April 04, 2020
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‘IPL Was Always Ahead Of Its Time’

Lalit Kumar Modi, who launched IPL in 2008, talks about taking the games to a new level...

‘IPL Was Always Ahead Of Its Time’
‘IPL Was Always Ahead Of Its Time’

Lalit Kumar Modi launched the IPL with a Rs 200-crore budget in 2008. After the frenetic start, he has missed the last six editions due to his expulsion from the BCCI in 2010 for ­“financial misdemeanours”. On the eve of the 10th ­edition, Modi, 53, spoke to Qaiser Mohammad Ali from London.

Please describe your feelings as the landmark 10th IPL is about to start?

There is a great sense of pride, when I look back, that India owns the greatest cricket league ever in history. I feel proud that the world has followed the Indian Premier League formula to churn out an industry of sports leagues across the globe.

It is 10 years since the first edition [in 2008] and today IPL is an annual ritual, a festival of India. An event that the whole nation as one embraces, watches, and together they rejoice and celebrate. What else can I ever dream of. It was my dream to create something that binds our nation together. Sitting here [in London] today I am the most proud ‘father’ of seeing my ‘baby’ having grown up and doing just that despite the numerous controversies, which we all go through. But in the end when IPL begins, one forgets all the worries and the nation comes together as one. It's something no one can take away from me and it's something I truly cherish wherever I am. IPL is India – India is IPL. It's the only one event in our country’s calendar that is able to do just that – it binds us together for months. Everywhere I go, everyone I see always has the highest praises for the tournament and is always grateful for this creation. And I, on my part, am grateful to Mr Sharad Pawar [then president of BCCI] who allowed me to fulfil my dream despite one and all saying it would never work or sustain itself. I take pride that in 10 years the formula I created with the IPL is even today considered to be the most progressive event ever created from scratch in the 21st century globally. To be able to make a place in the hearts of over a billion Indians and many millions across the globe is truly the greatest achievement of my life.

Along with that joy is a tinge of sadness that the people who took over from me have not been able to take IPL to the heights it has the potential to reach. They have stripped away, one by one, the ideals I had instilled at the core of the IPL. I am glad that those days too are over and a new breed of men and women will now enter into the BCCI and in years to come they will propel IPL to even greater heights.

IPL will run for another 100 years, and I do believe it will be the only event in our nation that would bring us all together over the longest period in the calendar.

How do view the BCCI’s decision to have individual opening ceremonies at all eight venues? And would you have done it any different had you been guiding the IPL now?

I think it is a half-baked idea and one that takes away from the entire concept of opening ceremonies. You can have events at all the venues for the opening games but to label them as opening ceremonies will cause fatigue for the television audience.

A single IPL contract changed the life of ­the ­domestic cricketer, whose talent and hard work would not have been acknowledged otherwise.

What we need is a commitment that we will put the fans and players at the forefront. If anything, there should be a thanksgiving to these two stakeholders. We have not done enough as yet for them, especially the fans, because they are what they make the sport what it is and force the hands of potential sponsors.

I have always envisioned a day when the IPL is played across the globe and we have five IPL matches across the five continents on the same day starting with Australia and move across to India, Asia, Europe, Africa and then end in the USA. Imagine the impact of an IPL opening day on the world.

Do you feel you would have made the IPL more attractive and much more successful had you been associated all through its 10 editions?

IPL is not going anywhere. It was always ahead of its time. We need to reclaim that space and ensure that we are able to go to the next level with the tournament. What that level is can be defined by what kind of innovations we are able to bring into the tournament. IPL needs to set the trend that others follow. We did that in 2008 and today we have a number of similar sounding products. Unfortunately, we have not innovated enough whether in terms of technology or rules to make the sport more interesting. I have always dreamt of a longer IPL season like the English Premier League or the Champions League. The injuries, change of players who have to go for national duty will make the league stronger and be more beneficial for the players, franchisees, advertisers and broadcasters. In 2010, we pushed the envelope and shred it to bits -- there was IPL in 3D, on YouTube, streaming on every mobile device, apps, IPL gaming, IPL in cinemas.

