There are several things wrong and ugly about India's greatest show, including the unintended consequences of the government getting embroiled in private economic activity. But let's not forget that the Indian Premier League can become a giant platform for energising the masses for the greater good.
Once again a promising initiative is embroiled in controversy, money laundering, nepotism, corruption, and subsidy for the rich and famous. This time it is the Indian Premier League (IPL). History repeats itself where public trust is misused and a great opportunity to make a positive impact on society is lost. Irrespective of how one feels about the IPL, the fact is that it provides three hours of excitement and entertainment to millions of cricket enthusiast worldwide. There is a demand for such a form of cricket and the IPL capitalised on this passion. For a change, divisive issues like language, religion, or nationality have little influence on how cricket fans enjoy the game.
Rather than viewing the IPL purely as a vulgar display of wealth and fashion, let's look briefly at the good side of it that was in display in South Africa last year. During the tough economic conditions, South Africa benefitted remarkably from the IPL as an economic stimulus event. There was significant economic activity from thousands of tourists converging in that country. Hotels, restaurants, gift stores, and other small businesses benefitted from increased spending from visitors and the IPL. It softened the economic upheaval in South Africa that plagued the world.
The best of the IPL in South Africa was not the wins, the spectacular sixers or the Bollywood stars, but the frequent recognition of hundreds of children, teachers, and schools in every game. Much-needed scholarships and gifts were given out in each game to children and schools. Eight-year old S'bonda Zuma, who lost his mother and had huge concerns over whether he could complete his schooling, was helped by the IPL. Four schools from each host city were selected for a scholarship fund to improve educational opportunities. Many local papers in South Africa cited the benefits of the IPL to numerous communities by raising awareness and community interactions.
If the IPL can be used to benefit local communities and educational opportunities, why not encourage it? While I could not find a formal study of the economic impact of the IPL on various cities in India, it is possible there are significant impacts on job creation in host cities. I am sure local businesses, including for example the garment industry (which supplies the apparel related to each franchise), are thrilled at the economic activity. It is the greatest show on Indian soil with millions of educated, well-off people watching who may be motivated and enticed positively to take ownership of improving their communities and schools. Bollywood stars and cricketers could be part of this movement to enable change. Is there a better platform to encourage citizen participation on local issues?
Sadly, what the IPL did in South Africa vanished on re-appearing on Indian soil. There were few instances of supporting education and children. What the TV cameras have been busy showing are cheerleaders, Bollywood stars, and highly subsidised rich individuals. I wonder what happened to all the good causes the IPL supported while in South Africa.
It is interesting to contrast India's greatest sporting event with American sporting events – college or professional. There is no major sporting event in the U.S. without the national anthem and the presence of the armed forces. On the occasion of Veteran's Day – a national holiday in the U.S. to celebrate and thank those who fought past wars – a National Football League (NFL is the professional football league that can be compared with the IPL), player after player thanked his friends, relatives, and family members who are serving or have served in the military. Military personnel, police officers, fire fighters, and war heroes are acknowledged and celebrated practically every major game.
At my university, every (American) football game has invitees from the military and the 80,000-plus spectators cheer war heroes and military personnel. It is common to recognise excellent researchers and teachers during the game and to beam their names on giant screens. Many scholarships are given to promising and deserving students. Numerous businesses are recognised for their contributions to improving local communities. People who have made significant contributions to the community are recognised. The games are used to inform worthy causes and contributions that encourage others to participate in the broader societal goals.
How wonderful if the IPL could bring attention to the hundreds of thousands of military and police personnel who toil in the harshest conditions and protect the freedom of others? Why should the IPL not partner with leading NGOs who have made sustained contributions to improve communities? Let an independent body of thinkers select those NGOs for the IPL to showcase.
The ugly part of the IPL is long and has been discussed extensively. It is getting nastier each day. What else one can one expect if the government is a partner and subsidises the cost of the show? While some economic incentives can be justified to get the ball rolling, there is enough evidence that the IPL is enormously profitable and there is no need to provide it tax subsidies or for the government to bear all the security costs.
It is not worthwhile blasting the IPL for having rich owners and Bollywood stars. The fact is they have the resources to take risks and make certain things happen. The objections that the rich are becoming richer are shortsighted. But what we need is to stop subsidising these rich owners in the name of economic development that lowers the supposed risk, but makes the rewards disproportionately higher. In fact, the opaqueness of the bidding process in the IPL gives rise to such disproportionate risk-reward tradeoffs. We need a full investigation of alleged money laundering, tax evasion, gambling, and other illegal activities. Sadly, there are hundreds of investigations in India that have not yielded any meaningful results. These investigations are themselves manipulated or delayed as the nexus runs deep and wide. One should not be surprised if there are one or two sacrificial lambs to maintain the status quo. The trust in the system's willingness to unearth the truth is very low.
There is anger over the exorbitant compensation paid to the players. Once again, it is futile to grudge this compensation. The owners will pay, based on the value players bring to the franchise. But this value is unnecessarily exaggerated by government subsidies. If the franchise had to pay taxes and market-based facility rental costs and incur security costs, then there would be greater sense in how players are compensated. It is once again a lesson on how the government enables these private initiatives to be irrational.
The real ugly part of the IPL is the disruption of the education of the most important national resource – the children, who are also the most passionate about cricket. Why in the world would the IPL host its games during the exam period of the entire nation? Of course, it is easy to say to the parents: shut off TV and the radio. But in this day and age of the Internet and wireless connectivity, the distraction remains.
While the media thrash the IPL management and politicians call for banning the IPL, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Let's promote the good and minimise the ugly side. It is a giant platform that attracts the resourceful and educated and the energy can be translated for the good of society. Let the IPL adopt government schools, promote education, recognise community leaders, teachers, and the military, and bring attention to the issues that matter to the nation. We saw that in South Africa. I am sure people are forgiving of some of the sins and the subsidies. Let some of the profits go to a greater cause.
Hopefully, the players will involve themselves more with improving educational opportunities for the needy. Their value can only go up as more people will support the products they endorse. The former Australian captain, Steve Waugh, epitomises the good and what one can accomplish with fame and resources. His educational trust and welfare projects in India supporting children of leprosy patients at Udayan, and his initiatives to promote literacy and vocational skills in underdeveloped areas, must become a role model for the IPL and for cricketers. It is not unusual for American sport stars to have huge trusts to promote educational opportunities and become spokespersons to engage communities with meaningful projects. One can only hope the IPL and its players can engage on a greater scale to bring attention to real issues that plague the nation.
An important lesson once again: if the government becomes embroiled in private economic activity, there are numerous unintended consequences. Let the private take the risk, pay the market price for facilities and security, and reap the rewards. And let's not forget that the greatest cricketing event in India can be a giant platform to energise the masses for the greater good.
(Prabhudev Konana is the William H. Seay Centennial Professor and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)