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IPL - The new marketing cocktail
Madhukar Sabnavis
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May 02, 2008

The IPL auction of cricketers in February was called the 'Mumbai Cattle Market' by those horrified by the tamasha of industrialists and filmstars throwing dollars at players. Adam Gilchrist did say that he, for one, felt like a cow. The creme de la creme of the stars were placed for bidding and lapped up at varying prices - more for their local star attraction value rather than their cricketing skills. (A Ponting drew less than an Irfan Pathan!).

As a cricket aficionado, it hurt to see filmstars, who live in a fake world of make up and retakes, put a price on players who play real games in real time with real skills. But that's the power of money. While the process did seem distasteful, the money earned by the stars can't be grudged - this was fair compensation for the blood, sweat and tears they give to the game and for the country.

Like it or hate it, the IPL is here. Whether it will stay on or die, the performance of the first edition, which is currently on, will decide.

The IPL is the biggest marketing initiative of 2008. If five-day cricket was the creation of sports aficionados and one-day a product of the media, then the IPL is a result of business.

And as all business is ultimately marketing, it's a marketing concoction. It's about BCCI, business houses, the media and the film industry putting their collective might to create a
brand of unprecedented proportions.

From a consumer viewpoint, IPL is a cocktail of four Indian diseases.

First, the base: cricket. Since India won the World Cup in 1983, the disease has been spreading like an epidemic. Today, despite a surfeit of matches, interest hasn't waned. The centre of gravity of the game is today the Indian sub-continent. The BCCI is so powerful that it can get its way on any cricketing issue - on or off the field.

Add some glamour in the form of cinema. It has been the opium of the Indian masses. The arrival of television has not diminished its power. For movie, entertainment or news channels, cinema is the biggest source of TRPs.

Whether it is by doing world premieres of the latest 'flop'busters or 'block'busters, hosting award shows or just covering the latest gossip about the stars and their lives, cinema feeds into home entertainment just like cricket.

Shake it with some celebration. Indians need an excuse to celebrate, to enjoy. Our respect for all faiths gives the average Indian a festival to celebrate almost everyday. Each has its own rituals of the community coming together to dance, sing and create general cacophony, unmindful of environment pollution and civic sense.

Finally, top it with Celebrity Craze. India is a country of 330 million Gods and we make heroes very easily. Cricket stars or film stars, they are easily deified and venerated. People flock in thousands just for a real life glimpse of their heroes - often it is part of the national hobby of timepass.

India is, perhaps, the only country where a film star, just released from jail, returns to a hero's welcome and stands on his balcony waving to his fans as if he has returned from a successful accomplishment.

When these four potent ingredients come together, the cocktail is called the Indian Premier League. Package this in a business proposition and you have something that could re-write the rules of business, sports and entertainment.

With the backing of some of the best business groups and the high-decibel promotion, it makes for an experiment worth watching and tracking.

The IPL breaks new ground in many ways.

Cricket started as a competitive sport of bat-vs-ball. The media took it to the masses as entertainment. The IPL is now converting cricket into a marketing show. No longer are cricketers just players on the cricket field, they are performers.

And every match is not just a fight between two teams but an episode in a continuous soap opera. Brands can be plugged anywhere - in program, on cast, on television, in-stores through merchandise.

Cricketers have their own star power, which makes the game attractive. Now, they have the added firepower of celebrities - be it filmstars like Shahrukh Khan or Preity Zinta, or a business tycoon like Dr Vijay Mallya - that makes the spectacle even grander and bigger. It brings together the appeal of two diseases - cricket and films.

Cricket has been a national passion. It has been difficult to separate the Indian identity from the game. The IPL makes a shift - it taps into local pride. In a global world, where integration is the key, IPL teams are built on the counter-culture of division. Paul Harris, an eminent LSE sociologist, says local identity is an opportunity in a global world. The
IPL is, perhaps, latching onto an emerging trend.

Cricket has been a team game - built on players knowing each other and playing alongside each other at the nets, at domestic level and national level. The IPL changes this and brings the corporate style of teamwork into play.

It expects professionals to come together for a specific project. It hinges on individual prowess adding up to a winning formula. With much cricket being played anyway, foreign players are no longer alien to any team. Simultaneously, the mixed-cultures team could unconsciously foster greater harmony among different nations.

Will this spell the end of other forms of cricket: five-day cricket or one-day internationals? While it may seem so, the truth is every product has its place in this world if properly nurtured. Fast-food restaurants and take-away joints didn't kill sit-down restaurants. There are moments for quick eats and other occasions when food is ceremonial and a celebration.

If one-day internationals took cricket to larger masses through television, the IPL could make cricket truly global. City pride is universal. So, no longer do cities in non-cricketing countries need to have local talent to field a team. It's just a case of buying the best talent!

The 80s and 90s were eras when cricketers became bigger than the game. While star power could be the initial draw, the attempt of marketing efforts is to draw loyalty from stars to teams. Hopefully, in the future stars would want to play for a team rather than the other way round. Thus, the IPL could bring focus back to the game!

Finally, on a jingoistic note, it could be an Indian "brand" export to the world. Without doubt, Lalit Modi's experiment and the business houses support it has received needs to be lauded.

Something worth thinking about.

The views expressed are personal.

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