A Tale of Two Premier Leagues

Many of the best players in the world are auctioned off to the highest bidder for a 44-day tournament worth an astonishing $1.026 billion in television money over ten years, before a ball has ever been struck in it. The money will go to the newly created teams — franchises, as they call them — with names like DareDevils and Super Kings. Auctioning off the franchises themselves had raised $723.59 million.

The auction prices for the players don’t seem quite right, somehow. One of the world’s best goes for $400,000, whilst less established talents secure over double that. It seems that marketing appeal in the giant sub-continent television market is determining value as much as sporting talent.

Traditional talent isn’t that important, anyway. They won’t be playing the old-fashioned full-length version of the sport, but rather a crash bang version optimised for television. The world’s governing body is concerned the tournament could become a haven for corruption and gambling, as one player can more easily throw a game in this abbreviated and barely regulated set-up. But they allow it anyway, afraid to alienate the huge and growing market.

Old-timers complain that this is all just isn’t cricket, so to speak. After all I am, of course, discussing cricket: it might surprise readers outside the British Commonwealth, but it’s now a billion-dollar sport thanks to the above tournament, the Indian Premier League launched this year.

The tournament’s breathtaking greed and commercialism makes the English Premier League look restrained in contrast. But I bring it up on a football blog for two reasons.

Cricket in New Delhi

Firstly, many people complain that the rampant commercialisation of football since the 1990s has killed off its traditional basis in local clubs and subordinated the game to the needs of television, with Friday night kick-offs and proposals for the 39th game, and so on. Domestic football — or more precisely, the dominant few European leagues — increasingly set the agenda to the detriment of the international game.

Thanks to the Indian Premier League in cricket, we can see the endpoint if one country’s league’s commercial power becomes so great the international governing body cannot ignore the power of the domestic dollar. Twenty20 is an abbreviated version of cricket lasting a few hours that is about as similar to the traditional five-day version of international Test match cricket as beach soccer is to the beautiful game. The Test match format is severely threatened by the growth of Twenty20, its appeal now largely restricted to English and Australian audiences, tiny numbers swamped by the wild enthusiasm and growing purchasing power of India’s cricket-mad, billion strong nation.

Will Test match international cricket die out in the face of the value of domestic Indian cricket, or be converted entirely to a more televisually friendly format of Twenty20?

The second relevant point is where the IPL’s commercial power leaves football as a growing sport in India, whose recently launched I-League does not seem to have been a raging success. Two contrasting articles in the Guardian recently appeared on the inaugural I-League season. Dileep Preachandran, after attending an I-League match between Viva Kerala and East Bengal, believes the league cannot compete with the global television appeal of the English Premier League on television.

The stands were a vast sea of heated concrete, the pitch as pockmarked as Bill Murray’s face. The worst feature though was the crowd. With public transport off the roads in protest against a hike in petroleum prices, only a couple of hundred diehards turned up, a far cry from the enthusiasm and chaos of my youth.

One of the regulars explained that the poor turnout also had much to do with the home side, Viva Kerala, being rubbish. Initial games had attracted crowds of close to 10,000 but as the newly-promoted side struggled against the established names of Indian football, enthusiasm waned. Viva are India’s answer to Derby County, only they don’t even have a Kenny Miller. Instead of Laudrup, Mikhailichenko and others, the foreign contingent on view included stragglers from Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil and Kenya, men whose dreams of emulating Didier Drogba or Kaka in Europe’s marquee leagues will never be realised.

Viva’s opponents were East Bengal, traditionally one of India’s [and Kolkata's] big two, a famous club fallen on hard times. As with most scraps for survival, this didn’t make for pretty viewing. There wasn’t the skill you associate with La Liga or the frenetic pace of the English game, and crowds now exposed to better thanks to the miracle of satellite TV soon grew restive while watching football that seemed a throwback to the days of bell-bottomed trousers.

On the other hand, Jamie Jackson quotes an exuberant executive who thinks football’s I-League can follow the lead of the Indian Premier League in cricket and “may have signalled a revolution in football in India, which could have implications for the sport throughout Asia and, eventually, the world.”

