International Sports

India's blockbuster cricket league is beginning to rival even English soccer

Key Points
  • The 2018 edition of the Indian Premier League is making headlines not just for the quality of cricket played, but for the never-before-seen money it has generated.
Delhi Daredevils bowler Trent Boult bowls during an IPL cricket match against the Rajasthan Royals.
Vishal Bhatnagar | NurPhoto | Getty Image

The latest edition of the Indian Premier League — a 48-day annual cricket tournament that showcases top talent from across the world — has some huge numbers to boast.

The opening match saw television viewership increase 37 percent over the prior year, advertising costs have almost doubled and some $94 million was spent by the eight participating teams to buy 169 players in an auction, compared with just $14 million for 66 players in 2017, industry data show.

The tipping point

The popular league is in its 11th year and features a shorter version of the sport called Twenty20 that is more appealing to television viewers. A game typically last 3 hours, a much faster pace compared to other formats of cricket where a game may last anywhere from a day to five days.

While the competition's reputation was briefly tarnished by a scandal that involved certain players agreeing to fix specific aspects of a match, the lure of IPL has only increased, say industry insiders.

The tipping point for the IPL came in September last year when Rupert Murdoch's Star India bought the five-year global media rights for an unprecedented $2.55 billion, making the IPL one of the richest sports properties in the world. Valuations specialist Duff and Phelps had valued the IPL brand at $5.3 billion in 2017, a 26 percent increase from $4.2 billion last year,

Seeing the popularity of IPL, Facebook had bid $600 million for the digital rights for five-years. That helped push the price further up for the overall media rights, experts said. Facebook's IPL bid caught many in Silicon Valley by surprise as that was one of the largest amounts a tech company had committed to acquiring sports rights. To put the $600 million figure in context: Amazon in 2017 spent $50 million to stream Thursday night games from the National Football League for a year.

It's a new sports league, but the IPL is beginning to draw comparisons with established international sports tournaments like the English Premier League and the National Basketball Association in the U.S. In fact, one IPL game is now valued close to an EPL game.

Huge economic impact

The league has made a huge impression in India.

"It is the the biggest spectacle in the country today. It is like a blockbuster Bollywood film stretched over some 50 days," said Tuhin Mishra, managing director of sports marketing agency Baseline Ventures, which recently bagged the account of IPL team Chennai Super Kings.

The franchise was returning to the tournament after a two-year ban following a cricket corruption scandal, but Mishra got them six sponsorship deals without difficulty.

"Working with an IPL team is an honor and it is lucrative — in one month you do business worth six months," Mishra told CNBC.

Hemant Dua, the CEO of IPL team the Delhi Daredevils, said, "IPL continues to be a robust product and even though we have been whipped around as the bad boys of cricket, the IPL has a huge economic impact."

Aside from providing direct employment to players and coaches, the league gives a boost to a lot of ancillary industries like travel and logistics.

"In one season our (Delhi Daredevils') direct and indirect economic impact will be $24 million," Dua told CNBC.

In fact, in less than two months, the 2015 tournament contributed $182 million to India's GDP, according to a study conducted by KPMG Sports Advisory Group for Indian cricket's governing body.

Today, given the rise in media rights and sponsorship costs, player and coach salaries and the public's engagement through IPL-specific gaming apps and merchandising, the 2018 numbers could be significantly higher, experts said.

Sharing the spoils

Cricket is by far the most popular sport in India, and the the IPL is its most sought after tournament.

"There is money to be made. At least 150 companies are associated with the IPL," says Amrit Mathur, a former official for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

For the 2018 IPL season, India's national team captain Virat Kohli is getting paid $2.5 million, while former Indian captain MS Dhoni gets $2.2 million.

Some under-19 players have been bought for between $450,000 and $600,000 for one season. While head coaches make between $500,000 and $1 million per season.

"If the league is successful, you would obviously share the spoils," Aakash Chopra, a former Indian cricketer-turned-IPL television commentator, told CNBC.

And the spoils that are going around are thanks largely to Star India's $2.55 billion contribution. "In one stroke, everyone became profitable, it changed the balance sheet of all the participating teams," Mathur said.

According to people familiar with the workings of the IPL, the BCCI is committed to sharing a substantial percentage of the profits made through the sale of media rights and title sponsorships with the eight teams over the next five years.

Many IPL teams have been struggling over the years with mounting debt from high player acquisition costs and the fee paid to the BCCI to run an IPL team. But now, "everybody is guaranteed profits," said Mathur. "The uncertainty surrounding the commercial viability of the IPL is over."

Will it pay off for Star?

While Star India may have bankrolled the IPL teams into profitability, the question remains whether it can make money itself.

Star has come up with a six-month marketing strategy to monetize every aspect of the IPL — starting from the players auction in January and going up to the live telecast of the matches on its 10 television channels in different Indian languages and on its digital platform until the end of May.

The media conglomerate is expecting 700 million people to watch the IPL this year and ad revenues of more than $300 million. According to advertising sources, Star had sold 90 percent of its ad slots before the IPL kicked off.

"Star India has repackaged the IPL product in order to command better rates. But the upfront cost of advertising on IPL is huge, it can eat up 40 percent of your annual advertising budget. The question, then, is not whether IPL will sell, but rather who will buy?" said Amita Karwal, who has 20 years experience in the media buying industry.