Cricket has gone through a strong metamorphosis, moving from the 5 day test match pattern to one-day internationals that give 50 overs a team and now, we are into an even more compact format of cricket called T20 or twenty-twenty. The twenty-twenty format shrinks the game further to just 20 overs per team. The present T20 world cup is supposed to be held from 30th April to 16th May 2010. In addition, we also have different competitive events like the Sharjah Cup, the Champion’s Trophy and so on. Given the slew of cricketing events and the massive fan following they have it was only a matter of time before a sports entrepreneur decided to capitalize on this phenomenon and build one of India’s largest sporting extravaganzas of all time. And India being a cricket-crazy nation, the Indian Premier League, which is closely modeled on the hugely successful English Premier League found almost instant fan following.
So, the first installment of the IPL began in 2008, with 8 teams – Delhi Daredevils, Rajasthan Royals, Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings, Kolkata Knight Riders, Deccan Chargers, Kings XI Punjab, Royal Challengers Bangalore. The teams are essentially named after specific Indian states, and they are owned by different entities beginning with movie stars, media conglomerates, and industrialists and so on. There was massive media frenzy around the whole event as it started in early 2008, with international players, Indian players all up for grabs and a huge auction following it. The teams were formed and the matches began. The model was interesting in more ways than one. First, players of the same country were being pitted against each other many-a-time. So, as far as the sport went, we could see the magic of Muralidharan along with the keeping of Dhoni in one team. As with seeing Tendulkar and Jayasurya bat on the same side! Secondly, the teams were all tied to different states or cities. So a Mumbai Indians match versus say Kings XI Punjab was played in Mumbai or in Punjab, and somehow the scintillation of watching a Mumbai team in Mumbai or a Deccan team in AP was brought out, much like how fans find watching Man U play at Old Trafford more enjoyable than any other Man U match! It even served to unite a state with the underlying theme being cricket. So, while different teams won and lost at different times, the winner clearly was cricket. At the same time, the whole franchise is valued at over $4 billion!
And so, as is the case with any event that gathers instant stardom and is worth billions of dollars, this one found its controversies as well. Even the Beijing Olympics that were executed to inch-perfect perfection were not spared the controversy, from lip-syncing ceremony performers to instant shutdown of polluting factories. So how can this sporting enterprise be spared?
So, IPL2 – the second installment was mired in controversy over security. The event clashed with General Elections in India and so security was of paramount concern. The Government requested the organizers to postpone the tournament till after the elections, but this was refused since apparently TV rights and slots had been booked. So amid a lot of controversy and hue and cry the tournament shifted to South Africa, leaving a disgruntled Indian Government and disappointed Indian fans in its wake.
IPL3 was not spared as well. When peace talks with Pakistan hit an impasse, some political parties were up in arms against allowing Pakistani players from participating in the IPL. Yet again, the papers screamed out about how some politicians were interfering in sport, and how the unifying spirit of sport was being squandered and so on. Finally newer players were given a chance and the Pakistani players didn’t indeed get a chance to play in IPL3.
Now IPL4 though, attracted controversy before it could even begin and this controversy has threatened the entire existence of the enterprise – the biggest controversy so far.
As per the original plan by the organizers, 2 more teams were to be added to the IPL franchise in 2011 – Pune and Kochi. There apparently have been some wrongdoings in terms of money laundering and corruption underlying some dealings and the way the auctions and franchises have been conducted are allegedly not very transparent. So, the past few weeks have brought out a lot of murkiness in the story to the fore. Now, one of the proposed 2 new teams was Kochi, in Kerala. The IPL chief, Lalit Modi tweeted once revealing the winners of the Kochi team and also commented that a Kerala MP, and Union Minister Dr. Shashi Tharoor was involved in ‘mentoring’ the team. It came to the fore that the winning bidder, Rendezvous Sports World belonged to Dr. Tharoor’s friend, Sunanda Pushkar. What followed was a murky mud-slinging exercise, with allegations of wrongdoing flying on all sides. On one side the union minister was accused of pocketing some money himself, the financial capability of Ms. Pushkar was called into question, the union minister’s involvement was looked upon with suspicion, his friendship with Ms. Pushkar was questioned and just like it takes a pinprick to open up a can of worms, all skeletons came tumbling out of the IPL closet.
The taxmen then stepped up and started scrutinizing the records of the bidding process. The bid documents of two legitimate bidders who lost were interestingly missing. The winning franchise owners were not spared either. Save for a couple of teams like say the Chennai Super Kings with 100% ownership by India Cements, many other teams seemed to have ownership by different entities, some hailing from tax havens like the British Virgin Islands as well! Clearly the IPL had ventured into a lot more than just cricket and unification of the sport.
Dr. Tharoor was asked to step down, since it looked as if the minister was exploiting his governmental powers and the Indian Opposition demanded the same of the ruling coalition. Ms. Pushkar gave up her sweat equity in an attempt to prevent the resignation of the minister. As if that were not enough, the erstwhile BCCI (Board of Cricket Control in India) president Mr. Sharad Pawar and his political party were drawn into the controversy. And when accosted, Mr. Pawar, with whose blessings Lalit Modi had started the IPL franchise, had to disown it all. And then, apparently Multi Screen Media (MSM), an arm of Sony Entertainment Television paid all of Rs. 125 crore or 1.25 billion rupees to World Sports Group (WSG) for broadcast rights. This money apparently has flown to several beneficiaries with ‘political connections’.
The controversy keeps getting murkier and different entities and their nefarious interests keep coming to the fore. And while all this is happening, Mumbai Indians take on Chennai Super Kings in a face/off on Sunday – April 25th. Whether that match is interesting or otherwise, the IPL controversy sure makes for interesting early morning coffee time reading!
What does all this mean for me as an Indian? Well, I was exposed to how a business can take shape out of an Indian fan phenomenon. At school, we had a representative of an IPL team come and give us a talk on their business plan and proposition and that was when I realized how an entrepreneur could capitalize on the two things that stoke the Indian imagination – cricket and glamor. The combination came as a masterstroke. And now, with the whole franchise embroiled in controversy, another Indian phenomenon has come to the fore and that is the quintessential C for corruption which nowadays seems to underline every enterprise that plans to take shoot in India. Till the controversy opens itself up, I guess we at least have enough stories as fodder for the media and enough to fill up newsprint. So no matter who wins this battle of who is the most corrupt of them all, the winner most definitely is the media that finally has one of the juiciest Indian story of all time.