The spin and substance of the Indian Premier League
Is the Indian Premier League (IPL) too much of a good thing? Will cricket and commerce both suffer if it is overdone? Is spin dominating substance when it comes to selling the world's most expensive cricket tournament?
If you believe Lalit Modi, the man who runs this heady cocktail of hit-and-run cricket, Bollywood and glamour, Indians can never have enough of the IPL. In its third six-week season, everyone in India, according to writer Jug Suraiya, is "playing, reading, breathing, eating, talking and bidding cricket." Cricket and capitalism have never had a more torrid relationship. The talk of the town is the addition of two new teams who have paid about as much as the eight teams did two years ago when the IPL was born. So next year we will have 10 teams instead of eight and 94 matches instead of 60. Happy?
I'm not so sure. Let us not get deluded by the market's response. It's a no-brainer for businesses to hitch a ride on the IPL gravy train in a cricket-crazy country.
Even his critics concede Mr Modi was clever enough to cash in on an idea which was waiting to be exploited. He has seemingly created enough revenue streams to impress market experts and help teams make money.
Mr Modi has sold theatrical rights to cinema halls and bars to screen matches (not working yet, going by the empty halls) and internet rights to You Tube (slow broadband speeds mean that the reported two-year $7m deal is yet to become a winner in India). He is selling after-match parties (but it is unclear how long the interest will last). A TV channel has paid up to $22m for IPL-branded TV shows - a sharp idea. Then there is advertising in stadiums, mobile phone rights and ground sponsorship. Teams get a share of all these revenues. They also mop up their own revenue by picking up local sponsors, selling team merchandise and gate receipts.
No wonder IPL cheerleaders are calling it the "billion dollar baby". Rahul Bhattacharya, India's finest cricket writer, says India will accept the IPL with all this and more because it is not a sporting society. "Its [society's] relationship with sport is not of participant but consumer. It holds nothing sacred. The IPL knows that it competes not against sport but general entertainment," he says.
But, amid this hype, there is absolutely no way to verify the spin about the IPL's fortunes. Lalit Modi says it is India's biggest global brand and valued at over $4bn. I have asked many friends in the valuations business and they say they have no clue about the basis of this figure. Mr Modi also insists that the tournament will generate up to $140m, translating into earnings of $18m for each team.
Yet, three editions later, one hears that most teams are not making money. This is despite the fact that the team owners are paying IPL for their teams in 10 yearly instalments. Most agree that to become truly profitable, the teams have to build a loyal city-based fan base. The tournament's move to South Africa last year because of security concerns at home was a big blow to this ambition. Building a loyal fan base is going to be tough in a country which has systematically neglected its domestic tournaments. These offer the best opportunity to build up captive fan bases. At a recent match between Delhi and Mumbai, which featured the redoubtable Sachin Tendulkar, I saw spectators waving India flags - instead of local team flags - in the stands.
All this makes me uneasy about the commerce of the IPL. Is it an oversold event, a bubble that is going to burst one day? What if the phenomenal projections for its future - on the basis of which sponsorships are sold - fall short? And as writer Tanya Aldred wonders: "The IPL is a huge sticky and sickly and delicious pudding that gives an instant sugar hit, and is a guilty pleasure. But the question is, will greed overtake us and will we stop in time?" It's a good question.