Overcoming traditional apathy towards city based sports is a key challenge for IPL

MUMBAI: Public apathy towards city based sports is the key challenge the BCCI‘s upcoming Indian Premier League (IPL), which kicks off on 18 April, will confront.

This point came through loud and clear during a session on Sports and Entertainment on the final day of Ficci Frames 2008.

BCCI VP Lalit Modi, who gave the keynote, said, "When Brett Lee who plays for Mohali takes Sachin‘s wicket will the Mohali cricket fans cheer against Sachin and cheer for their team? That is a key issue facing us.

"Our initial aim will be to get fans into stadiums. The ultimate aim is for the rivalry between Delhi and Mumbai to match what exists between Liverpool and Manchester United. Of course this will not happen overnight. The creation of fan clubs will take time. It will not happen in the first year."

Another challenge, he concedes, is getting women and children to watch the IPL instead of the regular Saas Bahu soaps. IPL is in direct competition because it is in prime time.

Ten Sports senior VP programming and production Peter Hutton is pleased about the fact that finally cricket is being scheduled during primetime and during weekends. This he says should have been done some time ago. Sport after all is paid for by television.

He notes that ICL has been faring better than international cricket matches not featuring India. This shows the power of the Twenty20 format.

Another challenge that the IPL faces lies in creating the kind of emotional connect that the national Indian cricket team has.

Former cricketer Ajay Jadeja notes that Indians do not love sport. "We love the national Indian cricket team. That is why a South Africa versus Australia match which is high in quality gets low ratings compared with an India versus Bangladesh encounter which might be low in quality. There is an emotional attachment. It also exists for the Olympics and so when Rathod wins an Olympic medla we are ecstatic. If he does well in the World Champiopnships nobody is watching," adds Jadeja.

He also points out that cricket has the obstacle in that some players do not play for clubs with the same fervour as they do for their national teams. For instance Ganguly did not bond well with Lancashire. Team culture is not a priority in many cases.

"In soccer you have players giving their all for their clubs. In fact some of them play their best for their clubs as opposed to their national sides. The club culture is embedded in that sport. For cricket it is often the opposite. Above all people watching the IPL need to believe that what they are seeing is real and not some reality show," says Jadeja.

Modi agrees that cricket has to be competitive and serious. There needs to be a hunger to win. Rivalries need to be real; Shah Rukh Khan might drive people into the stadiums but if the cricket is not a compelling experience how many people will stick around?

While IPL is trying to replicate the success of the English Premier League (EPL) one of the reasons why the EPL does well is that England is a small country. PwC‘s Thompson notes that this allows fans can travel with their teams.

Teams playing away matches get support. Will India be able to replicate this given its geography? Also big cities in the UK have different teams like Manchester United and Manchester City. This gives the local sports culture a huge boost. He spoke about a 60 city model for local sport. He also says that the reason the EPL gets so much money is the exclusivity of pay TV. In India this does not exist.

Still it is important not to get pessimistic from the outset. The IPL has gotten new partners Hutton notes. Setanta will air cricket for the first time courtesy IPL. " In Dubai there is a lot of interest about what is happening here. This is a far cry from the days when the BCCI had to pay someone to produce domestic cricket. I think that different loyalties can be created over time."

Modi further notes that the IPL marks the first that a sports league on this scale has been built from the ground up adds Modi. With EPL for instance clubs already existed and it was a question of putting their rights into one body. Asked as to why there was cap on the players purse during the auction he explains that the aim was to provide a level playing field. "This cap though is only for the first year. From the second year players can be traded. Keep in mind though the fact that corporates will not be tolerant of poor performances by players. They are not being picked by selectors."

He also had words of encouragement for other sports. He notes that as the economy grows there are more choices becoming available besides Bollywood and soaps. "You now have international sports events where international players like Rafeal Nadal, the Williams sisters playing here. The FI Grand Prix which takes place in Delhi in 2014 will be a landmark event."

And what can other sports learn from the IPL? Sports editor Ayaz Memon notes that it is key that other sports shake off the sluggishness of sports bodies. State apathy needs to be replaced with the drive of private enterprise which is what is being seen in the IPL. Jadeja further lamented the fact that India has a sports minister who has no interest in this genre.

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