The Champions League T20: Not quite 'champions’ deal

While the IPL was drawn in parallel comparison to the English Premier League, BCCI tried to emulate the same by formulating the best T20 teams fighting for a championship on the lines of football’s UEFA Champions League © Getty Images

By Akshobh Giridharadas

The Lure

It took an unprecedented and unlikely team India win in the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007 for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to suddenly make a ‘U-turn’ on its previously open apathy and abhorrence for the shortest format of the game. As the euphoria of the T20 win began in a marketing parade of the team in an open top bus through the streets of a rain-soaked Mumbai in September 2007, there were already plenty of people in the cricketing fraternity eyeing the chance of milking the sport’s newest cash cow.

It was Subhash Chandra’s Essel Group along with Kapil Dev, Tony Greig, Dean Jones and Kiran More that were entrepreneurial enough to be the first set of individuals to try and rake in the moolah of the shortest and most exciting format of the game with the launch of the Indian Cricket League (ICL). With the BCCI being the BCCI, displaying its sheer disdain in allowing any free-market force to ever have any influence over the sport in the country, it not only put an embargo on players participating in the ICL, but pulled its puppeteer strings in order for the International Cricket Council (ICC) to not only declare the league, a ‘rebel league’ but also ban its existing crop of players and besmirch the league’s image as taboo for the media.

But some would feel it’s best to fight fire with fire; lo and behold! A new force in cricket was born —The Indian Premier League (IPL). Marrying two of India’s two most adored passions of cricket and Bollywood at prime time at 8.00 pm on television (goodbye Ekta Kapoor?), the IPL not only succeeded in squashing the ICL —the proverbial thorn in BCCI’s flesh, but it was the birth of cricket’s newest phenomenon. It was the BCCI’s time to be entrepreneurial. It saw its opportunity to capitalise on the existing pot of gold in the IPL and contrive newer avenues for growth.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how BCCI tried to put two and two together. It decided the best way to emulate the success of football’s league status was to draw parallels with its own. Here the IPL was drawn in parallel comparison with the Barclays Premier League (BPL), and given the BPL’s popularity, the UEFA Champions League was a bigger avenue by pitting BPL’s best along with the Europe’s finest. And surely despite the popularity and financial success of the BPL, it was the UEFA Champions League that had all of Europe’s attention and the richest coffers.

In quick alliance with Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa and with the ICC being BCCI’s proverbial puppet, there was no need to seek any ratification to announce the birth of the Champions League T20. The competition would involve the finest T20 outfits from all the major cricket playing nations. It wouldn’t take a sports connoisseur to deduce it was an ersatz model of the UEFA Champions League, but sadly for ESPN STAR Sports (ESS), the broadcast rights holder for the tournament, they did not estimate how big a failure the tournament would be at multiple levels.

The Deal

Sony Max came into the radar of sports broadcasters when they acquired rights to the ICC 2003 and 2007 World Cup, and just as they were about to go off the radar, their acquisition of the IPL for a period of 10 years signified the sound of jackpot at a Vegas slot machine. It was almost insult to injury for the more conventional sports broadcasters. It’s always brutal to be piped in the race for rights acquisition, but to be vanquished for the rights of a never been done before lucrative T20 tournament at the hands of a more general entertainment channel was salt to the inflamed wounds.

So it’s no wonder when the BCCI, along with Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa, mixed the potion in the flaming cauldron of T20 cricket to concoct the Champions League T20; ESPN STAR was the first to make a beeline for the rights.

A whopping figure of $ 975 million meant that ESS bagged the CLT20’s global broadcasting and commercial rights for 10 years (2008-2017). To put that figure of a near billion into context would be, that it was slightly less than the Gross domestic product (GDP) of Solomon Islands or Seychelles. In retrospect, you wouldn’t need Sherlock Holmes’s deciphering magnifying glass to read between the lines on what hit ESS hard. Let’s just say it wasn’t just the global economic meltdown of 2008.

The end result

What was about to unfurl was utter disaster! It was the flop show reel that started playing at prime time. It was a debut in 2008 that never happened due to calamitous terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which further strained relations between Indian and Pakistani governments. And despite the regurgitated phrase of the 90s of not mixing politics with sport, history only reminded us that this was about to percolate to the boardrooms of the cricketing bodies in both countries.

So with Pakistani teams forbidden from entering the elite T20 global competition, the tournament made its delayed debut in a 12-team event in 2009, the IPL teams were ousted early and it showed the underlying fallacy that fans in India, cricket’s largest market, were just not interested in non-IPL teams. It was appallingly low television rating points of little over one, in comparison to the IPL that ratcheted ratings in the neighbourhood of five and up. So appallingly low were the ratings that the title sponsor Bharti Airtel walked out on its five-year agreement in two years, reportedly citing low viewership as the reason.

A head-scratching trivia question for cricket quiz masters: When was the last time a title sponsor willingly walked out of any cricket tournament it was sponsoring? Perhaps a tricky question, as it may have been an unprecedented scenario. But surely the proverbial lightning doesn’t strike twice? Oh but it most certainly did! Replacing a telecom sponsor with the handset sponsor seemed metaphorically bigger when Nokia replaced Airtel as the title sponsor.