Jackson says that “officials from the India Football Association [AIFF] I spoke with today claimed their sport is now more popular than cricket in schools and among the younger generation.” Now, I’ve no way to verify this one way or another, but that sees slightly far-fetched to me. The very fact of cricket’s IPL’s raging commercial value hardly suggests a billion-dollar football league is about to be launched as well, especially if India’s affluent football fans are more interested in EPL replica shirts than the I-League.

It seems more to me that just as football’s financial power has forced out other sports in the countries it dominates (with cricket’s summer season ever more encroached on in England by football, for example) the power of cricket will leave little investment for football in India.

The more television dominates, the less breathing room there is for minority sports. Or will football’s global hegemony eventually smash cricket’s hold on the Indian subcontinent? And if it did, what would that huge commercial potential mean for football? Pato auctioned off to the Delhi DareDevils, by 2018?

All this, though, is just another curious episode in the breathless globalisation of sport that we can only seem to glimpse the future of in a frighteningly translucent manner.

Photo credits: rong1;Tampen

8 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Premier Leagues

  1. Will

    I can certainly vouch for the paucity of information about the I-League. I have family in Northern India, so I’ve become fond of JCT FC to the extent I’ve been able, considering the severe lack of coverage. I even emailed the club, or rather, the Textile Mill that owns it, offering to do a site for them, not because I think I’m particularly talented, but because I thought it might be a good way to actually get information.

    I don’t believe that domestic Indian football is doomed however, as the market is simply too huge, but the developmental and institutional hurdles are high, as the comments in the Guardian blog speak to. The I-League did not even play its matches on weekends for this just-ended season. http://www.goal.com/en-us/Articolo.aspx?ContenutoId=598525

  2. roswitha

    Great post, Tom.

    The IPL and the ICL (rival breakaway Twenty20 league floated by an angry cable television magnate – I don’t know if you’ve seen this ) are very much an attempt to make Indian cricket as much like English football as possible – comparisons between the Indian cricket team and England’s national football team have been around for some time already (all that money, all those sporting slip-ups). It’ll be interesting to see how this changes the face of cricket’s top flight, which, of course, are its fifteen or so Test-playing nations. Will we come to a stage where the cricket-watching world would rather watch Delhi v/s Calcutta in a Twenty20 instead of a Pakistan-Australia Test? There is so much money sloshing about in the IPL right now and so many quality players being lured out that the entire sporting calendar, the way we view the game itself, might change.

    It doesn’t make me happy personally, because I’ve begun to detest Twenty/20 cricket, faced with the prospect of so much of it, but on the most objective level it’s going to be interesting to see how radical the changes are. The balance always seems to tip in favour of the money, but it’s impossible to forget that the critical and cultural hegemony in cricket is still very much in the hands of old-timers England and Australia.

    will football’s global hegemony eventually smash cricket’s hold on the Indian subcontinent?

    Wow, it appears that there’s no way out of this. Maybe we can all develop an all-consuming passion for figure-skating and leave them both to kill each other off.

  3. Dave's Football Blog

    Major sports are always about TV, aren’t they? That’s one reason why soccer keeps taking so long to take off in America — TV executives hate it. They’re so used to commercial breaks after every half-inning or after every change of possession in the NFL. Hell, I’ve known for years when the TV timeouts are in college basketball games.

    With soccer, though, there’s no place to fit the commercials, except at halftime. That makes TV people freak out.

    Here’s a legitimate question — will Twenty20 Cricket make the game more like baseball in terms of viewing? And is that a good thing?

  4. roswitha

    PS. I think there may be hope for the I-League, given time and investment and a bit of luck. One star signing of some sort, some little bit of attention, an Indian team good enough to qualify for the finals of a major tournament — it might open the door a crack. What football love there is in countries like India, in the pre-EPL days, came from our following tournaments like the World Cup and all its international variety and glamour. If there are still people around who discover football through channels like these, there’s no reason there can’t be a slow and steady progress in local awareness of the game. But I guess televised footie ‘product’ is a selfish sort of entertainment; it does not imbue one with a love for the game itself, so much as for the particular versions of it it serves up.

    It’s worth noting that several teams in the I-League, apart from new kids like Viva Kerala, are venerable institutions, and have strong local supporter bases in traditionally footie-crazy areas of the country, such as Dempo and Salgaocar in Goa, and of course, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in Calcutta. They’ve been around since before the I-League and are likely to be around after.

