What the IPL! Why is digital sport ignoring Indian T20 cricket?
Sporting tournaments are often described as “a circus”. They roll into town in attention-grabbing fashion, entertain in sparkling, sometimes seat-of-the-pants/shambolic/controversial style before a spectacular denouement and, ultimately, disappearing from view.
The memories are of colour and sound as much as daring do.
The Indian Premier League is the epitome of this phenomenon and the 10th competition starts today. It will consist of 60 games in 47 days across ten venues, culminating in the final on May 21.
For those not familiar with the event, this is the shortest form of cricket - T20, that’s 120 deliveries or 20 ‘overs’ of six balls each. The game was designed to distill the sport down to the spectacular bits. Fast-paced and flashy, it is about big shots, gymnastic catches and incisive bowling (the fast guys capture the attention but ironically the slow, spinning bowlers often decide the game).
T20, like the more traditional forms of cricket, was invented in England. But, as so often happens, we have been beaten at our own game. The original T20 was based on English counties, the ‘shires and the ‘sexes’ etc. OK, they riffed on their names and wore coloured ‘pajamas’ but they were the same squads playing on the same grounds. The IPL had new franchises with high-profile owners from industry and Bollywood.
Cheerleaders were an immediate introduction. Bangalore even hired the Washington Redskins troop in the early days. Umpire and spider cams were not developed by IPL but they are now part of the TV director’s arsenal. Strategic mid-innings time-outs maybe as much for sponsors as players but the introduction of fan parks has been of huge benefit to fans. The League has estimated that 300,000 have turned up to “second or third tier” towns to watch the games on big screen.
The crowd have always flocked inside the stadium. In 2015, the IPL averaged over 27,000 which put it behind only NFL, Bundesliga, EPL, AFL and MLB as the world’s most attended sports league. There was a dip last season but, overall, India now has the financial muscle in cricket with short-form games, not Tests, as the most bankable item.
The Big Bash in Australia followed on soon afterwards and, like IPL, saw new city-based franchises rather than the traditional state teams. It has been successful to such an extent that the English Cricket Board is now proposing to follow suit. The cash-strapped counties, who may end up being usurped by the new teams, must vote to change the constitution to make it happen. It is a long story, there’s a summary of the pros and cons here.
In content terms, the IPL has a distinct feel and it is rarely discussed in comparison to the major US sports or EPL sport. However, like China, India is growing rapidly in population, economic power and digital sophistication. But, as yet, you do not get a similar number of foreign sports ploughing into the Indian market in the same way as they do in South-East Asia.
Perhaps this is a result of balancing the financial returns with the logistics. But like NFL in the US or the EPL in England, the IPL is where India tells its sporting story.
So, what does the content say?
The wider media is sometimes accused of building up heroes to knock them down. Official content often takes the opposite approach, downplaying the stars to avoid piling on the pressure. This especially applies to young players.
IPL teams, on the other hand, are happier than most to depict their players as not just heroes but superheroes. Over the course of a few years, some of the imagery has had a DC Comics feel to it.
Then there is content such as this. It could be a page from the best practice book and very American in its feel (and a little superhero too). Major European football clubs have only just begun to enter this area with consistency.
Behind the scenes content
Access is clearly better in the IPL than, for example, the EPL. Hat tip to Sunrisers Hyderabad who created a fine celebration video after their success last season, dressing room dancing, pie in the face, the lot.
Before that, there was the pool fitness session, which could have been dull but for the underwater shot of the players larking about.
Meanwhile, the 360 content at practice by the Rising Pune Supergiant was particularly effective because of cricket’s three main skills – batting, bowling, fielding – often all occur at the same time. So there are lots to explore and that sense of discovery is at the heart of the appeal of this content.
Staying with practice, Kings Punjab XI ended one warm-up session of football with the winning team firing shoots at the losers’ backsides. And they filmed it. The Sunrisers had a twerking competition for team bonding purposes… clearly.
Oh and I nearly forgot Virat Kohli and Chris Gayle, arguably the biggest draws in the competition, tearing up the dancefloor as Australian all-rounder Shane Watson plays Twist and Shout. I can’t remember such couldn’t-care-less-silliness from stars of this magnitude. It is exactly the type of personality content that is often shielded from view in the major sport.
Perhaps this is where the “circus” analogy really works. Teams are thrust together, a hardcore of Indian players with foreign stars brought in at auction a few months before the start. Bonding is required, so why not film it and tell your story with it.
It all adds to a story of openness, freedom and fun.
That said, here's a content style that is rarely seen in the UK/US/Europe as the tone might not be considered congruent or relevant.
Meanwhile, the viewing figures for RC Bangalore's insider, Mr Nags, are high but I would not have commissioned it for the teams I managed.
Social Media distribution
The long-established franchises Kolkata Knight Riders (17.5m), Mumbai Indians (14.2m) and Royal Challengers Bangalore (12.4m) lead the aggregate followership across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. As ever, Facebook carries the majority of that, 72% to 84%. For the established clubs, Twitter is between 12-14%. Instagram is relatively underrepresented in comparison to major sports teams around the world, it represents only 1.58% of Knight Riders’ following. However, the two franchises established in 2016, Guarat Lions (14.79%) and Rising Pune Supergiant (9.82%), led the table in that platform. Given the highly visual nature of the storytelling, especially in video, there is lots of room for growth there.
Some of the teams launched anthems in 2016, here’s the one by Dehli Daredevils
IPL final in 2016
- 10.6m tweets during the event
- 360m Facebook interactions, up from 312 in 2015
- In the final, Sunrisers Hyderbad beat Royal Challengers Bangalore but the latter’s players won the share of voice on social during the game: Viral Kohli ( RCB, 33.3%), David Warner (SH, 23.86%), Chris Gayle (RCB, 23.76%), Yuvraj Singh (SH, 10.43%)
The full flavour of the IPL's content cannot be summed up in 1,000 words. This piece did not set out to do that. The aim was merely to highlight a few major differences amid a multitude of nuances and shed a little digisport light on a sporting event that dominates a country of 1.34 billion people but resonates only lightly outside traditional cricket-playing countries. In fact, the topic is so large it may need a Part II at the end of the current tournament. Feel free to send in your comments and corrections. It is all about learning and it is high time the digital sport world started to appreciate the unique style of content coming out of the IPL.