For the next few weeks, Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket will consume sports media and popular culture across much of the subcontinent.
After two years of pandemic disruption, which prompted trips to Covid-safe bubbles in the UAE, Indian fans have returned to IPL stadiums for the first time since 2019. Capacities are limited for earlier fixtures but the hope is that grounds will be full before the final.
Yet since its launch in 2008, the effect of the IPL has not so much been disruption as revolution. It has propelled cricket towards commercial maturity, powerfully harnessing rampant local popularity to make India the sport’s dominant market.
As the shortened Twenty20 format boomed throughout cricket’s traditional nations after its professional debut in 2003, it created fresh opportunity in India. The founding insight for those behind the IPL was that T20 games were a similar length to Bollywood movies, which made them compelling alternative entertainment.
At the same time, Bollywood’s appeal was embraced from the outset. Music and dance were incorporated into the IPL’s presentation, while movie stars like Preity Zinta, Shah Rukh Khan and Shilpa Shetty joined city franchise ownership groups to create a different set of stakes for every team.
For all that, sporting credibility was always a non-negotiable element. The league’s financial power was used to attract the world’s very best short-form players. That concentration of ability inspired tactical innovation. The as yet unexplored depth in T20 was underlined in the very first season by a win for Rajasthan Royals, masterminded by the late, great Shane Warne.
Both of those trends have stayed constant. Over time, where national team obligations have allowed, players have felt an ever greater need to take on the IPL – not just for financial reasons but because it is the place to learn about and test themselves in elite white-ball cricket.
That has completely changed the sport’s relationship with talent. International boards have either lost their hold over players or given up leverage. Meanwhile, a combination of the IPL’s auction system and the T20-driven professionalisation of cricketing data analytics have changed how talent is valued. Team owners have pushed for better ways to allocate limited resources and that has cast some players in a new light.
The huge popularity of T20 in general and the IPL in particular have led to franchise tournaments becoming increasingly prominent, even if few of those competitions have enjoyed comparable success. Specialists now have an opportunity to hone their skills and make a living all year round, while organisers are always in the market for marquee names.
Those dynamics have encouraged the development of unusual, scattered fanbases for franchise teams and tournaments around the world, while amplifying the profile of individual stars. This has created an unusual set of commercial opportunities for brands agile enough to capitalise, and those conditions may only deepen in the years ahead.
It also looks set to be replicated in the women’s game. In March, Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Sourav Ganguly confirmed that a long-awaited Women’s IPL was being planned for 2023. That follows the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia and the women’s edition of the Hundred in England, which have built on one another’s success in marketing and on-field quality.
Investors continue to look to franchise leagues as the engine of cricket’s growth. In the US, the organisers of Major League Cricket announced a $110 million project in March to build or renovate eight venues across the country as they prepare for a 2023 launch.
As the seasons progress, fans’ affiliations for new teams will strengthen – just as they have in India – while many core traditions will hold firm. Still, it is the players who have moved to the centre of the business of cricket and the smartest brands will find ways to respond.
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