Soon enough the only return they saw was the one towards the ‘exit sign’. Nokia too walked out on a four-year deal as the title sponsor, within a year of signing on, only to be replaced by Karbonn.
The Titanic never knew what hit it at first, but still put up a fight, albeit in vain. ESS too tried to rejig the sinking ship. Reinforcements were called in, lavish marketing campaigns featuring Amitabh Bachchan were seen in 2010 as the tournament went overseas to South Africa for the first time. Shahrukh Khan was the face for the 2011 campaign. Marginal increases in television ratings and advertisment revenues were never really going to make the cut.

To put it brazenly in numbers, ESS needed its coffers to have $90 million per year for the next 10 years just to just break even, but according to reports it was raking in around $20 million a year with ad revenue. This was of course without counting overhead costs in marketing & advertising campaigns that would require the broadcaster to pay cheques as fat as those souvenir man of the match replica cheques to various Bollywood brand ambassadors.

Numbers are for balance sheets and quantitative research analysts. I am interested in investigating how a tournament on paper, which was meant to be in the higher echelons of T20 tournaments compared to its glamorous younger cousin — the IPL fizzled like a balloon whose air had been let out.

I think the first deduction would lead me to believe that ESS thought it understood the anatomy of the league before understanding the anatomy of the cricket fan — the Indian cricket fan.

The easiest alibi for the tournament organisers, the rights broadcasters, advertisers and anyone with a vested interest in the tournament would be to attribute that season’s three week mishmash of confused cricket to player burnout as a result cricketing overdose due to poor scheduling. Perhaps there is a modicum of truth to it.

The real problem however is that the premise on which the Champions League itself that was created is, was and will always be flawed. Although in its purist form the Champions League possesses that kernel which makes it a valuable tournament on paper. After all who wouldn’t agree that the best domestic T20 sides should square off annually to claim the coveted trophy? But therein lay the problem. Unlike football, cricket’s meteoric rise to global fandom never had the club/domestic loyalties. Well even if it did, it wasn’t what made the sport popular.

The IPL’s stardom was the result of it presenting the Indian aficionado a farrago of the eccentric pace of T20 cricket in cahoots with the glamour of Bollywood with industrialist owners, cheerleaders, theme music and fan chants packed into a capsule course of three hours.

It was everything the Indian fan ever wanted. Not just the cricket fan, Bollywood cognoscenti’s, the young, the old, the sport lovers who claimed to be cricket haters, they all got involved. Whether it was backing the team which represented the city you hailed from, supporting a side because the roster read an eclectic mix of your favourite cricketers, or just backing a team since you admired the owner; everyone in India had a reason to be involved. Even the purists and the cynics watched it with one eye open.

The Champions League had the artificial flavour of razzmatazz. But trying to mix the glam factor here was worse than mixing oil and water. The incongruity was there to be seen and felt. The CLT20 comprised of actual teams — professional T20 outfits that represented the state, province, city or county, where they hail from or voluntarily chose to represent. These teams weren’t artificially contrived over an auction with a body that governed proceedings, with megalomaniac owners later fawning at their newest acquisitions.

The Sydney Sixers are basically the team from New South Wales, and the Perth Scorchers are the side from Western Australia christened with another name for the fanciest format of the game. These are professional teams assembled through a recognisable process of recruitment, promotion, budget balancing and an intangible internal chemistry. This is at its basic level is what the sport is supposed to look like.

The dilemma is not with the Champions League T20; the dilemma is with who helps gauge its barometer of success — the Indian cricket fan. And the Indian cricket fan doesn’t want to watch a dynamic Brett Lee play for the Sydney Sixers or watch a flamboyant Herschelle Gibbs play for the Cape Cobras. He’d rather watch the former play with an unknown Paul Valthaty in Kings XI Punjab, and the latter with a talented Abhishek Nayyar in the blue of Mumbai Indians.

This, of course, is not because either of those uncapped Test players are a catalyst for Lee or Gibbs. It’s because they’re playing in a jersey that he relates to because he recognises the Indian city it represents, he recognises the brand ambassador of the franchise and the prima donna owners.

If the Champions League T20 were to even have an iota of the IPL’s popularity, wouldn’t the KFC T20 Big Bash or the Friend’s Life T20 be the tournaments that resonate with the sub-continental fan? After all these leagues are the veins that supply the blood to the CLT20 in terms of the participating teams. The fact that these tournaments have no real standing in the sub continental cricketing folklore, then how could one expect the CLT20 to have a phenomenal impact?

The Champions League in its ideal form is what the IPL should represent —a proper, genuine club T20 championship. One where the ICC rules the roost and is staged between the 12 best real, genuine domestic teams from around the world, devoid of the fluff of celebrity owners and advertising exodus, and one which is spoken about by cricket’s discerning diaspora on its own cricketing merits.
But then again, that’s not what has made cricket the cricket it is today. Sigh!

(Akshobh Giridharadas is a 26-year old sports journalist currently plying his trade at Channel NewsAsia Singapore, and has previously worked at ESPN Star, Singapore. Akshobh’s journey with sports journalism started after having inadvertently stumbled into the auditions of Dream Job, season 2 – ESPN STAR Sports hunt for the next Harsha Bhogle. Akshobh has a masters degree in journalism and has covered the Indian Cricket League & the Indian Premier League as a sports correspondent. The above article is reprinted with permission from where it was originally published)