It felt gimmicky in the moment. The symbolism, however, was effective and struck at the heart of what would become an unstoppable money spinner. A marketer’s dream. An annual seven-week tournament perfecting the fusion of showbiz and sport.
The Indian Premier League’s (IPL) opening ceremony in February 2008 started with the well-worn package of celebrity and entertainment. It worked a treat. Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, an owner of the Kolkata franchise, was in the house. There were Washington Redskins cheerleaders. Maybe it was gaudy, but that was the point.
This was new sleek terrain for cricket, a traditionally conservative sport where its most treasured and longest format is played in white attire over five days. Traditionalists – those bothering to actually tune into the opening ceremony – scoffed. They didn’t believe something so artificial could endure. There was no soul – a complete antithesis to the richly layered bat and ball sport – the critics bellowed.
It was showy and completely overboard but, importantly, the messaging was clear from the get go. The IPL embraced being materialistic. No one seemed to mind that players were walking dollar signs, much like sports in the U.S. or soccer in Europe.
It was loud and in your face. Perhaps matches wouldn’t resonate quite like cricket’s longer formats, but the IPL had audiences hooked though an endless loop of nonstop entertainment. Importantly, the notoriously fickle millennials were glued to a staid sport that suddenly was turbo charged.
Cricket felt unusually cool.
Eleven years later, the IPL’s appeal in its homeland shows no signs of abating. The current edition has been a ratings gold mine. An eye-watering total of 411 million viewers have watched the first four weeks of the tournament, revealed the IPL’s official broadcast partner Star India quoting data from the Broadcasting Audience Research Agency. Last year’s overall viewership was 414 million.
Male viewership grew 13% to 13.6 million impressions. A main driving force behind the IPL – and the fast and furious Twenty20 format as a whole – was to thrust cricket to new audiences, particularly attracting women and children.
Encouragingly, female viewership – aged over 15 – has had an upswing, growing at 15% to reach 10.1 million impressions. There has been a staggering 29% growth in viewership for children in the age group 2-14 years.
According to Star India, women and kids account for 52% of the IPL’s viewership so far this season.
“We have seen disproportionate growth in viewership among women and kids,” Star Sports chief executive Gautam Thakar said. “Our objective has been to broad base the cricket audience and some of the programming is integrated with entertainment and Bollywood.
“Our regionalization strategy also offers a huge opportunity for more consumption within women of all ages.”
In 2017, Star India bought the broadcast rights for a mammoth $2.55 billion but the burgeoning ratings seem to suggest they should be well pleased with its deal considering the IPL’s afterglow in the world’s second most populous country. Star outbid Sony, the previous rights holders with a 10-year contract worth $1 billion, and 12 other bidders to grab the TV and digital rights from 2018-2022.
The growing female fandom has created new opportunities for the IPL. There is even more money to be made. Brands with a focus on women, such as Lotus Herbals, Fena Detergent, Senco Gold & Diamonds and Fashion Big Bazaar have sponsorship or advertising associated with the IPL.
It all means that the time could be finally right for a women’s IPL. There has been remarkable foresight with the IPL – which has been mimicked in almost every major cricket nation and beyond – but India has been slow off the mark in setting up a women’s franchise Twenty20 competition. Conversely, Australia and England have thriving women’s Twenty20 domestic leagues.
Last year, India’s governing body organized an exhibition women’s T20 challenge before the IPL Qualifier 1 in Mumbai. The fixture featured 26 players including 10 international stars from Australia, England and New Zealand.
An upcoming women’s four-match T20 competition in Jaipur is seen as another stepping stone for a fully-fledged women’s Indian Premier League in the near future. In a major setback, bickering between the Board of Control for Cricket in India and Cricket Australia has overshadowed the tournament with Australia’s superstar players unable to take part.
According to insiders, a women’s IPL is still realistically a few years away but the momentum is unlikely to halt anytime soon for the lucrative men’s tournament which keeps reeling in more starry-eyed fans.
Just like the IPL’s masterminds envisioned all those years ago.