No fans inside stadiums, but the IPL is uniquely positioned to exploit sports digital explosion

Posted on September 21, 2020 by administrator

Published by: Nick Hoult

With Bollywood shut down since March, Indian broadcasters have a hungry audience to feed

If any aspect of cricket can be immune to Covid-19 then it is the Indian Premier League. Around 120-150 million viewers in India were expected to watch it begin on Saturday, with companies paying $60,000 (£46,500) for 30 seconds of advertising time on Star Sports, or bundling it all up into $6million (£4.64 million) for 100 slots during the game between Chennai and Mumbai.

“IPL is very dependent on the advertising industry, which was totally frozen for the last six months. To get people active in all possible ways, IPL is the best trigger,” says Uday Shankar on a Zoom call from Mumbai.

Shankar is the president of Walt Disney in Asia Pacific, and chairman of Star India. His company paid $2.5 billion (£1.94 billion) for rights to the IPL two years ago and has launched the biggest biobubble operation anywhere in the world to protect its investment.

Around 1,500 people are locked down in Mumbai and the United Arab Emirates, where the actual cricket will take place. From star players such as Jofra Archer in Dubai to kitchen staff at the Trident Hotel on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, which has been booked out entirely by Star for its staff in India, nearly two months of biobubble life have begun.

On Friday, India’s ministry of Health and Family announced 96,424 new cases and 1,174 deaths in the previous 24 hours. Only the United States has more than India’s 5.21 million Covid-19 cases and 84,300 deaths. In an attempt to shut out the disease, those coming from outside Mumbai to work for Star need three positive tests to be allowed in the biobubble. From inner Mumbai it is two.

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Imagine trying to keep Covid-19 out of a cricket league to be played over 53 days, by eight teams criss-crossing the country. Impossible, which is why it was postponed in March and shifted to the UAE, with its three grounds in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, all easily accessible by road for teams sealed in hotels and buses.

To give an idea of the importance of the IPL to cricket’s financial health, it is estimated to generate $600 million (£464.5 million) revenue, 30 per cent more than the 2019 World Cup in England. It is no wonder the Twenty20 World Cup, due to start next month, made way for the IPL. The IPL lost its tournament sponsor, Vivo, last month, but did not have to wait long to find another, with Dream11, an online gaming company taking over. Online fantasy cricket is the closest to legal gambling in India and a huge-money spinning opportunity for the IPL, as digital becomes the breeding ground for customers. “If the IPL had not happened then the thawing of the sports ecosystem would not have started. That is the real issue,” says Shankar.

England players at 2020 IPL

  • Ben Stokes, Rajasthan Royals (Cost: £1.38m)
  • Jos Buttler, Rajasthan Royals (£485,000)
  • Jofra Archer, Rajasthan Royals (£800,000)
  • Tom Curran, Rajasthan Royals (£108,000)
  • Eoin Morgan, Kolkata Knight Riders (£563,000)
  • Tom Banton, Kolkata Knight Riders (£108,000)
  • Moeen Ali, Royal Challengers Bangalore (£187,000)
  • Jonny Bairstow, Sunrisers Hyderabad (£240,000)
  • Sam Curran, Chennai Super Kings (£590,000)
  • Chris Jordan, Kings XI Punjab (£323,000)

Cricket is uniquely positioned to exploit India’s digital explosion. There were just 30 million smartphones in India in 2012. By 2022 it is estimated there will be 829 million. A fascinating, if niche, new book by Manoj Badale, the part owner of the Rajasthan Royals, and Simon Hughes, entitled New Innings, examines the future growth of cricket and how it can ride the digital wave.

Badale has self published and proceeds will go to the British Asian Trust and his is a book that sparks debate about private ownership and the modern game. It explains initial English scepticism about the IPL stealing Twenty20, which was invented in England, as “reverse colonialism” and is a book to keep on the shelf and read again in a few years time to see how many of their predictions have come true.

The Royals themselves are doing nicely. This week The Times of India reported that Badale’s company was set to expand its ownership in the franchise by buying another 13.4 per cent stake at $26 million (£20.1 million), raising the Royals’ overall value to $350 million (£271 million) from the $67 million (£51.8 million) when the IPL was launched in 2008. With the Indian cricket board planning to auction off two new franchises next year, the IPL is proving, so far, to be Covid secure.

It is the growth in digital that gives cricket its chance to ride on the back of giants like Amazon and Facebook that are only growing stronger from Covid. In April, Facebook paid $5.7 billion (£4.4 billion) for a 9.99 per cent stake in Reliance Jio, India’s largest mobile phone provider owned by Mukesh Ambani, who, incidentally, owns the Mumbai Indians franchise.

With data roaming in India incredibly cheap, exploiting digital gives the IPL a chance to overcome the fact stadiums are going to be empty for some time. Badale and Hughes write that cricket clubs have now to become “content factories”, using digital apps to their advantage and to interact with fans (invaluable for sponsors) pointing to the example of videos of Lionel Messi warming up gaining 100,000 views in an hour, and Facebook live used in the build-up to an El Clasico match by Barcelona and Real Madrid driving 27 million views.

“Mobile devices have changed everything,” says Badale. “Accessing content for mobiles opens a whole new world for sponsors and franchises. It increases the commercial value of the megastar players. If you have charismatic superstars who captivate TV viewers, it makes a huge difference.”

There is no bigger name than the India captain Virat Kohli who has 79.7 million Instagram followers alone. “Facebook’s recent investment in Jio mobile is interesting,” writes Badale. “It’s a tie-up between a social media giant that wants more access to the Indian population and the subcontinent’s dominant mobile phone operator that wants applications and content. National teams, clubs and franchises will all be creating stories for the major platform… content will remain king. And that is why sports franchises are so valuable.”

Facebook and Amazon have sniffed around IPL rights in the past. A bid is inevitable in the future. India is important for big tech companies and cricket rules in India, keeping Star on its toes. Star will be broadcasting the tournament in seven languages on eight channels in India alone. With Bollywood shut down since March, they have a hungry audience to feed.

“IPL is important for sport and cricket but also for the ordinary Indians,” says Shankar, whose staff have spent four months working on their plans. “It is one seven-week long celebration of life. In grim times like this, to have something that shows there is life beyond this and that trumps adversity is a very important message. Nothing delivers that message better than IPL.”