Beyond boundaries: Cricket Inc’s Global Indian Innings

January 17, 2010

Source: The Economic Times

The adrenaline is running high among Indian cricket enthusiasts in the US. The swanky new state-of-art International Cricket Committee approved

stadium at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Florida, is all geared up to host matches featuring the Test playing countries.

“The opening of the new stadium is fuelling a lot of interest in cricket in the US and we are hoping to see ICC-certified one-day international matches there in 2010, along with big advertising dollars flowing in. Traditionally, the sponsorships and advertising budgets for the league cricket games in the US have been low. But things are changing with the efforts by the USA Cricket Association and now with the improving infrastructure, lifestyle and sports based advertising is bound to increase. With the new stadium we hope to host celebrity cricketers from India and other top cricket-playing nations. Besides, the 20-20 format of the game is also a catalyst and the inflexion point that’s drawing the younger Indians to the game. The availability of international matches on TV and online is also helping cricket and the emotional connect is growing for the second and third generation Indians in the US. These days, desi kids in the US are even organising cricket theme parties for their friends even as corporates gradually look at cricket,” says an enthusiastic Venu Palaparthi, partner and co-founder of Dream Cricket, a company in the US that sells cricket memorabilia online and runs an academy for cricket coaching.

Palaparthi would put the number of active cricket fans in the US at about 1 million – the people who actively follow the game on TV. In terms of market size, he expects it to become as large as the West Indies or New Zealand in about a decade.

And like it’s neighbour, Canada too is looking at big bucks from cricket. Says Atul Ahuja, former CEO of Cricket Canada: “There are about 100,000 cricketers in Canada and there is a market for an IPL-type league in North America. This will have to be centred around urban centres such as Toronto which have large immigrant populations that follow the game. The game is developing with the support of immigrants and their children, and already a few banks in Canada such as Scotiabank and Royal Bank have launched school programmes at the elementary level recognising the future potential of cricket here.” During his tenure as Cricket Canada chief, Ahuja had brought in Scotiabank as the first major corporate sponsor.

Back in Delhi, at a recent fund-raising dinner for a charity for poor widows – run by London-based philanthropist Raj Loomba – Bollywood star and co-owner of Indian Premier League cricket team, Preity Zinta, had something unique up for auction. Zinta, who is an ambassador for the charity, was offering a VIP box for 30 people at Mohali in Chandigarh, for an IPL match between her team Kings XI Punjab and Delhi Daredevils for 4 lakh rupees. The box was snapped up almost as soon as it was up for bidding by none other than the high-flying Meera Gandhi, a well known community leader who calls Manhattan, Hong Kong and London home.

Looks like if Bollywood is the biggest draw among things from back home for Indians across the world, cricket is certainly a close second and

often even bigger. And the cricket economy, which has been pegged at over a whopping Rs 5,000 crore and growing, is increasingly being fuelled by Indian overseas even in the countries such as America, Canada and Singapore, which don’t yet boast of too much by way of domestic cricket.

Ask Lalit Modi, Mr IPL himself. “I absolutely see overseas Indians –specially those in countries such as US and Canada - as a very big segment for us. Earlier, for Indian cricket, the second largest market in terms of viewership and revenue was the UK. Now it’s definitely the North American continent. We will continue to develop this most important market in the coming years,” Mr Modi, the chairman and commissioner of Indian Premier League and vice-president of Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), says.

And even as most of those who are involved with the business of cricket – or with the game itself – agree with him, most experts also feel that the global pitch has become even stronger with the shorter 20-20 game format and the launch of the IPL. Says Joy Bhattacharjya, team director of Shah Rukh Khan’s IPL team Kolkata Knight Riders: “The three-hour format is now definitely providing a genuine opportunity for us to take the game to new frontiers. In North America, while the immigrant Indian cricket lovers are largely the drivers of the growth of cricket, and the shorter 20-20 format of the game connects much better with them as well. It incorporates the excitement and noise of an all-American baseball game and is a bigger draw.”

He feels that the involvement of Bollywood stars in IPL also provides an advantage. “Some areas such as say Leicester in UK or Los Angeles in the US have a huge Punjabi diaspora. Besides, there’s also the ‘SRK diaspora’–his huge fan following among the NRIs and PIOs. So these places could become ideal venues to host a match between Kolkata Knight Riders and Kings XI Punjab,” he adds.

