IPL's success in Ranchi could be a forebearer of smaller cities having their own franchises to root for. © BCCI

IPL's success in Ranchi could be a forebearer of smaller cities having their own franchises to root for. © BCCI

Ahead of the eighth edition of the Indian Premier League, the BCCI announced an interesting initiative. They were to set up ‘Fan parks’ around the country, where crowds could assemble and watch matches on the big screen, all the while eating, dancing and having themselves a merry family picnic.

They targeted the smaller cities – the Agras, the Allahabads, the Kanpurs and the Coimbatores – all second or third-tier cities. The aim was to make the glamorous tournament more accessible beyond the metropolises, to provide a “stadium-like” feel and bring in “newer audience, especially families”. From the BCCI’s own reports, the initiative has been a success.

The IPL has always modelled itself around the English Premier League, the expertly marketed football league that has been a benchmark for similar ventures the world over. In many ways, the IPL, in just eight years, has surpassed the EPL – Sporting Intelligence’s 2015 Global Sports Salaries Survey (GSSS) stated that with an average yearly salary of over £2.5 million, the IPL was the second-best paid league in the world, after the NBA. Keep in mind that unlike most other leagues in the list, the IPL is a tournament that runs for just under two months.

That the IPL was a lucrative tournament was common knowledge, but these figures show to what extent it is so – in terms of wages for time spent, the IPL is a more attractive prospect for cricketers than the EPL is for footballers. That said, part of the charm of the EPL – and the FA Cup to a greater extent – is that there is representation from all parts of the country and a small-town team stands toe-to-toe with the biggies.

Now that the IPL is almost universally accepted in metros, perhaps the next step for the tournament is to spread its wings to the smaller cities in India, not just by hosting matches there but by basing franchises.

During the 2015 edition of the tournament, Ahmedabad turned up in thousands at the Sardar Patel stadium, and though the ‘designated’ home team was Rajasthan Royals, they – for reasons fairly obvious – didn’t associate with a team bearing the name of an altogether different state. It was similar in Visakhapatanam, Sunrisers Hyderabad being the designated home team, but fans more than happy to support whoever they took a liking for that day.

At the same time, Ranchi, miles away from Tamil Nadu, is as much a ‘home’ to Chennai Super Kings as it can get. This has a lot to do with the MS Dhoni factor, but it also shows the interest levels cricket piques in these parts – these are markets waiting to lap up whatever bit of the event they can come by.

Embracing the smaller cities is a strategy that leagues of other disciplines have adopted, and quite successfully at that. Ranchi Rhinos, the Hockey India League champions in 2014, were a hit and played in front of packed audiences, while the likes of Patna Pirates, Jaipur Pink Panthers and Telugu Titans were instrumental in the huge success that was the Pro Kabbadi League.

Charu Sharma, cricket commentator and a founder of the PKL, explained why initiatives work in tier-II cities. “There is generally less going on there, so it’s easier to be the centre of attraction. It is easier to ensure people turn up in very large numbers because their options are fewer,” he said. “They won’t have to compete with 820 other things going on, which is the case in big cities like Mumbai. In smaller towns, it’s more like: Haan chalenge yaar, bada maza aayega. They tend to be stronger in their support as well.”

One of the few good things to come out of India’s massive population is the potential for virality in the market. When it comes to cricket, ticket sales aren’t an issue in tier-II cities, where there isn’t enough supply of the sport to saturate demand. Besides, a majority of the top-class cricketers come from second-tier cities – from the 15-man India squad that contested the World Cup, only four players were from metropolitan cities – and enjoy impressive following in their hometowns.

Even if just 10% of the local population turn up for matches, it’s enough for a 30,000-seater stadium to be sold out. And though a large portion of IPL’s revenues come through TV ad sales –Television Audience Measurement’s (TAM) latest findings show there is a 25% growth in viewership from IPL 2014; the going rate for advertisements was Rs 20 lakh for a 10-second spot newspapers reported – the sold-out sign is important for the simple reason that advertisers on TV don’t want their brands associated with the negative image that an empty stadium portrays.

That said, it isn’t as straightforward as installing readymade franchises into these cities. There are roadblocks, commercial and legal ramifications to consider. Will the eight existing teams agree to a smaller percentage of the revenue pie? What about the cautionary tales of Pune Warriors India and Kochi Tuskers Kerala? There will then need to be discussions on logistics: the IPL is already a hectic tournament with lots of travel; can the small cities, some with poor connectivity and hospitality services, even host large contingents?

These are issues for the governing council to consider. From nervous beginnings and through many controversies, the IPL has braved its way into a working system. It would be foolhardy now to rest on laurels. The time is ripe for it to broaden its scope. A second tier – the IPL’s gotta have it.

This article appeared in issue 8 of Wisden India Extra. Download your copy here.