The year was 2004. I was an engineering student who lapped up all sports on TV. Twenty20 cricket had just started in England; the possibilities of this new format excited me. It was already becoming popular in England with all-time high attendance figures for domestic games.
The other thing that piqued my interest that year was a proposal to conduct a hockey league in India called the Premier Hockey League.
I felt the time was ripe to start a domestic T20 league in India. If it can work for hockey, it can certainly work for cricket. I was so inspired that I wrote a business proposal to conduct a city franchise-based T20 league in India and presented it at a business idea presentation contest. The crowd and the judges found my ideas too absurd and roasted me for my lack of business acumen. In those pre-IPL days, a domestic cricket league making money seemed too far-fetched.
Three years later, India won the inaugural T20 World Cup. Zee Entertainment Enterprises, frustrated at not getting broadcast rights for cricket, pulled a Kerry Packer on the BCCI and announced the Indian Cricket League (ICL), the country’s first city-based T20 league. ICL forced the BCCI to take action — it imposed all possible sanctions on the ICL and its players and quickly strung together the Indian Premier League.
The product was always going to be a winner. It had daily cricket on prime time TV with the best cricketers in the world. There was also a bit of Bollywood spice added on top. The result? In 2019, 11 years since its inception, IPL was considered the fourth most-profitable sports league in the world.
But why are we talking about the IPL’s history? Because it has an important lesson for what we are going to talk about. The BCCI has a bias for inaction — it may be sitting on a gold mine, but it won’t start digging for gold unless someone else starts to take away its share.
At the moment, the BCCI sits securely with its IPL cash cow. It has a monopoly over the Indian market. It can also dictate terms to other boards to make sure international players are available to participate in the IPL, while Indian players never play any other leagues.
While IPL has guaranteed BCCI a sustained revenue stream, it still has unlimited untapped potential. The BCCI has a chance to make the IPL the greatest thing in sport, a product that can compete with the USA’s National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and football’s English Premier League in its revenue and reach.
Last week, the BARB TV ratings in the United Kingdom indicated the IPL had more viewers than some English Premier League matches. This doesn’t come as a surprise, as social media trends already indicate massive interest for the IPL in England and Australia. The BCCI has an opportunity to make IPL the most prominent global sporting league in the world in the next two decades if it gets serious about expansion.
The expansion has to start in the domestic market first, by increasing the number of teams that participate in the IPL without diluting the quality of the contests. From an eight-team affair, BCCI can make it a two-tier competition with ten teams each. Every year, the bottom two teams from the top tier should get relegated to the lower tier, and the top two teams from the lower tier should get promoted to the top tier.
The BCCI should sell franchises to cities, states and regions that are still underrepresented in the IPL. There is a massive appetite for cricket all across India, and getting a local team to cheer for will get hook fans even more. Create franchises for Assam, for UP, for Gujarat, etc., and have them play the second division for the first couple of years if you have to.
If you are feeling ambitious, follow the lead of Major League Baseball or the NBA, which have a team each from Canada, in addition to 29 teams each from the USA. Add a team from Bangladesh, and a team from Sri Lanka to add international flavour to the competition. Needless to say, the TV ratings will skyrocket in those two countries.
A larger league is going to pose challenges with scheduling. But you can offset some of those issues by playing doubleheaders even on weekdays, and playing three games on the weekend. The games can overlap or go on simultaneously. As long as TV channels get ad revenues from both broadcasts, they won’t complain.
The BCCI also has the clout to reserve a longer window for IPL. Some players may have to choose between IPL and international cricket, but that’s common in other sports as well.
Increasing the player base
Expansion is not sustainable if you don’t increase the base of players. With 20 teams in the competition, the BCCI can change its current overseas players rule, and let teams pick up to seven overseas players. In the long run, it can get rid of the overseas cap completely.
Grooming Indian talent shouldn’t be the endgame for IPL when it can achieve global sporting dominance. Plus, there can be more wholesome ways to groom talent than creating quotas for them. Setting up more academies in villages with extra revenue from the IPL could be just one of them. Let the era of liberalisation of cricketing talent kick-in.
Increasing the overseas players cap can also open up the competition to the International Cricket Council’s associate and affiliate nations. Teams might be able to sign up lesser-known players from smaller leagues across the world at a lower cost. Let your scouts explore the next hitter from Kenya or the next swing bowler from Scotland.
Getting more overseas talent to play IPL can also give more opportunities to increase the BCCI’s soft power by telecasting IPL to more countries. Look at how hard the NBA tries to make inroads into India. The NBA made sure that when Satnam Singh became the first Indian to be picked in its draft in 2015, it sold an entire Netflix documentary, even though Satnam never played a single game.
Playing the IPL should be the dream of every kid who picks up a cricket bat anywhere in the world. And there should be a way to realise that dream, even if his country doesn’t have a real cricketing system.
Doubts and questions
There will be doubts and questions if the BCCI goes ahead with such an ambitious plan, but then, even the IPL had its doubters early on. When consumers let a product become an essential part of their lives, any tinkering is hard. You see that when there is a minor user interface change in Facebook or Twitter, and fans take to social media to express their outrage over changing something so dear. But the BCCI has the loyalty of Indian cricket fans going for it — they have always stuck by, through the thick and thin.
The greatest challenge for the BCCI will come from the inside — from state boards that aren’t willing to play ball, from executives who are complacent with the IPL’s current position. It will need an empowered committee that reports to the BCCI but operates independently to govern IPL. To head that committee, it will also need a Lalit Modi-like visionary who has the business acumen to take the IPL forward. Or, dare I say, the BCCI will have to request the ex-supremo of the IPL to return from exile and take charge.
Rajesh Tiwary tweets @cricBC and is known for his blend of cricket insights and irreverent humour. A self-confessed cricket geek, he prides himself in remembering every frame of grainy Television cricket coverage of the ’90s.