As the first Chief Operating Officer of the Indian Premier League, Sundar Raman, just like the controversial Lalit Modi, is a name synonymous with the biggest and most glamorous T20 cricket league in the world. Until he stepped down in November 2015, Sundar was considered the brain behind IPL and his ability to exploit mileage in terms of revenue and branding made him indispensable to the Indian cricket ecosystem. His proximity to former BCCI and ICC president N. Srinivasan took him to the corridors of power in world cricket but after his name cropped up during the Supreme Court-mandated investigation into the 2013 IPL match-fixing and betting scandal, Sundar’s image started to tarnish. Once he quit Indian cricket, Sundar, a science student with a post-graduate degree in advertising and communication, was roped in to head the ambitious sports initiatives of Reliance Industries. The 47-year-old, who currently works as an independent advisor and administrator, spoke to Outlook exclusively on a subject close to his heart. Excerpts:
The coronavirus pandemic has sent IPL into a tailspin. Unexpected as it was, can you fathom its impact on cricket?
I would look at it from three lenses. One, cricket as a sport and what it has done to the practitioners of the craft; two, the economic side and third, the fans. The recreational sport side is affected significantly because England is shut and the summer season there is looking very bad. The Indian season of opportunities is also substantially effected—for a whole bunch of youngsters who have plied their trade, learnt a lot and made a living out of this tournament.
The economic impact on the game is going to enormous. Cricket by and large is dependent on India and that too at a very big level. With the Indian season getting affected, the sport economy or cricket economy in India is substantively lowered. If there is no IPL then you’re talking about close to Rs 600 crore of sponsorship money from the central level plus another Rs 400 to 500 crore from a team level. That’s about Rs 1,100 crore which is not going into the system. Plus, the broadcast rights fees of over Rs 3,000 crore and ticket revenues of about Rs 200 to 300 crore. That’s approximately a direct Rs 5000-crore hole in the sporting industry which largely relies on cricket and I’m not even counting the fact that the three games versus South Africa were cancelled. So cricket economy will shrink and Indian sport economy will degrow if IPL doesn’t happen this year.
STAR TV paid BCCI an astronomical Rs 16,347 crore for exclusive media rights of IPL for five years (2018-22). How big a loss will it be for them?
If STAR planned to raise Rs 3,000 crore of revenue, they will not be able to get that money if there is no IPL this year. There is top-line revenue and then there is profitability. But how do you define loss? There are a lot of allied benefits that come with IPL. STAR will see if IPL is bringing in additional value beyond (just revenue) like driving Hotstar subscription, bringing in audience or helping launch newer programmes. Yes, it will affect STAR from a profitability point of view but more from a growth perspective.
An IPL or a World T20, which is more important from the revenue point of view?
ICC tournaments are not like an IPL. If India is cricket’s biggest market then everyone will want an IPL. The economics of IPL and ICC are very different. If there is a window available and the conditions are safe, I will have an IPL (over a World T20) for various reasons. First and most importantly, ICC tournaments are cyclic and you have a larger window to accommodate them. So, if you can’t conduct a World T20 this year, you can always conduct it next year or in 2022. So there is no loss in revenue. It’s just deferment of revenue. But if IPL isn’t held this year, it’s a straight loss of revenue.
Sport at this point in time needs to protect against loss of revenue; deferment of revenue is still fine. Secondly, more players stand to gain financially and there is a reasonable amount of money going around (in IPL) and thirdly, a World T20 can’t be played inside an empty stadium because the host country depends a lot on gate revenue. IPL, technically, can still be played with no spectators. It is largely a TV sport. And finally for a World Cup, you want the teams to come fully prepared. When the world is shut how can teams prepare for a World Cup just months away? ICC has to show prudence.
How does not having an IPL impact the teams, especially the big ones like Chennai Super Kings or Mumbai Indians?
It affects less from a financial standpoint but more from a continuity angle. The joy that IPL brings to the fans is lost. The entire build-up starting from the player’s auction sets up the fans beautifully. In terms of revenue, the loss for a team is minimal because you are not spending anything majorly.
In terms of brand loyalty, which is bigger—following the Indian cricket team or following your IPL team?
Following India is always bigger and there is no question about that. The advantage of an IPL is that India wins every day. In a World Cup, an Indian fan will follow the four or five matches the team plays because that’s the nature and stature of the tournament. But a cricket fan perhaps derives more joy in watching a match between KKR and Kings XI game than a Bangladesh vs New Zealand match. What IPL has done is that it has made Team India and cricket bigger. It hasn’t competed but has been complimentary. IPL has brought more fans into the sport.