March 25, 2020. As the coronavirus pandemic trickled its way into India, the country shut down for 21 days. Terms such as ‘new normal’ became de rigueur. Over five months later, there is some semblance of activity on the streets but the effects of the pandemic can still be felt everywhere. India could do with a pick-me-up. A balm, a distraction from the ghosts of horrors past and present. That’s what the Indian Premier League (IPL) will aim to be when it starts its 13th edition next Saturday. Sure, the counter-argument is simple. The IPL will not restore the millions of jobs or heal the kith and kin of the tens of thousands who are dead. But the IPL, like all sport, has the innate ability to lift the prevailing mood music.
In the early days of the pandemic, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp described ‘football’ as the ‘most important of the least important things’. In the Indian context, cricket is a bit like that. The national pastime of playing cricket is only surpassed by the bigger national pastime of watching it. Sample this: if the 462 million (BARC) who watched the 2019 edition of the IPL formed a separate country, they would be the third biggest in terms of population.
But how did India get here?
To trace the starting point is to go back to an increase in TV sets and two events in 1982 and 1983. “I will need to rely on more objective measures like (an increase in) television sets and the interest in cricket relative to other sports,” says Shyam Balasubramanian, co-author of The Business of Cricket — the Rise of Sports Marketing in India.
“In the 1982-85 period, two things changed. Indian hockey suffered a 1-7 defeat in the Asian Games final against Pakistan in 1982, with national television viewership. The very next year, India won the cricket World Cup. In 1977, there were just nine million TV sets in India, it was 30 million during the 1983 WC and 60 million when India won the World Championship of cricket in 1985. Thus, I see the 1982-85 period as the one that made cricketers larger than life.”
After the sport became intrinsically linked to nationalism in the late 90s, people naturally gravitated to it because of what it meant to them. Tangibles such as an Indian victory and a Sachin Tendulkar 100 became dopamine-producing agents.
Speaking specifically with respect to the IPL, Balasubramanian, who also co-wrote If Cricket is a Religion, Sachin is God, argues that most fans are in a win-win situation because of the nature of franchise cricket. “The IPL also has the viewing experience of an international game without the bitter aftertaste of defeat; you don’t really weep over whether Dhoni’s CSK wins or Kohli’s RCB wins. Thus it is a pleasant viewing experience where the outcome has lower stakes.”
Even if the tribalism aspect is present, at the end of a match fans still get to experience what’s written on the tin. It is all part of the religious experience of watching and following the game. Considering that joyous release has not been available to Indian fans for more than six months for the first time this century, its absence has made the heart grow fonder. This is why Star Sports, the host broadcaster, believes that the 2020 edition could be the most-watched IPL in its 13-year history.
After sport returned to Europe in May, it acted as a drug in that it helped people convalesce. In some places that were badly hit by the virus, like Bergamo in Italy, the masses looked up to Atlanta, the local side, to live through them. The Serie A side reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League for the first time ever and the city, one of the first epicentres of the pandemic, derived hope and joy from their team. That sort of sentiment has played out before in India. Weeks after 26/11 reduced Mumbai and, by extension, India, to its knees, Tendulkar & Co engineered one of the great fourth-innings chases in a Test against England in Chennai. After the match, Tendulkar dedicated the win to the victims of those terror attacks.
After Vivo pulled out of the existing IPL deal for the current season, there was apprehension about whether the IPL’s bottom line would take a hit. But there is no need yet to press the panic button.
Star Sports, the host broadcaster, has revealed that ‘the number of advertisers and the amount of ad spends is higher than usual’, in a statement made available to the Sunday Magazine.
“Seventy-five percent inventory has already been sold out. Apart from the sponsors, we have more than 60 advertisers for spot buys, PPL shows and features.”
With Star increasing its programming content (90-minute pre-shows as opposed to 60 minutes), there is more ad space up for grabs. “Star Sports has increased its programming content for pre-shows thus making more inventory available during the festive season,” the statement adds. This indicates that Star is gearing up for what it feels is ‘record viewership for this IPL season’.