    Phew. Sorry for the tl;dr comments. Again, thanks for a super post.

  5. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Will, that’s interesting to read about. It certainly doesn’t seem like the I-League has taken off, but of course, it’s always hard for a new league to get going. The next year or two will be the proof in the pudding, I suppose.

    Roswitha, there were a couple of interesting articles on the IPL in the Times today. This one by Christopher Martin-Jenkins suggests the IPL and Twenty20 seriously threatens Test cricket. The Doosra blog, though, is less pessimistic: “There’s no way an IPL or any Twenty20 contest will inspire the sort of navel-gazing or chest-thumping that accompanies defeat and victory against fierce foes in the international arena.”

    Which brings us to Dave’s point. Twenty20 is a real quandary for cricket fans. On the one hand, it’s brought a renewed interest and younger audiences out to cricket, fans who want a night’s entertainment (Test cricket and four day domestic cricket is traditionally played from morning until 5 or 6pm) and it’s obviously much more suited for television. Indeed, much more like baseball.

    For me, I actually prefer to Twenty20 to the previous “one-day” abbreviated forms of the game, which also lasted most the day but didn’t stretch beyond that as Test cricket does. At least this form bottles things up more briefly and doesn’t pretend to be something else.

    But it has nothing of the build-up, tension and drama that a five day Test match as part of a series that lasts all summer can develop. Many series have captured the nation’s attention all summer. But withTwenty20, along with other forms of one day cricket, clogging up media attention and the calendar, the beautiful subtlety of cricket’s old-fashioned form is in danger of being lost.

    I think it’s true that a large portion of cricket fans will always appreciate Test match cricket more than these brief versions, and not just in England and Australia. The problem is where the money gets so big in Twenty20 that more of these IPL-like tournaments dominate the calendar and squeeze out Test match cricket entirely.

    Cricketers aren’t used to being paid in millions. The international cricket governing body doesn’t have the power Fifa does over football to kill proposals like this — players have always been more willing to give up international sanctioned cricket in the chase for money in breakaway leagues, unlike in football (so far!): see the rebel tours of South Africa during Apartheid, for example, or a previous and somewhat similar television venture launched by Kerry Packer three decades ago. As Roswitha mentions, a rival breakaway league in some ways forced the hands of the cricket authorities to approve the IPL.

  6. alex

    The IPL is fascinating, it really is sport with all pretence stripped away. It’s been made very clear that it’s all about money, right from the start. I respect that.

    Will it kill test cricket? It could be argued that the fifty over game has already killed test cricket outside England and Australia, if twenty20 replaces the tedious fifty over game then it’s OK with me.

  7. Bet Blogger

    Surely this is just a natural development for the game of cricket? Following the success of Twenty20 in the UK (and across the world) it was only a matter of time that this sort of league was set up. Whatever you say about this form of the game, it is entertaining to a newcomer and, critically, also to a TV audience. It can be marketed easier and they know there is money to be made out of it. I expect it will be a huge success and will be a forerunner for similar leagues across the world – however much the cricket purists will hate it.

  8. Red Ranter

    Twenty20 could be a window for people to get an interest in to cricket. It’s like one of those promotional offers during the launch of a new restaurant — if you like this, then you may want to try our main course.

    I developed an interest in cricket through the one day form and then transitioned to appreciating Test cricket. Maybe, the newcomers would like to move from T20 to ODIs and then finally learn to appreciate Test cricket.

    However there is something that needs to be kept in mind. With an explosion in T20, ODIs will actually be cut down on as teams anyway play just 12 tests a year according to ICC rules. However this could present a dilemma as ODI’s will remain the main cash cow as far as TV companies and cricket boards are concerned, as high viewership (and 100 adbreaks for 100 overs in an ODI) would mean more money. So it would be interesting to see how things get worked out.

    Personally, I wouldn’t mind if T20 squeezed ODI’s entirely over the long term leaving Test cricket (for the real guys) and T20 for the masses. Although, with corporatisation of cricket now, it looks like the IPL (and the increasingly powerful BCCI) would determine the future of cricket.