It’s the two-month extravaganza that’s about to become bigger than ever. Even before the cricketers have got anywhere near a pitch, the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) eye-popping figures are already making headlines. Star is forking out a record ₹16,347 crore for global media rights over the next five years, beating out more than a dozen rivals such as Amazon, Sony and Facebook. (Back in 2008, by contrast — albeit when the IPL was in its infancy — Sony paid ₹8,200 crore for 10-year rights).

Meantime, Chinese mobile manufacturer Vivo, which has muscled its way to third position in the Indian phone market, will stump up ₹2,199 crore over the next five years to be the tournament’s title sponsor, a stunning sum compared to what previous title-sponsor PepsiCo was going to pay — ₹400 for a five-year contract — but the food-and-beverage company terminated the deal early.

A new edition

In three days, the first act of the glitzy sporting show will get underway, when the eight teams begin the bidding war for 578 Indian and foreign players. Each of the 182 players who’re picked will go home considerably richer after the two-month season.

About 535 million people tuned in to watch last year’s IPL10. But Star TV is convinced it can get 700 million to watch the two-month tournament, either on TV screens or mobile phones. The TV giant is betting that broadcasting on six channels in six languages including Tamil and Bengali will grab new audiences.

Star India Managing Director Sanjay Gupta reckons the channels can hike viewership substantially in the southern States and says that research showed in Tamil Nadu only 50 per cent of fans watch IPL compared to a State such as Maharashtra. He remarks: “That’s startling in a state where people follow cricket in a very big way. But language is a big barrier.” Star will pour money into IPL but reckons it will win big over the five years it holds the franchise.

Most amazingly, nobody in the sporting world or advertising industry believes Star has overbid for the IPL. They note Star took a calculated risk by making a combined bid for TV, online and international rights that altogether just about surpassed its rivals. “They didn’t hugely outbid and so you can’t say they’ve overpaid,” says Indranil Das Blah, founding partner at Kwan Entertainment & Marketing Solutions. He expects Star to do well out of its IPL investment. “They’ve got a great track record in terms of building properties. Marketing is what they do best — look at kabaddi and football, look at their packaging,” he says.

What makes IPL hugely attractive is, of course, the fact it combines sporting skill and entertainment in a perfect format. Also, over the years, the IPL also has transformed cricket’s image as being a slow-moving game only for men. “In India, cricket sells and it sells universally. The problem was it used to be male-dominated. Now you get a fair representation of the universe across ages, genders and cities,” says Ashish Bhasin, South Asia chairman & chief executive of the Dentsu Aegis Network.

Star’s also pinning its hopes on pulling young viewers who are constantly on the move and glued to mobile phones. Star expects to boost its advertising on Hotstar considerably over last year in the coming season. Hotstar will be adding virtual reality and also interactive features that will make it possible for a viewer who sees an automobile ad, for example, to book a test drive on the channel while watching the match.

Tech to score

Media analysts note both Facebook and Twitter made the unusual move of bidding for IPL online rights so it’s obvious they see huge potential. “Technology will be at the core of driving fan experience,” says Gupta, who adds: “For the first time, the country’s leading advertisers will be able to use the power of this platform across both digital and television to build brands.”

“Hotstar in India is huge and will be a major driver to acquire more subscriptions,” says Blah who adds slashed telecom rates make it inexpensive to watch. “Whoever you are, you can watch an entire IPL game without worrying about the bills.” That makes it a hard-to-beat viewer proposition.

Going regional is also expected to bring in new advertisers but over a longer time-frame. It will allow lower advertising rates and make it possible for local brands with smaller ad budgets to enter the sporting arena.

For the team owners who’ve had to content themselves with smaller profits as they built the franchise, this year promises to bring in richer rewards. This year, the revenue model has been altered but they will still get more from the BCCI kitty since it is getting so much more from Star and Vivo. At the same time, under the new model, they will also have to give back more to the BCCI but they should come out ahead.

On the downside, it could be argued IPL rakes in humongous amounts of moolah, but, in some ways, it still has a long way to go to establish itself in the hearts of cricket-lovers around the country.

Why’s that? The players in the teams are constantly changing and they come together only for two months a year. Star TV’s aiming to change that and stretch the season with a string of events. Says Gupta: “No longer will IPL be a two-month tournament, but a six-month extravaganza.”

A big shot

The short season has always made it a tough challenge to build — and retain — fan loyalty, though the Kolkata Knight Riders have succeeded to some extent, helped by owner Shah Rukh Khan’s very visible presence in the stands.

Similarly, the Chennai Super Kings have worked to bring together fans across Tamil Nadu. “CSK is the one that stands out. That’s why they have fans across Tamil Nadu,” says Tuhin Mishra of Baseline Ventures.

You could argue the IPL is an ultimate symbol of India’s economic growth and an indicator of how far we’ve come from the times when we were the poor cousins of the cricketing world. Certainly, it’s the one time of the year when the world beats a path to our door.

The Economist magazine, which recently ran a downbeat story questioning the size and purchasing power of India’s middle class, might just want to rethink its arguments after tuning in to watch the IPL ad blitz.