Notes on the IPL
Russell Degnan

Cricket tournaments continue to strike the wrong rhythm in their organisational structure. There is a sense in the past few days of the IPL winding down, when it really should be gearing up for the finals. Several commentators, albeit ones with a distaste for the IPL already, have noted how the tournament seems to be dragging on. The problem lies in the organisers temporal separation of game times, putting one or two per day, to allow the television to show every game. In a cup tournament this is no great problem, but the IPL is a league, played over 14 rounds. The normal rhythm of anticipation, watching and analysis is disrupted by having a game every day for an extended period of time, and the viewer is quickly burnt out.

The concluding round showed this clearly. Leading into the final game for each side, six teams were playing off for just three places. What should have been an exciting four games in two days (or even better, the same day), was dragged out over three days and five games, with teams dribbling into the final four, or out of contention, with the final game shorn of meaning and star players. Partly, this is a function of trying to squeeze such a high number of games into such a short period, but it is worth comparing the week-long build up that proceeds the AFL grand final, or the momentum gathering lead-in to the final day of the English Premier League to see what the IPL is missing.

While some view the IPL's continued success and growth as a grave threat to things they hold most dear, I can't help but think that cricket in general, and the players in particular, have been missing a trick for the past 30 years. I confess to having lost interest in 50 over cricket some time ago, but it can't be denied that it was the engine of the sport for the past three decades, and was capable of pulling in large crowds long before T20 existed.

Yet, the response by administrators, and more particularly investors, to the IPL is a slavish copying of the IPL system. The conclusion from this behaviour therefore, is that the barrier to financial riches at a domestic level for many years was:

  • Fifty-50 cricket, as opposed to twenty-20.
  • The existing county and state representative sides

While I'm willing to admit T20 is a superior form of the game to F50. It is not that much superior to account for the IPL or Big Bash crowd size, in comparison to their F50 equivalents. And franchises make little to no sense, given the successful state-based Australian and county competitions, and the fact that a franchise competition will play at the same grounds, with the same base audience, and the same television coverage.

Which is why I believe that cricket has been missing something for a long time. Namely, that a domestic tournament is economically superior , provided it is not subjugated by a competing national competition. I have discussed previously, in general terms, the advantages a domestic competition has over national competition in the manifesto, but it is worth doing so in a more illustrative fashion. Essentially therefore, I am arguing that the actual barriers are three-fold:

  • The national model of cricket competition.
  • Allied to a suppression of domestic competitions through the denial of television coverage and top players.
  • And less importantly, the popularity of T20 over F50 cricket.

Assume that the national and domestic models of competition are drawing on the same audience. At first glance, you'd assume that their total revenues would be the same. From the perspective of a cricket board, however, the national model is vastly superior. Players wages, long the bane of every board, are calculated in an uncompetitive market - a player cannot switch nationality - and therefore, they are depressed, relative to other non-national sports.

Revenues are not equal between the two models, however, because there is a limit to the number of games that can be played by a single national team. The diagram below splits the revenue streams for the national model. A national team, limited to playing every 2-3 days, will draw in the total cricket watching television audience (blue), but only a small fraction of the potential ticket revenue (yellow) who will be in the wrong city for the bulk of games. Additionally, each of those grounds must be paid for, raising base costs and leaving stadiums either underused (Australian grounds) or under-developed (English grounds). Merchandise revenue (orange) is a small but important factor.

In a domestic model, by contrast, the television revenue is fragmented across the different teams, each of whom receive a smaller fraction than the national team did by itself. The overall television revenue (blue), however, is larger, because more teams allow more games to be scheduled, and to target local markets more effectively. Merchandise revenue (orange) is split between the eight teams and is relatively miniscule, but the ticket revenue is vastly expanded. Games are played more regular at every stadium, and while the stadium attendance is still a fraction of the television audience, the payment per person is much higher.

Television companies are the winners under a national model. They can craft a "summer of cricket" with high average audiences and low overheads. They are also able, by tying the finances of the national board to the television revenue stream, to dictate what games are played and when, in order to maximize profits. The national board may be slightly worse off financially under a domestic model, but they can use their leverage over the competition to get franchises to pay (as the IPL does), freeing them from the yoke of the television company. A seemingly acute problem in England now, with the threat of enforced free-to-air coverage could significantly lower the ECB's fragile revenue stream.

But it is the players who benefit most, able to attract progressively higher bids for their services, and scoop a larger share of an expanded total revenue. Which is ironic, because for the past thirty years, it has been the players who first tied the fortunes of cricket to the national model who have been telling us how much better off players are in these modern times. A dominant domestic model, based around F50 cricket, was probably feasible years ago, but was continually stymied by the blanket national coverage which crowded out any alternatives, and allowed players wages to be suppressed.

Not that any nation has reverted to a domestic model, or even seems likely to in the immediate future. But ultimately, the players are what the public comes to see, and therefore, cricket's structure is determined by when, where and what they want to play. That's good news, for the lovers of test cricket. As long as players continue to respect it, it won't die, and the IPL is no threat to its continued existence. But it might be bad news to fans of yearly 7-game ODI series between India and Australia, and to national boards who want to eke every penny out of centrally contracted players and their travelling circus.

