Why is it so hard to pick an Indian Premier League side?

Why is it so hard to pick an Indian Premier League side?

Torn between following favorite players or their local team, Indian cricket fans are suffering from sports schizophrenia in season 3 of the IPL, but who (or what) is to blame?
As we get deep into the action of the fastest-appreciating sports business on Earth, as player performances and team standings are evaluated, as Ravi Shastri starts to lose his voice after all those Citi Moments of Success -- Season 3 of the Indian Premier League has created a predictable stir.

But it has also plunged this country into an identity crisis so severe, it makes choosing sides on euthanasia, the effectiveness of the Female Reservation Bill, or even picking your favorite Star Wars movie seem like a walk in the park. With the entire cricketing universe to choose from we just don't know which team to get behind. 

And it isn't just because the IPL has yet to shed its incipient naffness.

Sure, they’ve got Shilpa Shetty, the irrelevant fashion shows, the lurid after parties, the $1bn minimum flash of wealth required to join the club, and plenty else that just isn't cricket. Even commercial bibles like Forbes magazine are surprised at the singularity on display: "Modi… [has become] cricket's most influential (if polarizing) figure, for whom profit always trumps tradition. A brash and charismatic promoter, he's the subcontinent's answer to Don King."

To demonstrate too much enthusiasm for the league and to owe strong allegiance to a team would mean you identify with these shockingly un-Indian demonstrations of mammonism. But compelling as it is, the fear of social stigma isn’t the only reason for our failure to fully engage with any of the eight teams this year.

What's the score?

First, there’s the shoddy way in which the league has been marketed. Given the newness of the format and the league, we’re all looking to the founding fathers to give us cues about how to access the game. Apart from a few perfunctory websites, and some generic rabble rousing there has been virtually no outreach from BCCI or the teams to garner a fan following -- except to sell us merchandise.

The league could easily have started out on the right foot by deferring to the cricket crazies (pretty much every sentient being in this country above the age of six months) about ideal team locations, names, kits, slogans, songs, etcetera. You have the world’s greatest and most enthusiastic customer base, eager to co-create and engage, and you leave it to a couple of nerdy ad folks to come up with terrible nonentities like the team name "Mumbai Indians"? If nothing else, we’d much rather have some amusement (and honesty) and hear about the Chennai Chuckers and the Mohali Late Night Party Animals.

The lip-service being paid to the existing realities of Indian cricket in the face of the profit motive is also evident from the recent anointment of next year’s new team entrants: Kochi and Pune. Pooja Gulati, director of Rendezvous Sports World, which bid for the Kochi team, said: "Cricket is now popular throughout India and it does not matter if Kerala is not known for cricket. The new IPL team will change that notion."

While there’s nobility in the notion that if you build it [or spend it], the fans will come, there is also the danger that too much commercialism could strangle the golden goose. Even the brands which support the mighty NFL Superbowl wait patiently until the ad breaks to put on their record-breaking spectacles of sponsorship. Whereas over here we have: "And there's a DLF maximum -- not quite a Citi Moment of Success -- which the Royal Challengers will have to debate in their Maxx Mobile time out in the Airtel dugout, and we'll be back after these messages from our sponsors." 

Lalit Modi's big innovation this season? Beaming ads in between deliveries. Concerns about a skewed advertising-content ratio are circumvented by the practice of filming the ad "live" from the scoreboard at the stadium. The practice earned the BCCI a few extra crores. It also pissed off viewers. With no time to even acknowledge the sporting action before they are plunged into an ad invasion, it's no wonder that seasoned cricket fans aren't the only ones complaining about the precedence of the telecast over the contest

With all this money being spun and spent (IPL 2 turned a profit last year despite a flagging global economy and a last minute move to far flung South Africa), we suspect there's got to be a zero sum gain somewhere. Is it the soap operas that are being wrung out to dry in the TV ratings, some tycoon who’s going to be left holding only a hockey sponsorship, a bunch of chit fund holders who are that much closer to losing their savings over the profligacy of their sponsor, the Washington Redskins who are going to have a poor year without their cheerleaders, or Bollywood actress and team Bangalore's brand ambassador Katrina Kaif who isn't going to have time to make it to the chorus line of Mile Sur?

