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James Fenn | IPL team auction signals cricket’s new world order

After an explosive Indian Premier League franchise bidding process, it is clear the tournament has changed cricket forever. James Fenn, associate director at Hill + Knowlton Strategies, looks at a landmark week for cricket

James Fenn

Lazy Sundays on village greens. Corks popping in Victorian pavilions. Well-oiled crowds re-imagining 80s anthems. For many these are the images that come to mind when they think of cricket. A sport cloaked in tradition and supported by sentiment.

But in the past two decades cricket has been through a seismic shift. Spearheaded by the rise of the short-form game the transformation has been attributed to many things: shorter attention spans of modern consumers, an ‘Americanisation’ of sporting entertainment, or a deliberate attempt to broaden fanbases. But, in reality, the fuel that powered the turbines of cricket’s transformation was the same that drives most sporting innovation. The pursuit of profit.

Tournaments like the Indian Premier League, Twenty20 World Cup and The Hundred bring great benefits to cricket fans and players, providing more entertainment, more formats, more cricket. But they also create new IP, new assets and new rights. New ways to create capital.

None of which is a criticism. There’s no such thing as a free lunch and in sport there’s rarely such a thing as free growth. Profit powers progress which powers profit. Commercial interest in sport, when targeted in the right way, so as to add to fan and player experience (but not take away from it), should be a virtuous circle.

Which brings us to the latest example of cricket’s new reality, the bidding process for the two latest IPL franchises.

This week, the rights to create new IPL franchises were offered up to bidders. The results were astonishing. Kolkata-based RPSG Group and international equity investment firm CVC Capital (who have already invested in rugby’s Six Nations and LaLiga amongst other properties), paid a combined total close to $1.7bn to buy into the league. Outbidding big players including the Glazer family and the Adani Group.

That money goes straight to the BCCI, with Indian cricket’s governing body having to do little more than create a slightly more complicated fixture list. It is, for a rights-holder, something approaching paradise. By building up the IPL to become a behemoth of fan engagement, the IPL has created a self-nourishing monster. A property that doesn’t just deliver on broadcast rights and commercial deals, but offers the BCCI a huge instant cash injection, whenever they need it.

This is exactly what the ECB wants The Hundred to do for them (alongside, of course, growing the sport). Despite a successful year one, they have some way to go.

It’s akin to the model in the States, where the valuations of NBA or NFL franchises have been mind-boggling for years. But for cricket – a sport many around the world would mistakenly call ‘niche’ – to have reached this level, is an astonishing moment.

The consequences of the IPL expansion bids could kick-start another period of dramatic change for the sport. I tried my hand at predicting what could come next:

  • The IPL becomes unassailable in the world of cricket. The cancellation of the 5th Test between England and India this summer, which many speculated was due to India’s players not wanting to risk their IPL places, was already seen by some as a watershed moment in cricket’s balance of power. With the financial clout demonstrated by the new franchise bids, the IPL’s hold over the global game will only grow and grow. Look for the tournament to lengthen significantly, and even more of the schedule to be dominated by cricket’s most lucrative competition.
  • The women’s IPL must arrive. This remains perhaps the IPL’s biggest blind spot. Women’s sport is now finally being given the focus it deserves, in cricket and beyond. On the back of The Hundred, where the women’s competition stole the show, the IPL needs to have a women’s equivalent. Given this presents the opportunity for even more asset and IP creation, this one can’t be far away.
  • The IPL goes global. The current T20 competition landscape is disparate. Each of the major cricketing nations hosts a domestic tournament, which vary in scale and success. But with the power of the IPL brand, don’t be surprised if India’s competition begins to expand out of its home market. If the BCCI turned up at Cricket West Indies’ door with a monster offer to re-brand the Caribbean Premier League as the ‘IPL: West Indies’, who says no? Look for emerging markets to be up for grabs too. The IPL: USA or IPL: Abu Dhabi would make a lot of sense. Could the IPL even become part of the international game? The bigger the IPL gets, the more options are open.
  • The IPL dominates the virtual world as well. The IPL is no stranger to capitalising on the latest trends in fan experience. The league has capitalised on the popularity of fantasy sports better than perhaps any league outside of North America. As our world gets increasingly virtual, look for the league to dominate this space as well. Thanks to its close links to Disney/Star Sports, the league has already built unique virtual experiences for fans in India. Those experiences will only get more sophisticated and more globally accessible, with the IPL leveraging its partners to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in virtual fandom. As the number of games grows, could we see some of the games broadcast only through virtual worlds?

The thing that is perhaps most notable about the IPL, is that there is huge room to grow. More markets. More teams. More experiences. The financial reality laid bare by this week’s bids has sent shockwaves through the cricketing world. But this is a league that is just getting started.

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