“Brands had allotted spends for IPL plus Asia Cup plus T20 World Cup, and now with IPL being the only cricket property for 2020 plus festive season, it has become the obvious choice for brands to make,” it added.
The channel’s CEO, Gautam Thakar, elaborates on these numbers. “It is the most anticipated sporting event with fans eagerly waiting to watch their favourite players back in action after a long gap,” he says. “As the season coincides with the festive period, we have witnessed a significant interest across brand categories. We have sold around 75 percent of inventory already and signed 13 sponsors and 60 advertisers so far. With matches beginning at 7.30 pm (IST), few doubleheaders and stay-at-home fans, nobody doubts that the IPL will be most watched season ever.”
In July, Gautam Gambhir opined that the IPL (in 2020) is ‘probably’ going to be ‘bigger than the rest of the IPLs because I think this is for the nation... I think it’s going to change the mood of the nation’. It attracted scorn but his original point stands. Any sport brings with it a feeling of positivity. Divya Jain, head of Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare in New Delhi, explains it further.
The start of the IPL is a ‘positive development as long as they follow all the proper health advisories’, she says. “At a very basic level, sport is about offering hope and providing joy.” That’s even before you take into account the sort of childhood memories watching sport evokes. “There is an identity you get when you connect with certain sports teams or players... especially at a time like this when there are lots of stress, that helps. After all, fun and play are an integral part of everyday life.”
Aakash Chopra, who has commentated on the IPL before, echoes the same sentiment. “A lot of us have been cooped at home for a long time. Sane people have decided not to go out because it’s still too risky.
Places of entertainment are shut and, let’s be honest, we could use some entertainment in our lives. And that’s what the IPL’s DNA is. Entertainment. It allows all of us to unwind, give us some dose of happiness as we get to watch our heroes on TV after a long time.”
It’s why the former India cricketer feels this is ‘going to be the most-watched IPL ever’.
There is some apprehension that the IPL will be different this time because of a lack of fans. But Chopra, who is on duty in the fan-less CPL games, says people will get adapted to it soon enough.
“It felt weird for a few days but humans are adaptable. We are in the middle of a pandemic, I soon learned to focus on what’s there and that’s live cricket. I mean, let’s take the IPL... (Virat) Kohli will be there, (Jasprit) Bumrah will be there and that’s far more important after five-six months of no (Indian) cricket. Of course, crowds would have added to the frenzy but I am sure people will like what they see. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that we need to focus on the things we have.”
The 42-year-old also recognises the privilege cricketers have in India, doing what millions love. In the context of this being an IPL ‘in such extraordinary times’, he concurs with the view that cricketers will be able to bring some joy. “When I was playing I didn’t really think about it. However, in the recent past I have realised that cricketers are very privileged to play the sport in India. Whenever we play, people who don’t even know us pray for us and cry for us and feel happy for us. That’s just... love.”
Over the last two weeks, the host broadcaster had released a few ads, all of which has one common theme: unity and togetherness. Named Ek Saath Waali Baat, it showcases ‘a sense of community along with empathy and resilience’, Thakar says. That empathy and resilience will be needed because the forecasting models for coronavirus in India make for grim reading. With nothing to look forward to, the virus has become the only talking point.
A recent survey by the Indian Psychiatry Society found that there has been a 20 percent rise in mental illness cases since the lockdown first began on March 25. That figure could still rise in the days and months to come because of the uncertainty that’s bogged down the lives of crores of people.
Like Jain says, “When you are constantly focusing on only thing, you tend to become pre-occupied and focus a lot of our energies on that... this (start of the IPL) is something which will distract and make us focus on other aspects of life...”
When the umpire at the non-striker’s end says ‘let’s play’ at 7:29:59 pm IST on September 19, that’s what the IPL could potentially become: A chicken soup for the soul.