According to a recent article in Business Week, the IPL has more than doubled its brand value to US$4.13 billion now from US$2.01 billion in 2009. This figure comes from Brand Finance Plc, a UK-based consultancy which knows a thing or two about valuing franchises it then goes on to represent. And this revelation came in a timely fashion just before the recent auction, which more than surpassed expectations and raised from the sale of two teams more than the league had earned from the sale of the previous eight. A dissenting voice comes from Forbes, which argues that the original US$2 billion figure was totally misguiding and should have been discounted by about three-quarters.

Building the base

All of this number crunching is moot if the teams cannot gather more than a handful of loyal fans. For a fan base to develop, a franchise needs to create and fuel rivalries, both individual and regional, build personalities, foster mythologies while keeping the significant historical and structural peculiarities of cricket in mind.

The BCCI organisation have gone with a standard and expedient option in choosing local catchments from where they expect fans to rise up. However, the specter of international cricket and the relative obscurity of the domestic version of the game confuse this process.

This argument from a 2008 online post is still totally relevant: "Fans will have to differentiate between their support for the national team and the regional team they choose to support. However, since cricket is such an individual-effort dominated sport and national team matches constitute a major part of the cricket season, it is doubly difficult to isolate your loyalty. We do not have such problems in other sports like American Football (NFL) and football. In case of the former, you do not have any form of international competition and loyalty is traced to the city that hosts the team and in case of the latter, international games are restricted to the World Cup which comes once in four years and the schedule is dominated by club league games."

Venkataraghavan, obviously a die-hard fan who eschewed the jerky YouTube feed in favour of the live text scorecard on cricinfo, had this to say about Jaques Kallis: "A decade ago, I used to hate this man, because it was not easy to remove him. My hatred was worse after he hit the match winning 90+ against us in the 99 WC. Time can change things and see how has it [sic] changed. Am enjoying every run that Kallis is scoring for Bangalore. Cricket is a funny game and can change even loyalties ;-)"

MLD: Multiple Loyalty Disorder

Our politicians have long inculcated in us a healthy dose of parochialism and regionalism -- based along divisions of caste, creed, color, language, historical slights and provincial jealousies, and so on. The IPL gives us a high energy, unpredictable battlefield to play these rivalries out. I’m waiting for future Delhi-Mumbai matches to see whether we’ll witness vengeful Delhi crowds cheering the dismissal -- God forbid -- of Sachin Tendulkar. As a variation on this theme, it’s fun to watch two players from other national teams go at each other. This video shows Malinga celebrating fellow Sri Lankan Dilshan's wicket as if he'd settled a personal score with the village thief. Or Harbhajan Singh fined for verbally abusing South Indian batsman T Suman on his dismissal.

Jagdeep Singh, a confused cricket fan added another dimension to the conundrum: "It is difficult for me to decide where I belong. I am Punjabi. Born in Bengal. Studied in Chennai and working in Hyderabad. And my favourite player is Sachin Tendulkar. I am yet to decide which team I support."

To help Jagdeep solve his dilemma, another Indian blogger pursuing his doctoral degree in Texas offers, "Group identities can be remarkably sophisticated and hierarchical. In [the] case of an IPL fan, (s)he may be a part of multiple group identities (e.g. Dravid fan club, Mumbai pride, anti-Shane Warne), but at any given time/game the hierarchically highest group identity will take precedence, and all this happens quite naturally and automatically. So the multiple associations will play out in an organic fashion (not entirely predictable, but deterministic) among the fans."