The list of things that irritate people who express a distaste for T20 is remarkably similar to the list of things that are entirely unnecessary to the success of the format:

  • The cheerleaders are naff, which is not to say that they couldn't be good, but that the billion dollar IPL has done a more half-arsed job of cheer-leading than the Morwell Falcons used to.
  • Why does a competition based around local rivalries encourage cheering for the away team: through music, cheer-leading, scoreboard graphics and so forth. A six by Mumbai at Eden Gardens should be treated with the same muted applause as a goal by Liverpool at Old Trafford, not forced cheering.
  • What, actually, does music bring to a game of cricket. Can anyone produce a study that shows the fans like it?
  • What value do 6 overs of field restrictions bring to the game? If they were done away with, what would change tactically? Does the absence of an answer to that question make the game better or worse?
  • Similarly, what value are bowling restrictions? Why don't commentators who bemoan a lack of opportunities for "great spells of bowling" or "contests between bat and ball" also note that the greatest impediment to both is the 4 over restriction. Remove that and all sorts of tactics, both in the game and in selection, come into play.
  • Why do commentators insist the IPL/T20 is bad for "pure" wicket-keepers. Given a reduced role for batsmen down the order, surely a good keeper is more, not less important?
  • Violent heaves across the line and an endless stream of boundaries don't seem to be that effective. The highest scorers in the IPL are classical stylists, and (as a forthcoming post will show) wickets do matter.

So many questions. Perhaps I am too much of a traditionalist for T20. I guess I hope that, like a teenage girl who thinks looking like a tramp is the best way to show off her emerging body, T20 might mature into something that dresses well.

Idle Summers 20th April, 2010 16:15:09   [#] 


Notes on the IPL
As always, an excellent post -- I've been thinking about the IPL format as well of late, but did not put in any rigorous thought to the matter as you did.

By the way, can you check if your RSS feed is working? I tried to put it in my blogroll, but Wordpress had a mini-fit about it. Thanks.
Ducking Beamers  20th April, 2010 16:25:03  

Notes on the IPL
thanks DB. I've had a play with the RSS and cleaned up the errors the validator says were there. Try now and let me know if it fails.
Russ  20th April, 2010 18:36:14  

Notes on the IPL
Interesting stuff as usual Russ, though I disagree with a couple of your points. Not that I have survey evidence to back it up, but I'm willing to guess that I like T20 cricket for similar reasons to a lot of other people who go along to the games.

I think that T20 is that much superior to F50. A couple of years ago we had a delayed start to the international summer when India toured late, and the Sheffield Shield and domestic F50 games were still poorly attended and everyone was bored. I know that for me personally, I really really like going to the T20 games, even if I've just spent all day watching Test cricket on the TV.

I also like the music at the ground. It keeps that 'entertainment' feel going consistently. Whenever there's an over of silence I feel that something's missing. Seeing lots of the crowd getting into the YMCA chorus is also pretty cool.
David Barry  21st April, 2010 11:55:51  

Notes on the IPL
David, fair points. I won't deny T20 is the superior format - I can't really, given my professed dislike of F50. The F50 format is very tired looking now. But, I do think that if a concerted effort had been made to create a good domestic league (international players, blanket tv coverage) in the mid 1990s, it would have succeeded. At least for a while.

Partly my complaints about cheerleaders and music are not that they exist. But that both are done so poorly. I attended basketball games in its mid-90s boom period, and the music enhanced the viewing experience. The cheerleaders less so, their main point in American sports is to disguise the fact the players are spending several minutes talking amongst themselves.

Maybe it is unique to the MCG, but the music at the cricket borders on the surreal. By all means play music to introduce the incoming home batsman or bowler. But don't play pep music for the opposition. Don't get the crowd to dance when the home bowler has just been carved for successive boundaries, or the home batsman has been caught spectacularly on the fence. And play something that sets a mood. I mean really: Peter Bjorn and John, The Shins? The add-ons end up irritating me because they seem to be only for entertainment, to the exclusion of the cricket itself.
Russ  21st April, 2010 13:47:58  

Notes on the IPL
Good article, though anyone who hopes to see boards untied from their cosy TV rights deals is asking for a lot. The ECB is in a state of semi-panic about the relisting of the Ashes.

One of my big problems with t20 is the length of the boundaries. Having people screaming their lungs out for a 71 metre six leaves me cold. Ditto the mishits that can go for these fake sixes.

And they have to do something about the cheerleaders as, apart from them not being Indian, most of them can't actually cheerlead, they are out of sync and looking at each other's feet. Very unprofessional.

But I like the format and love the effect spin bowling has had on the tournament as the pitches have got older and dodgier. Players who can't play slow bowling are being shown up quite embarrassingly.
Lou  25th April, 2010 07:54:05  

Notes on the IPL
You are being a little harsh on the 71 metre six there Lou. Sure it isn't massive, but it will clear the fence of most English grounds, and a moderate percentage of boundaries at Australian ones.

The World T20 will be fascinating for lovers of spin. Recent games over there seem to indicate very very slow wickets. Australia is doomed by this, naturally.
Russ  29th April, 2010 00:40:55