Thursday, April 9, 2009

It’s about the team, silly!

Although the atmosphere in IPL Season 2 may not be as electrifying in South Africa as it was in the pulsating grounds of India.. Star studded, yes. But can IPL-2 repeat the magic of the first edition?

I watched every match of the first edition of the Indian Premier League in the comfort of my living room, usually slouched on my favourite chair, though I did lose my place on occasion to my son who is taller and more muscular and a cricket fan as we ll. The only match I saw live was the final at the new D.Y. Patil stadium at Vashi in New Mumbai, where two teams from other parts of India were playing – the Rajasthan Royals and the Chennai Super Kings, in front of an audience that consisted essentially of Mumbaikars, though there were small contingents from Rajasthan and Chennai who were making their presence felt with the volume of their voices.

Now let me go off on a tangent. Have you seen the Vodafone commercial? The one with the girl who is in the same lift as a celebrity and wants to tell the whole world about her fantastic experience, of course at the nominal cost of 60 ps per message. Yes, I did feel a bit like her as I was sitting just a couple of rows behind Aamir Khan and Sachin Tendulkar and all the flash bulbs were on them. But I didn’t mind the lack of media attention as my own attention was on the tight game and the attendant excitement, the fireworks, the performing artists and the delirious fans who kept chanting “Watson! Watson!”, as they have done for Sachin in the same city and all over the world for years. Yes, the first edition of the IPL was an unqualified success for a variety of reasons. It broke all the myths about Indians supporting Indians only as Chennai cheered for Hussey and Hayden and Kolkata for McCullum. It featured some outstanding cricket, delivered enormous eyeballs to television audiences, got tremendous coverage in every possible medium and made Lalit Modi the most celebrated marketing personality of the year. So what’s in store in April as the IPL gets ready for its next edition? The major difference is that it will not be in the heat and dust of Rajasthan and Chennai or in front of audiences of over 50,000 and close to one lakh people in sweltering heat but in the more salubrious climes of Cape Town and Bloemfontein and in venues as exotic as the Bullring in the Wanderers.

Change of venue, loss of face

The last few weeks have been tense for Lalit Modi, the BCCI, and the franchisees that were getting tenser by the moment with each change of date and with increasing hostility from the politicians, who were concerned with their own future despite some of them being diehard cricket fans. After all a livelihood is more important than entertainment and our politicians know which side of their bread is buttered. Every political party tried to get mileage from this (non) event and the failure to hold the matches in India was branded a failure of the Indian political system and definitely an indictment of the current government, though in all fairness it would have been a Herculean task to juggle the security arrangements of the general elections of this vast, diverse country and the tight security for the 59 matches of IPL planned in different venues at the same time.

Not as electrifying

Having said that, it is interesting to note that South Africa will have its own general elections during the IPL! While South African crowds have taken to the nano version of the game as the recent matches with Australia demonstrated, one must still wait and watch the impact of only a handful of South Africans participating across eight teams. South Africans might not exhibit the same enthusiasm for cheerleaders that some Indian audiences lapped up the last time around. My suspicion is that the crowds and the atmosphere this time around will be nowhere near as electrifying as it was in the throbbing, pulsating grounds of India, as spectators jostled cheek by jowl in every conceivable seat in every venue.

Already some of the cricketers such as Shane Warne have expressed their reservations about the venue and the fact that it will be nowhere near as exciting as it has been so far. The bottom line is that it is only about television audiences and 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. are wonderful times for Indian television audiences.

This leads me to the larger question as to what franchisees will get from IPL this time and what they might possibly lose because it is happening in a distant land and not within our own country, where we clearly know what to expect in terms of crowd presence and participation.

It is common knowledge that none of the franchisees had any serious association with cricket until they forked out enormous sums of money as guarantee money and paid (disproportionately) large sums of money to some cricketers. Of course, the franchisees haven’t learnt their lesson if the current bids for Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff are any indication. Last time around it was the less fancied and cheaper players who delivered phenomenal value. But, of course, we are being wise after the event while they clearly have to put their money where their mouth is. While it is their money and they are answerable only to their investors, I do feel that this event in South Africa, while it might deliver large, captive TV audiences in India, still has one big disadvantage for the franchisees and that is the complete absence of connect with the consumer.