Fields of Play
Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah will play host to the IPL, which begins on September 19 and ends on November 10. Here is a look at what the three venues will offer and what to expect during the course.
Sharjah Cricket Stadium
Built in early 1980s, Sharjah Cricket Stadium holds the record for hosting most ODIs (240). As the popularity of ODIs grew with India winning the 1983 World Cup, the venue became a regular home for tournaments. Match-fixing scandals in the late 1990s meant teams started distancing themselves from Sharjah. Indian government too banned the national team from playing there in 2001. The venue hosted no international matches between April 2003 and February 2010. Cricket returned to the stadium with Afghanistan playing their home matches in the UAE because of issues back home.
- Total T20Is: 14
- Highest total: 215/6 Afghanistan vs Zimbabwe, Jan 10, 2016
- Lowest total: 56 Kenya vs Afghanistan, Sep 30, 2013
- Matches won batting first: 9
- Matches won batting second: 4
- Match ended in a tie: 1
- Venue also hosted 6 IPL matches in 2014
Dubai International Cricket Stadium
Formerly known as Dubai Sports City Cricket Stadium, the venue witnessed its first match, an ODI between Pakistan and Australia, in April 2009. It has hosted 13 Tests, 34 ODIs and 62 T20Is so far. A part of the Dubai Sports City, it has a capacity of 25,000 spectators. The stadium is lit by a special system of floodlights named ‘Ring of Fire’. Around 350 floodlights are installed into the rim of the roof to light up the field of play. The state-of-the-art system is designed in such a way that it will prevent any distracting shadows of the players.
- Total T20Is: 62
- Highest total: 211/3 Sri Lanka vs Pakistan, Dec 13, 2013
- Lowest total: 71 Kenya vs Ireland, Mar 14, 2012
- Matches won batting first: 34
- Matches won batting second: 27
- Match ended in a tie: 1
- Venue also hosted 7 IPL matches in 2014
Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
Named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founding father and principal driving force behind the formation of the UAE, the venue was opened in May 2004 when it staged its first first-class match between Scotland and Kenya. Built at the cost of $22 million, it hosted first international match, an ODI between India and Pakistan, in April 2006. It is about 30 minutes drive from the city centre and is located in a remote area. There is no pavilion as such at the stadium but has large changing rooms under one of the stands, and teams watch from inside air-conditioned glass rooms.
- Total T20Is: 45
- Highest total: 225/7 Ireland vs Afghanistan, Nov 30, 2013
- Lowest total: 66/9 Nigeria vs Ireland, Oct 26, 2019
- Matches won batting first: 20
- Matches won batting second: 25
- Match ended in a tie: Nil
- Venue also hosted 7 IPL matches in 2014
Profit & Loss
Rs 5,000 cr is what IPL ecosystem, which involves the BCCI, franchises and broadcasters, earn as per market analysts.
Rs 3,200 cr is what Star pays to BCCI per year as part of the broadcast deal. The franchises get half of it.
Rs 440 cr is what the BCCI lost after Vivo pulled out as title sponsor. Dream11, which came on as replacement, is paying only half of it.
Rs 27.5 cr earned by franchises from title sponsorship last season. They will pocket only half of it this season.
Rs 10 cr is the money BCCI will pay a UK-based health care unit for taking Covid-19 tests during the IPL. 50-70 workers will be used by the firm.
Feb 18 The BCCI announces IPL 13 will begin on March 29
March 13 With Covid cases increasing, the BCCI suspends the IPL till April 15
April 16 With Lockdown 1.0 underway, the BCCI suspends IPL 2020 season till further notice July 20
The ICC postpones the T20 World Cup scheduled to be held in Australia from October-November to next year, opening the door for BCCI
August 2 The BCCI confirms IPL 13 will be played from September 19 to November 10 in the UAE
August 6 Vivo and BCCI suspend their title sponsorship deal for a year
August 19 Dream11 announced as title sponsor at half of Vivo’s price