What all would you point out as the highlights of the nine IPL editions held so far?

My heart swelled with pride when India told the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2014 that the IPL’s success embodies emergence of sports as a global industry. India's UN Mission praised the IPL was India's most profitable and popular sporting league and had generated employment and revenues for upcoming athletes, players, sporting associations, companies and all stakeholders. To get that praise from your own country at the UN General Assembly is the ultimate achievement for anyone.

There were so many that it could easily flow into a couple of volumes but let me pick out the best of the best.

  1. The 158 from the bat of Brendon McCullum in the first ever IPL match would be a favourite. In my mind, he played a significant role in making IPL a household name. That very day I had dedicated the success of IPL to Brendon. I went up to him in the locker room and hugged him and said ‘Thank you, and I dedicate the IPL to you. You alone on its very first day have put is on the map’. It was a dream I was not expecting -- but it happened. It worked like clockwork.
  2. Moving the 2009 IPL to South Africa in 29 days and watching packed grounds for all the weeks of the tournament would be easily one of the toughest but one of the most satisfying moments of my life. The shift was an act of boldness, audacity, and implementation. It was the IPL's way of declaring its independence. I am so thankful today that the government did not allow us to play in India -- and once again against all odds not only did I move the whole tournament to South Africa, but made it a sell out in that country and back home drew in even larger fan base and made IPL truly a global product. It is something that is being talked about even today, in every business case study in leading universities around the world. Columbia and Stanford University have done two case studies on how I built and sustained IPL even with a hostile government at that time. To me that was one of my biggest challenges I had faced and once again the Gods up there had their blessings in us.
  3. To be celebrated as the biggest Indian innovations of this century by the Business Today magazine was another highlight.
  4. Case Studies were discussed at Columbia and Stanford University.
  5. Getting YouTube to live stream all the matches of the 2010 edition – a first for Google – was a proud moment given they had never done any event on that scale ever.
  6. To take on the well-established primetime shows and get ratings higher than them was the testimony of getting the recipe correct across the country.
  7. Lastly, and most importantly, to change the lives of domestic cricketers and bring them to the centrestage; improve their financial conditions is the most satisfying accomplishments of my life. How a single IPL contract changed the lives of the domestic cricketer who would have otherwise finished his career without being acknowledged for his talent and hard work is truly the single most important achievement of the IPL.

What does the future hold for IPL, especially vis-à-vis troubled times that the BCCI is having for the last three years or so?

The ideals I had instilled at the core of the IPL are being stripped away one by one. The ideals of value and wealth creation for all stakeholders at all times are gone. The ideals of purity of brand are gone. The ideal of putting the customer first is gone, brushed aside by petty men looking for their moment in the sun. In its place is a new paradigm, a new tenet -- the creation of wealth for the very few by the very many. Is it a wonder then that it has faltered? Is it surprising, when you compromise the interests of the league, of the sport itself, that today you are threatened by copycat leagues?

These leagues, all based on the model I had pioneered, are fighting for the same eyeballs as the IPL. And even as the IPL has diminished, shrunk, these other leagues are growing. The pro-kabaddi league was watched by 435 million viewers. The Indian Soccer League was watched by 429 million. Similar leagues have sprung up around hockey, around badminton, and they are rapidly gaining attention, developing traction. The HIL, the IBL, the IPTL, an entire alphabet soup of rivals, all flourishing because the IPL lost sight of its ideals, its charter.

I have a lot of faith and belief in the reforms suggested by the Lodha Committee appointed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and I have little doubt that they will retain the integrity of the league. But the IPL still needs innovation and ambition -- those two factors will determine the future success of the IPL. In the end, I have just three words to the new team – innovate, innovate, innovate in everything you do -- and if they can follow them then there will be no looking back. Like I say to my team in everything I do today – ‘surprise me’.

A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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