India’s favourite sport in a spin over breakaway league
To be in India this month and not know that the national cricket team is playing Pakistan would require superhuman skills of selective hearing.
From taxi drivers to jet-owning millionaires, Indians are talking of little else. India have already won the one-day series, defeating Pakistan on home soil in the game’s shorter format for the first time in 27 years, but the stadium in Jaipur for the fifth, dead game tomorrow will still be packed.
Cricket has that effect in India, where it is a national obsession. Like no other event, it has the power to attract huge crowds and television audiences.
It is this fact that lies at the heart of an unfolding off-the-field contest between the game’s established power-brokers and a breakaway league financed by one of India’s richest men.
The launch in the next fortnight of a Twenty20 competition by the Indian Cricket League (ICL), owned by Sub-hash Chandra’s $2 billion (£980 million) media-to-packaging Essel Group, is a significant challenge to the way cricket in India is run and how its huge revenues are administered.
The league, showcasing local talent alongside international stars including Brian Lara, the former West Indies captain, and Pakistan’s Inzamam-ul-Haq, also threatens to divide a game that moves a fifth of the world’s population to incomparable heights of fanaticism in sport.
At stake are billions of dollars in advertising and sponsorship revenues and, ultimately, the ownership rights to the Indian team – the lucrative epicentre of cricket’s economy.
The creation of a regional league, to be broadcast on Zee, Essel’s satellite channel, has drawn a predictable response from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the governing body.
Essentially a private members’ club with the authority to pick the Indian team, the BCCI has refused to play ball with the rebels. It has denied them access to its affiliated grounds and threatened to ban players who participate.
In what is widely perceived as a knee-jerk reaction designed to kill off the competition, it will start its own Twenty20 league in April. The board claims to have secured an impressive array of stars including Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, the retired Australia bowlers.
Bids to buy one of the eight teams in the Indian Premier League (IPL) – modelled on English football’s elite domestic competition – start at $50 million and include a share of gate receipts and stadium advertising.
Amid the hype, big names from Vijay Mallya, the beer baron, and Anil Ambani, the telecoms billionaire, to Russell Crowe, the Hollywood actor, and Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood star, have emerged as potential bidders. English Premier League clubs have also been mooted.
The investment is considerable for an untried format in a cluttered sporting calendar, but Indian cricket has little trouble raking in the cash. Last year, Nimbus Communications paid an eyewatering $612 million for the BCCI’s international and domestic rights until March 2010. Air Sahara’s four-year sponsorship of the Indian team cost it $70 million.
It will need a man of Mr Chandra’s considerable resources to take on one of the richest and most politically powerful governing bodies in world sport. The former rice trader, who pioneered satellite TV in India, also has a personal score to settle. The BCCI rejected his $306 million bid for India’s cricket rights two years ago, although it was the highest offer, claiming that Zee did not have the necessary broadcasting experience.
The rebel league is his riposte and the man already dubbed the Kerry Packer of Indian cricket is putting one billion rupees (£12.5 million) behind it. Executives at Essel, though, claim a higher motivation than revenge: to build a new cricketing infrastructure by tapping talent in every corner of India and feeding a system extending to the 50-over and five-day test formats. It is the latter ambition that has the BCCI really twitching.
Kapil Dev, Wisden’s Indian cricketer of the century, is leading the charge as the ICL’s figurehead. “Our young boys from the smallest of villages are going to get exposure playing with the best of the best,” he said. “I don’t understand business but I do understand that we are going to give more cricket to the youth. We are trying to give back by promoting the game and I don’t see what’s wrong with that. There is always room to improve.”
Whether there is space in the market for two competing leagues, India’s cricket economy will grow significantly. However, some in the advertising industry are already writing off the underdog, which is expected to deliver audiences a fifth of the size of the IPL.
“ICL will not be a mass option on which people can build campaigns. It is niche,” said Sundar Raman, a director at Mind Share, the media agency. “IPL seems to be a clear winner right from the start.”
Indian Cricket League Begins:
November 2007 Six regional sides Squads of 19 players
Big names: Brian Lara, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Chris Read, Stuart Law
Pay: £75,000 for six weeks’ work $1 million prize money
Indian Premier League Begins:
April 2008 Eight regional sides Squads of 16 players 59 matches over 44 days
Big names: Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Shoaib Malik, Shane Warne, Stephen Fleming, Shaun Pollock
Pay: £150,000 for six weeks’ work $3 million prize money and progression to Champions League