The IPL started under a cloud of uncertainty. Indian team had a disastrous tour to first England and then to Australia. It won nothing in England, and won almost nothing in Australia, save for one freak game in Hobart against Sri Lanka. Just when everyone thought that the Indian subcontinent is where Indian cricket will bounce back to previous glory, the fans were in for more disappointment. India won against Pakistan and SL, but lost to Bangladesh and couldnâ€™t defend its title of Asia Cup!
It seemed that Indian cup of woes was overflowing.
Meanwhile Indian sport was mounting a strong challenge to Cricket. Hockey was played to a packed stadium, boxing was drawing crowds in the World Boxing Series. And a host of sporting events were attracting eyeballs.
It seemed that the dice was loaded against IPL
The opening ceremony did nothing to perk up the interest, and the first week of cricketing action left television audience cold. Ratings dipped, inventory piled up, and generally it looked like IPL 5 will fare worse than IPL 4. Add to it the controversies of fixing and rape, the league should have folded and gone belly up. Admittedly itâ€™s easy to criticize IPL. The auction process, the international players, the cheerleaders, the focus on entertainment, the money power, the franchise system, the actors and businessmen are more than enough cannon fodder.Â I have no intention of either criticizing or adulating the league.
Letâ€™s evaluate the league purely as a media property. Has it worked or not?
If TV audience is the only measurement, then may be it hasnâ€™t been very successful. But looking at IPL merely as a TV spectacle will be foolhardy. There are three indicators that will tell that IPL is headed in a slightly different direction.
First the online viewership has seen a phenomenal jump. The official IPL site has seen page views explode. Indiatimes, the official internet partner saw a 56% jump in viewership in first two weeks of the league. Since then, it would have only gone up. Clearly the action shift from the analogue world to the digital world has been stark. Additionally the online following of all the teams combined has doubled since the time the league started. That is impressive performance.
Second, the matches have been played to packed houses. 146 matches have already been played, and there are just two left to play. An estimated 44 Lakh people have watched the match live. Thatâ€™s a staggering number, and it will go up to 45 Lakh at the end of the league.Â No live event has ever created this kind of reach in India. The viewer enthusiasm has been unmatched with matches being sold out weeks in advance. Live events in India are usually chaotic, not IPL this year, itâ€™s been impeccably organized
Thirdly, the quality of the product has improved, and that is the most important indicator. The improvement in quality of cricket did lead to increase in TV viewership too. It may not have produced new stars this year, but it did produce moments that captivated the country and the world. The traffic on social media sites is a testimony to that.
IPL seems to have filled a long existing gap in the Indian entertainment scenario, which was the lack of a good sustainable, scalable live entertainment property. While cricket has always attracted crowd in India, specially the ODI variety, the matches themselves have been very few in numbers. The live audience was so miniscule that it didnâ€™t matter in overall count.
What it means is that IPL this year probably has transformed from a TV only property to Indiaâ€™s premier live entertainment event. Yes the viewers want to see scintillating cricket, but they also want to
experience the big arena feel. The energy, the feel and the joy of enjoying a live event made the viewerâ€™s go again and again to â€˜seeâ€™ the match.
IPL 6 will be a true marketing challenge. The audience appetite for IPL action will mean brands can have a two pronged strategy to engage with IPL. There is the conventional TV/internet as a property to leverage; and there is also the live audience as an opportunity to engage.
If there are 5 Million viewers who are watching the league, these five million are people who have sought out the league, they watch, they tweet, they have a conversation on Facebook, their multiplier effect is actually immeasurable. The 5million may actually impact another 50, driving either the TV audience or online viewership. For once the audience becomes the medium. Imagine the opportunity the brands can have to engage the in stadia audience through gigs and acts in the break, without stemming the flow of the game. And the impact of such acts will be far greater than any amount of passive TVC that brands can buy on TV. For once the gigs will not be dependent on the TV audience, but will be fuelled by the camera totting all sharing audience.
This is not to say that IPL doesnâ€™t need to fix a few issues. It does, and I am sure the boardâ€™s working towards fixing them. Cricketing reasons drove the audience acceptance this year, and if the quality of cricket remains this good, fans will flock to watch it
Most brands have heavy consumers and light consumers. Media choices do not allow smarter targeting but both consume similar communication. IPL too has heavy and light consumers, and that means brands can target the two with different strategies
IPL is transforming the entertainment landscape; it could do the same with communication landscape too.
The views expressed here are of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pitch