Writing

Understanding the IPL

THE Indian Premier League (IPL) is, by all accounts, a resounding success. Viewership is high, most of the grounds are packed and the cricket looks serious enough. The owners are not yet laughing all the way to the bank but they have started chortling at the sight of ATMs. The impact of the new league is far reaching not just on cricket and the way it is played, run and enjoyed but indeed on the way the market and the forces it unleashes can change the way we lead our lives.

And yet, this is a success that needs to be set in a larger context. Given our obsessive immersion in today and our growing inability to imagine how time shapes, builds and erodes things, we tend to confuse the conditionally transient with the inevitably permanent. (As an aside, remember how the BCCI petulantly told Shahrukh Khan off for using cricket to promote himself? The shoe has clearly changed feet, but no one remembers.) For a new format to be declared successful, we need a few years to pass. It is worth remembering that while Kerry Packer transformed cricket, the format he promoted (World Series Cricket, not too different from the IPL) began gloriously and died quickly.

The long-term challenges for marketing IPL are several. Sustaining the excitement around the format depends squarely on the ability of various teams to build loyal fan bases. Currently, the basis for building this loyalty is not particularly robust. The city is not a uniformly powerful flag to fly under; in India barring a Kolkata or perhaps a Mumbai, most cities do not enjoy a passionate sense of belonging. Even when they do, it is important for the team to believably represent the city. Now a Ganguly may be synonymous with Kolkata but a Shane Warne captains Jaipur as a result of a commercial accident.

The larger underlying issue is the mental model of what the IPL delivers. It has been imagined as entertainment made out elements of sport. What makes sport such powerful entertainment is that it transcends mere diversion. Sport makes grown men groan, moan and whimper. A nation sulks when Sachin fails. We live out something pure and timeless when we follow sport, forgetting our puny individual identities in the intense embrace of a collective tide of emotion. That is why the ‘sticky eyeballs’ occur, not because a cheerleader is showing leg which a camera is slavering over. The current notion of sport is as an attractive ‘surface’, all glitter and glamour.

Take a look at the names of the teams. Daredevils, Knight Riders, Chargers, Super Kings, Challengers —- these are generic pseudo-martial names devoid of any character and avoiding any real connection with the city they claim to represent. The advertising for the teams is the most undifferentiated one has seen in any category — sundry ‘ambassadors’ sing songs full of passion while admiring their own abs. The cheerleaders too have eschewed local rallying cries in the favour of a superficial, imitative and exploitative approach to exciting passion. Overall, no real attempt has been made to provide spectators a strong reason to believe in any team. For eventually, a team is more than a motley collection of individuals; it must represent a point of view, a style of playing the game.

AT A deeper level, sport is about a heroic pursuit for purity carried out people we anoint as our representatives. It is an epic tale into which we insert ourselves. It will be important for the IPL teams to tell a story that we as spectators and followers, would want to be part of. In its fourth year of operation, when the initial excitement has worn off, what will keep us watching it is the feeling that our team in some way represents our identity and worldview.

The other challenge for the IPL is to ensure that all the brands that have made investments get due returns. In spite of the success of the format so far, this is by no means certain. The trouble is that there are so many different kinds of brands vying for our attention. We have the Bollywood stars (Akshay Kumar’s team or Hrithik’s?), the owners who get huge attention, the star players, the broadcasters, the presenting sponsors, brands associated with each team, the city brands and finally the teams themselves.

There is another way of looking at this whole thing. Instead of seeing the IPL as either sport or entertainment, or indeed an introduction to the club format and hence using those frameworks to evaluate it, one could see it as an entirely new kind of format with its own emerging codes. Perhaps it is closest to reality television in that it allows us high stimulation at low emotional cost. When we cheer for our city team, we do so raucously, but very little emotional residue remains thereafter. It is akin to drinking a cola; a lot of burn, bite and fizz in the throat but something that evaporates before reaching the stomach. All stimulation and no residual content; all intoxication and no hang-over.

Viewed this way, the biggest challenge for the IPL is to keep the stimulation flowing. One must remember that with the IPL, excitement can wane rapidly. The first few dozen times someone hits a six off the last ball to win a match, it is exciting, thereafter it fails to stimulate a jaded appetite. Unlike cinema, cricket has very few plot surprises up its sleeve; either someone can score the required runs or they can get out, nothing else can happen. By contriving excitement using a compressed format, we are also making us immune to it.

This is why the story must include other elements — the antics of the players off the ground become vital ingredients and here with Slapgate and the Shane-Sourav stand-off, IPL couldn’t have scripted a better start. I would not be surprised if innovations in this format followed the principles of reality television, with the focus being on interactivity and surprise. Choose your own team, drop the nonperformer, be captain for a match- just some of the kind of innovations that are possible.

The really interesting question about the IPL is not whether it will succeed or fail but what it will succeed or fail at. Understanding the IPL is perhaps more important than evaluating it.

One Comment

  1. Shiva Srinivasan
    Posted July 6, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Other cities do not enjoy a passionate sense of belonging???Have ever been to Cheenai?

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