When in doubt go with your favorite color

Another fan offered a simpler [though not-entirely-scientific] template on her blog. "Rather than recklessly pick any team," she said, "I think the following is a good set of reasons. Points are based on team name, team jersey and colors (a girl's gotta look good wearing it), souvenirs, glam Q, da playah's (world cup T20 made me fan of a few cricketers), M.A.L : Mascot, Anthem, Logo (read 'maal') package." Her rationale: "If I go for a match, I should get complete entertainment."

My own son, a five-year-old sometime fan, is upset with me because I won’t support the Chennai Superkings on the merit of their song, kit color and the fact that they’re the only team with an animal on their logo.

Small wonder, then, that the team stylists are making about as much news as the coaches and the covers of GQ magazine are more likely than not these days to feature obscure cricketers in faux Ronaldo hairstyles.

For the technique-loving, nation-agnostic fan, there’s always the refuge of merit-based selection.

King Cricket, probably the wittiest blog on the sport, threw caution to the wind and publicly went with Kings XI as their 2008 pick. Their rationale: “Kings XI Punjab is a shit name and certainly nowhere near as good as our suggestion – ‘The Mohali Cricketinator 9000s’, but what are you going to do? We’ve gone for them mostly on the basis of their playing staff: Yuvraj Singh, Mahela Jayawardene, Brett Lee, Irfan Pathan, Ramesh Powar, Kumar Sangakkara, Ramnaresh Sarwan and, er, Sreesanth. There’s a generally agreeable bunch of players, which means they’re bound to lose. And if they do, it’ll be so much easier to support them."

However, it isn’t easy to go on merit, when the teams consist of so many unknowns. For instance, who knew about Saurabh Tiwari, apart from the fact that he looked like a laughable Dhoni-clone before his stellar showing in IPL3? King Cricket neglected to make a selection for IPL 2 and this time, gave up the exercise entirely, deciding to capriciously support whichever team featured more Test cricket players.

And therein lies the rub. The wide appeal of the IPL currently lies in its ability to entertain.

The spectacle is everything and it trumps hierarchical loyalties with heuristic cues. We’re happy to support whoever's winning or playing well, because we don’t have to pick sides and process the confusing match ups. This has been the reason for the inclusion of a whole new generation of fans and partly explains the packed stadiums and raucous TV-side scenes witnessed around the league.

Entertainment value also plays well to the emotional, fickle nature of the Indian fan. History will tell that Indians are probably the worst fans in the world. Forget 'fairweather', I remember a time when we'd switch off our televisions, put out a fatwa on the national team and go into a deep funk as soon as Tendulkar got out. Our obsession with the game had an obvious inverse relationship with the sportingness with which we accepted failure. We’d be hard pressed to admit it -- but there is a sly, absolutely immature glee we feel at the exclusion of Pakistani players from this year’s IPL -- for no other reason other than their historical success against our national team. 

Down the line, marriage?

For some perspective on how things may develop, let’s look, for instance to the New York Yankees, without doubt, the most expensive, deeply storied, and under-performing sports team in the world. It’s also arguably the team with the most stolid and loyal fans, who are able to keep things in perspective (over a season which lasts a minimum of 162 games for each team), treat each game as a lifetime experience, and stay hopeful until the 9th inning, long after the keenest Kolkata fan from Eden Gardens would have torched his seat and gone home. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that you’re born a Yankees fan, and that the mythology of the team pervades every inch of your being. The antithesis of this relationship is the one that most fans have with Manchester United -- a relationship based purely on facile appeal.

That romantic notion of lifelong allegiance will come.

Connoisseurship requires maturity. Starting with owners and managers who pick players based on a game-plan, show commentators who know what's really going on, fan forums where on-field strategies are debated and examined, complete historical track records, reputations and statistics. It will take a few seasons, many memorable matches and deep personal experiences for this connect to be formed.

And when it is, it will boost our understanding and enjoyment of the game manifold.

In the meantime, I’m supporting the Indians. From Mumbai.

Amitabh Nanda is currently seeking asylum from a lifetime spent in the advertising industry.
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