The return of BCCI’s prodigal child

Everything relating to cricket in India has been uncertain this past year. It seems as if there is some conflict at every corner. Lost in the epic tussle between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the Supreme Court is the prodigal child which caused all this conflict, the Indian Premier League (IPL), set to return for its tenth season on April 5. Just two weeks away, the IPL can no longer be ignored nor superseded by the greater good, namely reforming cricket.

The IPL is critical to the continued dominance of the BCCI and Indian cricket, even if it’s not the most favoured format of many reformists. It is emblematic of modern-day cricket and its profitability. And while it has been the cause of much grief to cricket administrators and team owners, its structure and format allow for a seamless segue into the entertainment space for the sport, bridging the gap between passion for cricket and creating commercial avenues that help sustain it. This is why the IPL as a commercial venture continues to exceed expectations and demand. And as the bridge season for the league, a lot rides on its smoothly completing this edition and reaping the expected economic profit from 2018.

The issue of media rights tender

The most relevant commercial decision and predictor that currently hangs in the balance for the IPL is the media rights tender for the broadcast and digital verticals for the seasons from 2018 to 2027. Expected to easily surpass the previous media rights agreement of $1.8 billion, the benchmark it may be looking to achieve is the English Premier League’s gigantic £5.1 billion arrangement with Sky and BT for the three-year period commencing 2016-2017. Professional sports leagues with a captive audience have in recent years signed comparable long-term media rights arrangements. The National Football League of the U.S., for instance, in 2014 entered into an eight-year arrangement for $4.95 billion. The IPL, at least until October 2016, appeared to be well on track for a similar arrangement, but the recent wobbles would have made many jittery.

There have been many diversions leading up to season 10. The Supreme Court ruling on the BCCI and the subsequent appointment of the Council of Administrators (CoA) to lead the board have understandably caused a delay in major decisions impacting the IPL. There has also been significant pushback from the State associations hosting IPL matches. They have demanded, unsuccessfully, payment for hosting IPL matches upfront. At the same time, the CoA, tasked with implementing the Justice Lodha Committee reforms, has finalised the Memorandum of Association and the Rules and Regulations of the BCCI, with some significant changes, all of which will be resisted by many of the State associations. The Supreme Court is tasked with hearing some of the challenges by various State associations, and what’s clear is that despite the official handover of leadership to the CoA, the implementation by and acquiescence of the State associations, including with respect to the IPL-specific aspects, is again uncertain.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) too has witnessed its own drama. With a roll-back of the ‘Big Three’ reforms, the CoA is handling a pitched battle at that end as well, as it fights to retain its revenue stream over the coming years. From the IPL’s perspective, this is encouraging because the CoA has not shown any inclination to forego revenues or profits for Indian cricket, a concern that stakeholders may have had given that the COA’s mandate is to reform cricket. There may, however, continue to be concerns over whether the IPL is given a relevant window unobstructed by important bilateral series scheduled by the ICC.

A relatively uneventful player auction has indicated the importance of decisions taken next season, and the return of the suspended franchises of Chennai and Rajasthan in 2018 will add some flair and controversy. Add to this the game-changing potential of the media rights agreement, and ambivalence on how the CoA will approach and prioritise the IPL during the handover phase, and this is the most unpredictable season and post-season for the IPL in its short life cycle. The on-field achievements have, at least for the time being, taken a back seat.

Desh Gaurav Sekhri is a sports attorney and author of ‘Not Out! The Incredible Story of the Indian Premier League’

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