As IPL 8 unfolds, the 'festival of India' faces serious tests ranging from cricket fatigue to commercial concerns and governance issues. The prime reason for the apprehension and vulnerability is IPL, a heady cocktail of cricket and entertainment, is not merely a tournament but a carefully crafted valuable commercial property.
Forget the noise and hype, ignore the distraction of the cheerleaders and cringe-inducing presence of celebrities hungrily chasing media attention at matches. The IPL works because of solid cricket content, competitive matches, the presence of top players and its quality of play. The format is fast paced and snappy and the 'package' delivered live by television at prime time.
Of late, a feeling is growing that this formula has run its course and the IPL needs fresh ideas and innovation. After seven years there is a stale sameness about the tournament - the only change is the nature of advertising and catch-lines that describe it as war or a festival.
Just as car manufacturers release new models, fashion designers put out new clothing lines, golf equipment makers offer improved drivers and bat manufacturers create a bigger sweet spot on cricket bats, the IPL must undergo a makeover to retain the affection of fans.
Apart from the fatigue with its concept and construct, the IPL is confronted with major external threats. This year, the tournament comes after three months of the India team's tour of Australia and a longish World Cup. This creates concerns whether fans, after this supply excess, will still have an appetite for consuming more cricket.
The television broadcaster is unfazed, reports indicate brisk sales of advertising spots at rates higher than those for the World Cup. But other indicators are less promising. The economy is sluggish and this has left an adverse impact. Teams are struggling to sell sponsorship inventories and the going rates are lower than previous years. Some insiders blame the market for the financial hit but others insist the IPL was always over priced and the market now is correcting itself. This is logical because potential advertisers size up alternate options (through competing sports and entertainment properties) to engage with customers.To an extent IPL's economic pain is self-inflicted and a series of self goals have left it dented. The corruption issue damaged its reputation and the continuing uncertainty about the participation of some teams further erodes the confidence of stakeholders. With the cricket ecosystem exposed to extreme turbulence, the reluctance of corporates to commit funds for buying rights or approving activation budgets is understandable.
From the outside the IPL is a dazzling spectacle, a cash-rich event where everyone makes loads of money. The ground reality is different and the balance sheet is often the colour of a Test match new ball. Chennai and Kolkata are secure because they win consistently, also they ride on the enormous commercial appeal of Shah Rukh Khan and MS Dhoni. For others, it is a fragile existence though the Royals and Kings have successfully taken the budget airline low-cost-no-frill route. Their business model - cut costs to ensure profit.
This is a sensible way to go considering the financial health of teams depends on generating internal resources which come largely from sponsorship and ticket revenue. Given the current economic slowdown, sponsorship is tough and ticket revenue even in a favourable environment can only give an incremental upside.
The real worry is other revenue streams such as merchandising and monetising of fan base are still too far in the distance. After seven seasons, merchandising is limited to team jerseys, and frankly only Sachin Tendulkar and Dhoni shirts sell. The rest don't count and the bottom line, to use a tired marketing cliche, is that merchandising is presently a cost-and-needs investment to build future demand.One reason for this is IPL teams are not yet brands like EPL clubs and though Indian fans adore stars they are confused by the constant churn from player auctions. Dhoni and Virat Kohli have stayed parked in Chennai and Bangalore from the beginning but Yuvraj Singh (Rs 16 crore annual) has regularly hopped sides with Delhi his fourth stop in eight years. With this kind of mobility, it is impossible to create loyalty or a sense of identity with a team.
Despite these stutters, the IPL will come through because of its core strength and the power of cricket. Ultimately, it is the skills and talent of wonderfully-gifted players that will sustain it. The recent World Cup breathed a new lease of life into the dying 50-over format as key matches saw T20 batting versus aggressive Test match bowling and attacking fields.
This IPL we could be entertained at a new level with 180-200 being a par score and new shots being discovered. Faced with this challenge, don't be surprised if spinners develop new tricks and bowl an occasional yorker and bouncer!
(The writer is advisor, sports ministry)