It is not the best of times for the average Indian cricket fan. Sure, 2011 will be remembered fondly when the national cricket team rose as world champions, but the story that followed paints a sorry picture. After a poor run in England last year, the team's woeful luck overseas continued as it was bulldozed in Australia in the recently-concluded test series.
Add to it other news such as senior players failing to deliver, the principal team sponsor backing out, injuries and illness plaguing players, negativity has surrounded Indian cricket and how.
In such a situation, as we approach one of Indian cricket's biggest annual extravaganzas -- the Indian Premier League as it enters its fifth year, one does wonder if fears of waning interest, particularly among marketers, loom large over the unofficial national sport and the IPL property. Not to mention, the tournament in itself has not been without its share of regular controversies.
While there are supporters of the theory that the recent developments may prove telling for IPL, there are also those who stoically believe that the format remains popular and unique to continue to garner healthy interest among marketers, as well as viewers. What is agreed upon though is the fact that there has indeed been a drop in the levels of enthusiasm.
Last year, too, the tournament witnessed a drop in interest. However, at the same time, it must be considered that IPL 2011 quickly followed the Cricket World Cup, and it cannot be argued that the Indian cricket fan was already saturated with what is a clichéd phrase now -- 'too much cricket'.
"There is a lot of negativity around cricket right now. While the IPL has been insulated so far to India's performance as a team, any marketing person will think twice before associating itself when there is negativity surrounding the product," says Blah.
Moreover, marketers almost everywhere are tightening their purse strings. This could further hurt the property if the interest levels are low, and the matches not entertaining enough. The latter point is important considering the matches that featured 'weaker' teams (or the newer ones, if you will) such as the Pune Warriors, for example, that failed to attract decent ratings in terms of viewership in matches that were rather one-sided, agree media buyers.
Then again, one argues that the IPL is a different format that evokes a different reaction among viewers. This theory is supported by the ones who believe that the tournament remains shielded from the team's performance. They agree that while the overall performance of the team may have dipped, IPL is more focussed around individual players rather than the team. It is more to do with a (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni versus (Sachin) Tendulkar, or a (Gautam) Gambhir versus (Virender) Sehwag, where the fans root for their favoured stars to perform or their local team.
"The IPL is more about individual players. It is more city-specific. While the mood in Indian cricket may be down, it will have little impact on the IPL. Any active brand that is male-skewed and targeted towards light viewers of television will remain as interested," says Khemka.
A valid point this, but Blah further argues as he points out that even the iconic players are not in the best of form.
Khemka suggests that marketers are currently observing a wait-and-watch strategy. The Australian tour is still underway, and there is the forthcoming Asia Cup that looks good to bring back the interest in the game.
He agrees with Blah as he says that the initial years of the tournament saw an absurd amount of interest that is only expected to stabilise going forward.
Ashwini Kamat, general manager, Mediacom, is not so worried about the negative sentiment as she is about the IPL being an expensive property, and the fact that SET Max, the channel holding the broadcasting rights of the tournament not lowering its prices even in the current situation.
"The IPL is not just about cricket. There is a lot of Bollywood. There is a lot of entertainment that is associated with it. While the negative sentiment may not impact the IPL much, the fact remains that the ratings have not been good in the past," she says.
There has been careful attention paid with most matches being played in the prime time slot, and with the schedule for this year's edition, the same trend shall continue. It will be interesting to observe the strategy of the general entertainment channels during the tournament. Last year, in particular, every GEC put their best foot forward to provide more options for entertainment before the viewers and resultantly, advertisers.
Kamat further points out that the current year will be the one when contracts will expire for many brands' ground rights. Hence, she says, it becomes doubly important to market the property like never before so that bagging new contracts will become easier.
SET Max, on its part remains unperturbed and believes that the IPL, on the contrary, can be a tool to bring back the craze associated with the game in the country.
"Last year, the IPL followed the World Cup. People were already spent and burnt. While the performance of the Indian team has been poor, this year, the IPL can actually be like a balm to bring back the joy and excitement of the game. The quality of cricket though has to go up. The matches will have to be more competitive," says Vyas.
Reacting to the point of Max not bringing advertising costs down, Vyas says that there is no need to cut prices as brands have continued to associate aggressively with the tournament, and have found no reasons to complain so far.
The tournament that begins on April 4, and continues till the end of May, will see a flurry of marketing activity by both Max, as well as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), says Vyas. On the channel's part, the campaign is likely to begin later this month.
An expert who has been associated closely with one of the participating teams brings out an interesting point that while marketers may not shy away, the current situation can prove to be a bargaining tool.
He says that while most brands that have long-term contracts with teams may not be affected, the ones that have annual understandings may look to bargain.
Srivatsa points out that the cost will get affected, and not numbers. Tier II brands may bargain. And, it is up to the teams to up the number of associate sponsorships to make good any losses, he suggests.
Eventually, after all the arguments of poor performance, high advertising costs, and negative sentiments, what needs to be remembered is how high emotions run in the country for cricket. While fans are quick to cry foul when the team underperforms, the same ones do not waste much time lauding their heroes once fortunes turn.
As Vyas sums up, "All these talks are happening because the Indian team is performing badly. No one would have raised any doubts had the team been on a victorious run in Australia. Too many people are overreacting."
It is, therefore, believed that just one good turnaround is all that is needed as a trigger to bring back the excitement. With a good two months to go, and a lot of cricket to be still played, the marketer and the fan patiently wait.