No surprise that the passion for cricket is not just limited to the spectator aspect of the sport. There are millions to be made, and non-resident Indian investors are now upbeat about the opportunities that IPL’s T20 has opened up for them. Shilpa Shetty Kundra and her London-based businessman husband Raj Kundra own 12% stake in IPL team Rajasthan Royals. Chairman and joint owner of the same team, Manoj Badale, who is an overseas Indian and co-founder and managing partner of Blenheim Chalcot, a venture investment firm in London, agrees that the Indian diaspora is a huge market for cricket, which is only partially tapped.

“Although there is plenty of evidence from cricket playing countries that overseas Indians will come out in force to watch the game, one of the historic issues here in England has been the ability of clubs to engage with those communities, and the availability of the right ‘product’ for these fans - as fundamentally, many of the early generation overseas Indians still want to see the Indian stars,” Mr Badale told SundayET from London.

For him, the first priority has to be the markets where cricket is already played. “We were able to get 22,000 fans along to Lord’s, when our

team (Rajasthan Royals) played the 2008 English 20:20 champions. So the market is definitely there,” he says.

Yogesh Shetty, the former CEO of IPL team Delhi Daredevils, who now advises international companies on business transformation, feels that the passion for cricket has always been there among Indians overseas and the new 20-20 format and international enthusiasm is not a challenge to the main format but a valuable hook for the local cricket boards and ICC to raise the brand awareness of the game to a bigger and new audience. “The T20 format is definitely engaging more viewers globally, especially international Indians,” Shetty, who is based in London, said in a telephonic interview.

“The franchise concept set by IPL will evolve as time passes and many franchisees will transition their perceived positioning as a tenant of the BCCI to collaborative investors with rights to a market. The successful franchisees will be the ones who really understand the true value of franchise marketing and exploit it by converting intangible opportunities into several strains of tangible revenue commodities through creativity,” adds Shetty. In UK, which is historically the home for international cricket, the British Indian community is now breathing new life into the game.

“T20 and other formats undeniably make cricket more accessible, particularly with younger British Indian audiences. This is due to its shorter length and sensationalism of the game. India’s victory in the inaugural T20 World Cup helped to further raise the profile of 20-20 style cricket, and renewed the popularity of the sport as a whole. Like many other sports, cricket too is making the leap between continents through migrant populations,” says Amit Bhatia, the son-in-law of steel tycoon and ArcelorMittal chief L.N Mittal. Bhatia manages the Mittal Champions Trust, which sponsors sportspersons in India.

ArcelorMittal has occasionally supported cricket in the Caribbean region. Cricket writer and expert Gulu Ezekiel says that in the UK, the Indian fans have had a strong influence on the game since the 1990s. “Earlier, the Caribbean influence was very strong on English cricket, today it’s the South Asians who form a larger part of the spectators at matches.

In various countries such as UK, and the Caribbean nations, whenever the Indian team goes to play there’s a huge amount of interest among the Indian immigrant community who turn up in large numbers to cheer. Besides, players of Indian origin in teams such as West Indies, Kenya and Trinidad & Tobago also create a strong connect with the immigrant community,” he says.

Finally, it’s not just the western world. Indians in Africa, too, have strong links with cricket in India. Nairobi, which is the hub of the Kenyan cricket league has eight teams in 4 divisions – which is a total of 32 teams. The cricket following is mainly among the Indian and South Asian community.

“Though corporate sponsorships are still difficult to harness, we hope there will be more funds flowing in when full member ICC teams come to

play in Kenya. For instance, whenever India comes to play the whole place goes berserk – there’s tremendous following for the IPL matches and those have become the biggest fixture for the growing interest in cricket. If something like IPL comes to Kenya and the top countries can play here using Kenya as a venue that will boost cricket in a very big way,” says Samir Inamdar, the chairman of Cricket Kenya and ICC board member.

Even in a country like Zimbabwe – where the Indian population is limited to about 15,000 people – there’s a great interest in cricket among them. “When India is playing in international matches the excitement is huge, even among the young Indians in Zimbabwe,” says retired Justice Ahmed Ebrahim, former vice-president of Zimbabwe Cricket and ICC member. There are new boundaries in cricket, it appears, which are likely to be hit outside India, among the Global Indians.