India’s Sports Story: Looking beyond IPL

08 Oct,2021

 

 

By Shailesh Kapoor

 

Shailesh KapoorAn unusual season of the Indian Premier League, held over two parts separated by six months, is concluding next Friday. Despite being held overseas, and hence no home stadia and home fans coming into play, it has been a fairly successful season, with the primetime matches ratings consistently well, with those featuring Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings or Royal Challengers Bangalore being a notch higher than those featuring the other teams. Add the streaming numbers to the TV viewership and IPL looks stronger than ever.

 

But by now, that’s a known thing. The success of IPL, now in its 14th year, is not exactly breaking news. I remember how the 2011 season, coming on the heels of India’s Cricket World Cup victory, had performed below par. So much so that it created reasonable doubt in the minds of stakeholders if the IPL is losing its sheen.

 

That’s unimaginable today. Even a choppy IPL season would be immune to that level of dip in viewership. It is now easy to predict what an IPL match will rate, if you know the teams involved and the time slot. The audience is not ‘testing’ IPL as an idea anymore. They have embraced it already. And some years ago.

 

IPL is an annual fixture that has different kinds of importance for different people and businesses. It is a career opportunity for aspiring cricketers, a solid marketing platform for brands, and the ‘known devil’ for GECs, who no longer fret about what their content strategy during IPL should be. They simply replicate what they did the previous year, and for good reason too. There is no mystery left to unravel after all.

 

And that brings me to a question that’s been bothering me for a while now: Are we satisfied with just one blockbuster sporting property in this huge country? A host of sporting leagues have been launched over the last decade, and none of them have achieved even a fraction of IPL’s success. Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) is the best of the lot, having resurrected a dying sport from a viewership perspective. But the numbers are not exactly ‘mass’, and it remains to be seen how the league performs when it is back later this year (or early next year) after a two-year hiatus.

 

Indian Super League, an attempt at cashing in on the growth popularity of football among India’s urban teenage and youth population, has not grown stronger with time. And the other leagues have barely managed to survive. I suspect some of them may have died a silent death during the pandemic, and may never come back at all.

 

Cricket itself, outside IPL, is not growing in viewership. The Olympics had great media visibility because of India’s best-ever performance, but very little numbers to show. I fear that we may have reached a point where except the IPL (and the Cricket World Cups, which are not annual fixtures anyway), we have a big hole in our sports viewership story.

 

India does not have a strong sporting culture, and it is that much harder to build that in a one-sport nation. The broadcasters, especially Star, have done a fair bit, such as to bring up Kabaddi as a prominent option. But the road ahead remains a tough one even there.

 

In 2025, will IPL still be the only sporting story India has to offer? Or is the next big idea round the corner, and we just don’t know it yet?

 

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