Will brand Indian Premier League survive the latest scandal?

Scams and scandals have been an integral part of IPL since its inception.

Written by Anushree Chandran | Published: June 4, 2013 12:46:19 pm

Scams and scandals have been an integral part of IPL since its inception. The brand,however,emerged stronger after each controversy. Will it survive the latest storm?

The Indian Premier League (IPL) has earned several sobriquets in the six years of its existence — The Indian Parivaar League,Indian Panga League,Indian Paltu,League,Indian Punters League,to name a few. These epithets,in a way,sum up the tourney’s tumultuous journey and the controversies it has courted so far. Controversies and IPL,in fact,have moved hand in hand. There have been times when the anti-IPL sentiment was so strong that it seemed it will take the league down with itself. But IPL weathered all the storms. It thrived in the face of all controversies and allegations of corruption,nepotism,mismanagement,and poor governance. And that’s because it didn’t compromise with the basic promise the brand IPL made to its fans,which is great games peppered with a lot of entertainment on and off the field.

This year,however,this promise seems to have been broken. The previous controversies did not directly affect the fans. Be it the award of franchisees to former chairman Lalit Modi’s friends and relatives in the first year; the arbitrary axing of broadcast contract with Multi Screen Media Ltd (MSM) in the second year followed by its move to South Africa followed by the allegations of foreign exchange violations; the forced exit of the then Union minister and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor from the Union Cabinet in the wake of the allegations of the involvement of his then girlfriend Sunanda Pushkar in the cobbling together of one of the franchisees; the unceremonious exit of Modi followed by the issuance of ‘Red Corner’ notice by the Enforcement Directorate against him; the allegations of income tax and foreign exchange violations against some of the franchisees; the scrapping of Kochi Tuskers Kerala; the constant threats of withdrawal by Sahara India,owners of Pune Warriors; the inability of Deccan Chargers to honour its obligations and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) dragging them to the courts – all these controversies involved people and situations not present on the ground. All the developments happened behind the scene and the viewers couldn’t be bothered about them. Their only interest was in going to the stadiums,see their favourite stars battle it out on the ground,have fun with family and friends and come back home after a fun-filled evening (or afternoon). Fans continued to flock to their TV screens and throng the stadiums even as the controversies played in the background.

Some observers,in fact,argue that the controversies aided in keeping IPL’s the brand recall top of mind.

The current situation,however,is different. The new controversy involving spot fixing by some of the players and the role of the CEO of Chennai Super Kings in fixing has hit the core of brand IPL. It has made fans sit up and ask if they were being cheated and that’s a serious blow.

Will IPL manage to survive this storm or is it the beginning of its end? The industry seems divided on the issue. The situation is something we’ve never seen before,says Shashi Sinha,chief executive of IPG MediabrandsIndia. “It could cut either way. We could all fall asleep and wake up to the next season of the IPL,when things would be just as vibrant and colourful as before. Or this betting mess could carry on and bigger names will get thrown into the ring and the scam could get bigger causing irreparable damage to the property. We’ll have to wait and watch,” he says.

Some observers,however,feel that brand IPL was more about entertainment than just cricket,and the show will go on. “The IPL is packed with big stars,music videos,cheer leaders,parties and no betting scandal could take that away. You have families hooked to it and they are not going anywhere as long as they keep getting their dose of fun and excitement,” says KV Sridhar,chief creative officer,Leo Burnett,Indian subcontinent. Sridhar argues that the whole discussion on whether the games should carry on is pointless. “Every big sporting event,including the Olympics,has seen its share of scandals but that hasn’t made the games shut down. We’ve seen legendary Hanse Cronje admitting red-faced to an avid international press that he was involved in betting and that Indian skipper Mohammad Azharuddin was a catalyst in his involvement. Nothing could be more sensational or scandalous than that,” he says.

The IPL enthusiasts are quick to point out that even in the face of fixing heat,fans flocked to the stadiums to see the semi-finals and the final. “The general public still loves the game. The match fixing has not taken the adrenaline rush away or the thrill of victory,” says a senior executive of the official broadcast partner Multi Screen Media. According to him,more than 180 million viewers watched IPL this year exceeding last year’s 150 million. “Once the ratings are released for the finals,we would have exceeded 200 million viewers,” says Rohit Gupta,president,MSM India. Gupta says he hasn’t got a single call from a sponsor wanting to back out. “If anything,we are more profitable than before.” According to estimates gathered from the industry,the broadcaster is likely to net Rs 950 crore from the series this year against Rs 700-750 crore last year.

