasons to cheer as well. Arvinder Singh, the chief operating officer of Kings XI Punjab, said his franchise met all their targets and business objectives. He too was sceptical about regarding television ratings as the key barometer of the league's success, saying they are essentially a numbers game. He also thought the World Cup's impact on viewers was a circumstance unique to this year.
"[The IPL] is the biggest sporting event in the country. Nothing comes close to it, really speaking. It is well documented. Well known. The IPL is after all the IPL."
Venky Mysore, the chief executive of Kolkata Knight Riders, was surprised by the television ratings and the empty seats at some of the playoff games, but remains convinced of the league's long-term prospects. While ratings may have dropped, Mysore said ticket sales for Kolkata were very good, and that the franchise's social-media initiatives had proven to be hugely popular ("Our community is growing at a rate of between four to five thousand a day"), demonstrating that interest in the league is alive and well. Kolkata have built a strong platform of sponsors, and Mysore expects to not only break even this fiscal year but possibly even post a profit.
At the same time, he said it was important to realise the league is not a start-up anymore, and that it can no longer take the fans for granted. "We have to earn interest. Demonstrate that we can add value for them." In order to accomplish this, he said he would like to see more collaboration between the franchises and IPL management - perhaps the franchises could be given a place at the decision-making table - as well as more transparency. "I'm very bullish about the future," he said, "but for us to really continue to build on this, it has to be a joint responsibility."
Raman said it was unlikely the BCCI would give the franchises a formal role in the running of the league, but that the league would consult with the franchises on an informal basis.
Not everyone is convinced the IPL has taken root in the hearts and minds of India's cricket fans, though. Santosh Desai, the head of Future Brands, a brand consultancy firm, believes the club-versus-country debate could grow louder if India were to suddenly lose a series or two, with a potential for a backlash against the league as a result. His prescription is to abandon the notion of "cricketainment" and allow cricket to occupy the entire stage.
"Eventually, if you look at sport across the world, only sport survives. If you celebrate Barcelona today, it has everything to do with [football]... No entertainment show lasts forever. It has five seasons and then it starts fading."
Desai believes the key to building the future of the league lies in giving the franchises the wheel; in giving them a chance to build their own identities and giving fans a reason to not just follow them but to become loyal in the way a Barcelona or Manchester United fan is loyal - because of what the team represents.
That is why he thinks the IPL missed a trick when they reshuffled the teams. Not only did it confuse the fans, most of whom were suddenly forced to root against their favourite players, but it also smacked of shaking up the cast on a soap opera to create new storylines (for example, Ganguly and Kolkata), and got in the way of treating the IPL like a sport.
"They lost an opportunity. There is such a thing as too much cricket. There is something like too many sixes."
Still, like the others, Desai believes the IPL's problems can be fixed, and that the odds are in the league's favour. A lot of money has been invested to make the league the grand spectacle it is, and there is no doubt about India's passion for the sport. If meaningful rivalries can be developed between the teams, and the franchises continue to build their fan bases, the IPL should expect to settle in for a long innings. Yet after this season there is the possibility, if slim, that its continued success is no longer a sure thing.
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo