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The innovative cricket league

By Rajeev S
June 06, 2008 17:52 IST
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The IPL cricket tournament has been interesting for a couple of reasons: One, it showed how innovation in services can be appealing to consumers; two, it showed how competition and globalisation can bring improvements. There are also some lessons the IPL can learn from successful sports franchises elsewhere, for instance, the National Football League in the US.

The innovation is the most striking aspect. By re-packaging the sedate game of cricket to something with non-stop action, and by reducing the time investment that spectators need to put in for the event, the IPL administrators have modernised it. It has also converted attending the 20-20 game into a family event like going to the movies, whether you watch at home or in the stadium.

This, for instance, has increased the appeal to women, for the three hours required is something a busy housewife can afford to spare, as compared to having to spend all day watching the game. Besides, fast-moving games have instinctive appeal, which is why soccer finds such a ready audience everywhere.

There was a similar innovation that created a whole new entertainment experience. This was done by Cirque du Soleil, a Canadian company. They took the traditional circus, which, after boom years with the likes of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey, had been losing audiences and revenues for some years. They added an unusual mix of elements, including mime and theatre, so that it was no longer purely circus, but something unique and differentiated. Audiences poured in, they loved the new format, and Cirque became a must-see experience.

This has been described in the insightful book Blue Ocean Strategy as an example of creating a new and uncontested playing field, creating an arena where the competition simply cannot compete, as the rules of the game have changed. The pure circus companies, saddled with their costs of maintaining traditional animal shows, etc, were not able to copy the format, and Cirque carved out a lucrative niche for itself.

Similarly, other service providers have changed the mindset of the consumer: Low-cost cellular telephone service has transformed the way people view connectivity, and has had the beneficial side-effect of significantly increased productivity for many consumers, who gained the benefits of network effects on their professional and personal lives.

The IPL has to some extent re-branded cricket and reached a new customer base, which may be indifferent to the game per se, but has discovered the pleasures of the stadium or social experience with family and friends. This, complete with tail-gate parties, is a reason why big-money sports like football thrive in the US. It is likely that these new customers are not and will not be receptive to the longer versions of the game: Thus, a whole new cohort has been successfully marketed to.

The second, rather entertaining fallout is in the sociological impact of the reversal of the status quo ante.

There have been complaints that Indian professional cricket is a cozy little world, zealously guarded by a few, with hardly any opportunities for others to break in. Indeed, it appears as though the hitherto excluded hoi polloi have managed to excel in the IPL version of the game, as it was not necessarily the established stars who delivered the big performances.

A cursory glance shows that many standouts were unheard-of Indian or foreign players. This is good for the game, but we must spare a tear for the owners who shelled out mega-bucks for under-achieving big-name stars. It is especially good for the unheralded players who enjoyed limelight of a national and multinational audience. This should provide a steady stream of hungry, newly-discovered players who can revitalise national teams.

It is a good thing competitively when overseas players can play in India. This has been the norm, of course, in soccer, where half the players in Europe are Latin Americans and Africans: They are often the most talented. Now that the cartel in India has been undermined, it is possible that instead of the iron rule of regional satraps, and quotas for regions, there will be a mad rush for pure talent.

Especially remarkable was the performance of the white players from overseas, as well as the antics of the cheerleaders such as the imported Washington Redskins girls. In a delicious reversal of roles as compared to colonial times, white players were performing as gladiators for the benefit of Indians. And Western women were performing as 'nautch girls' in an ancient spectator sport loved by all couch potatoes.

All of this is poetic justice, and an indication yet again that money talks. The money in cricket is all in India, which is unfortunate because, alas, all the money is for cricket and nothing else, but them's the facts. Isn't globalisation wonderful? Robert Clive et al may be turning over in their graves. Instead of buccaneers, gladiators! Ironic, and turnabout is fair play.

But there are a number of other improvements that can be borrowed from, say America's NFL. One is the salary cap. Each team is allowed a certain aggregate amount that it can use to pay its players, but that upper limit may not be exceeded. This will prevent rich franchise owners from cornering the market. Secondly, there is a draft, whereby all the new players coming into the game come from a central pool. Further, there is a seeding mechanism whereby the poorer teams get the best draft picks, ensuring that over time any team in the league can hope to at the top. There is also an active secondary market in trading players and draft picks.

By imaginatively innovating around some of these proven techniques from the likes of the NFL, the IPL can continue to innovate and enrich the franchisees and players, while creating a unique and exportable product as well.

Professor Rajeev S teaches innovation at IIM Bangalore; views are personal. E-mail:

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