Based on my own perceptions I can only say that there are short-term and long-term objectives that this entire venture promised. One was, of course, commercial viability, and some of the franchisees have claimed that they have broken even in the first year itself. But I did assume there was a larger objective and that was to build a local connect.

Build following for the teams in their respective centres by having people turn up in large numbers, waving flags, sporting the team’s colours and being passionate about them. Of course, it is unrealistic to assume that the fan of the Chennai Super Kings would feel as devastated if his team were to lose as the Manchester United fan in the same situation. The reason for this is simple. Team loyalties that are not driven by regional, national or parochial considerations will take time and effort to build. Last time was only about excitement, not much else. Stars were still the key excitement. It was still about Sachin and Yuvaraj and Dhoni, not so much about the teams and that is the challenge if the franchisees are to build loyalty and passion for their teams much like the English football teams then they need to simultaneously focus on the long run of this aspect, even as they worry about the profitability in the present.

A brand called Arsenal

I was recently reading an interesting book on Arsenal, which was not so much about the football, but about the club as a brand and that led me to some of the challenges that the IPL’s franchisees are likely to face. The statement by Herbert Chapman in the book, while making interesting reading, also prepares us for the challenges ahead. He says, “A club should be like a great big family with all members of it sticking and pulling together in the same direction.” Clearly building a club is not easy or short term. The more interesting thing for me was the authors John Simmons and Matt Simmons articulation of the four brand values of Arsenal:

Courage in the face of adversity

Loyalty to each other
Positive about the future
Proud of our past

Now I am no football enthusiast and do not know how different Manchester United’s values might be. But I do know that many of the IPL franchisees were ventures with commercial priorities. They were started in a booming economy with lots of IPO generated funds. But they have started with a bang and should not end as a whimper. They must remember that their long-term success will depend on their ability to get and hold fans and their success in engaging with fans. They must also remember that the follower of the T20 format is a completely different animal, who probably prefers excitement and entertainment to class of play. Yet he could be loyal to the concept, the team and the franchisee who engages with him. Having said all that, I must concede that the matches being held in South Africa are a setback for the franchisees, because TV audiences, though valuable can never, ever replace the passionate, adoring fan in the ground.

My suggestion to the franchisees is simple. Think long-term. Articulate the vision for your brand. Remember that we have no history to fall back on. Build your brand. Focus on the fan. The revenue will follow. And please hold future tournaments in India as in the current recessionary conditions it is difficult to travel to South Africa!

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm. and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)


Sundar said...

As one of the readers,following the published articles and the comments in this forum,I have come to understand that: Very different thoughts on subjects, though may add good value, may not find its place here for 'valid' reasons. May be the following observation is acceptable.

I believe as a fan I would at least get to follow a match/many matches played in SA this time and relish and reminisce, rather than rue a total cancellation this year of IPL. In the same vein, I am sure all the contestants in various teams and, to some what a lesser extent, the fanachise owners may feel the same way.

Ram said...

Yes it will be worth figuring out how the inidian cricket fan follows the second ipl which can now be renamed as the international premier league.
I think there are a few key reasons why IPL clicked and ICL failed.IPL had current stars in its teams and not retired stars like Inzy. As a consequence there are no other international matches being played parralely. Which means if you wanted to watch cricket you had to watch IPL. The other key reason is most of the ipl teams have a regional base. So depending on which part of the country you come from you had some team to support. To add to that more matches were held on so called home grounds like say a mumbai indians side played more matches at mumbai as similarliy with the other teams. This home team concept drew crowds to the stadiums. And the lack of anything else to watch coupled with the hype created pre tounament with the support of star owners like shah rukh created enough buzz for the home confined cricekt fan to spend more time watching IPl than say a 'times now' or a 'saas bhi'. As you say the shifting of venue to SA takes some bit of the gloss but again the lack of any other cricket to watch will automatically drag us to 'set max'. And as the tournament progresses interest and eyeballs will gain. Lalith modi will do well to import enough indians to SA to recreate the earlier versions atmosphere which to me was too garish and loud.
But I agree with you none of the cricket league are going to become like the soccer leagues. The individual star in cricket will always be bigger than the club he represents.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes I guess the fact that no other cricket is happening is definitely a plus for the avid watcher.
Yes cricket seems to be more about stars and Indian cricket is definitely about stars and not teams.
Lets hope the matches are fun and the atmosphere is less garish!