Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Model Model

A few weeks back I was bemoaning the spectacular ineptness of my beloved Rajasthan Royals, whose inaugural Cinderella season last year, culminating in winning the first IPL championship, seemed as if it was being followed up by season long clinic of how not to play cricket. Dead last after three matches, the Royals are now sitting in second, within a hair of the number one Delhi Daredevils. They've now had a streak of four straight wins, a turnaround which stands as a real testament to the leadership of team captain Shane Warne.

That and the Howitzer-like batting arm of Yousuf Pathan.

As I was leaving work today, my wife made sure to call me up and let me know just what I was missing. The Royals were 211 for 4 at the end of their innings, a result standing in stark contrast with the 58 with all out from the first match of the season. From the bit I caught at the end of the match, after getting home, it really seemed as if Priety Zinta's Kings XI had lost their shine, again in stark contrast with their last ball win over the Mumbai Indians barely a week ago.

As it was last year, this IPL is wildly unpredictable, and that makes for great entertainment.

That said, something I've noticed while watching the IPL matches this year has really stuck with me. It's something beyond the matches and the teams. Due to security concerns in India during the month long election, it was decided that the IPL, the Indian Premiere League, could not actually operate in India this year. Imagine that same scenario played out in a different sport. Say the NHL's Canadian teams were shipped off to Slovakia for a season. How would that fare with the home audience?

I'm betting not well.

Yet somehow, being shipped off to South Africa has not seemed to have hurt the league at all. The matches are still packing in the stadiums, and the broadcasters are raking in the ad revenues. Ratings are massive. Fully half the teams in the league have earned back their initial investment from only two years ago, and the rest will be in the black by the end of the season. In the annals of professional sports leagues, the IPL has been a spectacular success, a success that I think may provide a model for other sports.

You see, fans of cricket won't admit this, but even though the game is fanatically followed by far, far more people than are fans of the NFL, NHL, or MLB, cricket has long been a sport for poor men, played for honor and little else besides. Sure you made a decent wage on a national club, and earned a little better than a teacher would if you made it on a county cricket squad in England, but other than that, money itself seemed allergic to the game. All the money in international cricket combined probably wouldn't have covered the salaries of Manchester United.

Then along comes 20/20, and suddenly cricket is not just a growth sport, but an incredibly lucrative one at that. The trend was already there with the "renegade" Indian Cricket League (Renegade because they didn't pay due respect to the Wallahs in charge of the BCCI - Board for Control of Cricket in India - terrible name, isn't it?), but it really solidified with the first IPL last year, and continued this year as guys like Kevin Pietersen were offered salaries that stars of many US network dramas would blink at.

That said, it's not the money itself which makes the IPL stand out for me. The NFL, NBA, and English Premiere League all feature grossly inflated salaries and wildly overcompensated athletes. But the way the IPL is leveraging its financial success to build bridges with new markets is something that really stands out.

At first there was a question as to whether South Africans would support the IPL at all. Would people even come to the matches? At first attendance did not shatter records. The first week of the new season saw half empty stadiums. So what did the IPL Wallahs do? They stepped up the incentives.

At each match, an announcer finds a few very beautiful, young women, and enters them into a "Miss Bollywood" contest, where they have the chance to end up in a Bollywood film. These announcers also dig up people to award 50,000 ZAR (Rand) scholarships to, and each game one or two schools is featured, where students and faculty appear in full uniforms, all neatly groomed and ready to receive 100,000 ZAR cheques for their schools. Suddenly the matches were not just matches, but lotteries, contests, and community building charity events.

The first time I saw one of these giveaways, I didn't think much of it. 50,000? 100,000? How much is the rand worth? Isn't it like rupees these days? What's 100,000 rand in American? 10 bucks?

I laughed at first, but after watching giveaway after giveaway, I got curious. I wondered just how much 100,000 rand was worth in South Africa. So I looked into it a bit.

Google Finance has the ZAR being pegged at 8.43 per US dollar. And according to The Economist's Big Mac Index, which is not at all a scientific gauge of purchasing power parity, but does serve to crudely illustrate the issue, it costs about $1.66 USD for a Big Mac in South Africa, versus $3.54 USD in the US. This means that stuff in South Africa costs a little less than half what it would in the US. So that 100,000 ZAR? The purchasing power is equivalent to $200,000 USD, or about a quarter of a million in my own home and native land.

A quarter of a million ain't nothing to sneeze at. In fact, where I am from, most school administrators would trample each other in steel tipped stilettos to grasp a cheque like that. A quarter of a million funds an entire suite of after-school programs, fills a library with newspapers and magazines, and has enough left over to equip a full computer lab with new computers, software, and even a projector or two thrown in for good measure. A quarter of a million means a world of opportunity for a whole lot of children, and in a country like South Africa, it means a lot more opportunity than it would in Barrie, Ontario.

Those IPL Wallahs are clever. These charity giveaways, funded by money that probably came through TV revenues anyways, or new sponsorship deals, not only buys a whole lot of goodwill, but it establishes the league brand in the next generation of fans, in an entirely new market.

From a marketing standpoint, it's a stroke of genius. 100,000 ZAR? It wouldn't be enough to buy a Ford Fiesta with. It might pay for a little over 1 second of air time during an episode of Heroes, but barely over 1/10th of one second of air time during the Super Bowl. In terms of ad rates, 100,000 ZAR is laughable. But the impact on the IPL's image, reputation, and their target market is not.

I hope the IPL does not go back to India next year. I hope it goes to Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. Perhaps Australia and New Zealand, or even England. If the IPL makes a circuit of cricket loving countries, and keeps on working the same marketing magic, the league could very well make it into the top tier of professional sports leagues.

As a newly converted fan of cricket, that's something I'd like to see.

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