The enthusiasm and the optimism of IPL believers notwithstanding,there are experts who feel the never-ending controversies have taken a toll on brand IPL. The UK based consultancy Brand Finance Plc,for instance,believes stakeholder value worth over $1billion has been destroyed because of controversies and lack of adequate governance since 2008.

“The latest spot fixing is another self-inflicted wound in a long list of injuries IPL has faced since its inception. Such ethical violations are steadily chipping away at the trust levels of viewers and other stakeholders who will eventually lose all real and serious interest in IPL,” says Unni Krishnan,global strategy director,Brand Finance Plc. “This will break the backbone of IPL and erode all other stakeholder interests making India and cricket poorer,” he adds.

Krishnan argues that IPL’ stewards seem to exhibit classical symptoms of willful blindness and are unable to see the writing on the wall. “IPL is doomed to extinguish itself by its own misdeeds.”

In April 2013,Brand Finance had said that IPL’s trust capital was holding steady at $3.03 billion compared to $2.9 billion the previous year. The relative stability at these levels,according to the firm,was attributable to the efforts being put in by the BCCI as well as the franchisees to bring consistency in the cricketing product and enhance fan engagement and loyalty through wide spread marketing efforts. The learning curve has been steep and some clubs seem to have cracked the code through various marketing,cricketing and business performance drivers,said the firm. Its current view,post the spot fixing scandal,however,is bleak.

Yet,there are supporters who feel IPL has been one of the most innovative product launches of the recent times and the brand will withstand the fresh controversy. “The IPL has weathered many storms in the past. It has taken it all in its stride and in a sense,come out stronger,” says Indranil Blah,chief operating officer,KWAN Entertainment and Marketing Solutions,a sports marketing consultancy. Blah is hopeful that as long as the allegations of fixing remain restricted to three players and no big names get dragged into the controversy,there will be no serious implications on IPL,its brand value or the sponsors associated with it. “The timing has also worked in the property’s favor. Had this news broken out at the start of the tournament,it could have dented the viewership,” says Blah.

As for the sponsors,contrary to media reports,IPL’s title sponsor PepsiCo says it stands committed to the property. “The matter is under investigation and we are confident that BCCI and the IPL Governing Council will take appropriate action (against those found guilty). We believe in the spirit of fair play in sports and remain committed to the property,” said a PepsiCo spokesperson. Another sponsor Micromax India added that it did not want to jump to conclusions. “Cricket has always been treated like a religion in our country,and there is clearly no space for corrupt practices in this game. The investigations are still on,so we would not like to jump to any immediate conclusions. We believe that it would not be right to cast aspersions on the entire sport,” said Shubhodip Pal,chief marketing officer at Micromax India.

Pal,however,adds a word of caution. “In case such incidents are repeated or people involved get implicated,it would definitely have an impact on association of brands in future as the confidence of general public would be shaken. It is,therefore,important to punish and root out any bad apples that are bringing a bad name to India’s favorite sport,” he says.

MSM,meanwhile,believes corrective action will bring the tourney back on track. “The spot fixing by reputed players was shocking and there must be zero tolerance for this type of behavior. The swift action by Delhi Police,the BCCI and the franchisee was very welcome and nipped the problem in the bud and should serve as a strong deterrent,” says Man Jit Singh,chief executive,MSM and president,Indian Broadcasting Foundation. “As a result of the quick action and the fact these were isolated instances that were immediately detected and stopped; we do not anticipate any impact on the overall tournament and its viewership,” he says.

Singh reiterates that the sixth season of IPL has been the greatest tournament for MSM in terms of viewer interest and advertiser support. “Fans have turned out enthusiastically and the stadiums have been full. We have reached more people on television than ever before. IPL is the largest sporting property in India will continue to have strong advertising support and as our reach grows the tournament will only become more important in advertising plans of all brands,” he says.

Brand consultant Harish Bijoor feels that there is a possibility that the controversy will end up boosting interest in IPL. “The IPL remains an irreverent brand. It has always courted controversy. And any news is good news,” he says. Bijoor does not expect any erosion in the IPL’s brand value; if anything he expects it to be stronger than before. But the BCCI must ensure that it puts up a white paper on this issue in order to bring clarity to its fans and other stakeholders concerned,adds Bijoor.

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