On the same day Jonny Bairstow’s epic 92-ball 136 blurred the lines between Test and T20 cricket at a packed Trent Bridge, where all 17,063 tickets were made available for free, the Indian Premier League (IPL) — the world’s richest cricket league – – sealed the biggest financial deal helped a world away.
The juxtaposition, tied to concerns over the appetite for tests in an increasingly crammed cricket calendar, revenue generation, and the grim future of the longer format the International Cricket Council (ICC) chair painted earlier this month, couldn’t have been more pronounced.
Bairstow, a beneficiary of “playing against the best in the world at the IPL”, as he himself would say after his match-winning hundred on the fifth day of the Nottingham Test against New Zealand, ensured Test cricket died a little less. The format, perennially – though often disputably – perceived to be in the throes of death, served up a classic as England clinched an epic victory over the reigning World Test Champions.
The match reached its outcome just hours after the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which controls the biggest economy in world cricket, wrapped up a blockbuster three-day online auction for the IPL’s media rights for the 2023-27 cycle. Propelling itself to second spot on the list of most lucrative sporting properties in the world, the IPL secured a whopping INR 48,390.50 crore (approx. US$ 6.2 billion) through its new television and digital rights deal.
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The BCCI had auctioned the media rights under four packages – A, B, C and D – through an Invitation to Tender issued in March. By Monday evening, the Indian board had increased its revenue generation by 143%, as their overall value soared from US$ 2.55 billion in the previous 2018-22 cycle.
Disney’s Star network’s winning bid of INR 23,575 crore (US $3.02 billion approx.) to retain the TV rights in the Indian subcontinent alone, auctioned as Package A, was a record in itself. It outweighed the approximation of US$ 2.55 billion the company shelled out for the global TV and streaming rights collectively for the 2018-22 rights window, which had 60 matches per season for five years.
Under the new arrangement, the IPL’s per-fixture broadcast valuation skyrocketed to US$15.11 million, nearly doubling from the previous cycle’s US$ 8.50 million, making it the second-most lucrative sports league in the world.
The National Football League in the USA continues to top the table of global television revenue, with each game worth US$ 34.80 million. The Premier League, English football’s top flight, has been relegated to third spot, with each game valued at US$11.30 million, according to The Times. (It must, however, be noted that the “blackout rule”, aimed at ensuring full attendance at stadiums, prevents live broadcast in the UK – and therefore no domestic television rights bids for – 3pm kickoffs on Saturday afternoons in the Premier League. )
BCCI secretary Jay Shah stressed the sharp increase in the IPL broadcast deal is testament to the “substantial growth” of the tournament since its inception in 2007. In the recently concluded 2022 season, the IPL expanded into a ten-team 74-match affair, with each side having an average value of US$ 1.04 billion, according to Forbes.
“The bid is a direct testimony to the BCCI’s organizational capabilities despite two pandemic years,” Shah tweeted about Star’s winning bid for Package A, which will feature 74 games each in the 2023 and 2024 seasons, 84 matches in 2025 and 2026 apiece, and a maximum of 94 matches in 2027, the fifth and final year of the agreement.
The allure of digital
Offered under Packages B (Indian subcontinent) and C (non-exclusive India-only bouquet of 18-22 high-profile games), the digital rights for the IPL’s upcoming five-year cycle went to Viacom 18, a joint venture between Paramount Global and TV18, owned by Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries.
With Paramount Global having announced last month that its streaming service, Paramount+, will launch in India in 2023 in partnership with Viacom18, the latter’s aggressive pursuit of the IPL digital rights in the Indian subcontinent doesn’t come as a surprise.
That the valuation of the digital rights in the Indian subcontinent – INR 23,757 crore (US$ 3.04 billlion approx.) – surpassed that of the TV rights Package A in the corresponding territory speaks to the changing media landscape in the region where IPL had cricket been a core driver in the growth of its former digital rights holder Disney+ Hotstar.
“There were approximately 560 million digital viewers in 2017 and 665 million in 2021. You expect it to grow even more in the coming years,” Shah told the Press Trust of India (PTI). “By 2024, there will be 900 million internet users in India. Obviously linear viewership (TV) will remain but there is a transition towards digital viewership and that’s how you realize the value.”
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Cricket’s future: space is at a premium
Close on the heels of the IPL media-rights windfall, Shah confirmed what had until then been unsubstantiated reports that the tournament will have “an official two-and-a-half month window” from the next ICC FTP calendar, starting in 2024, “so that all the top international cricketers can participate.” He made clear that the Indian board had had “discussions with various boards as well as the ICC” about the IPL’s expansion.
The announcement has cast further doubts on international bilateral cricket which, as per recent comments of ICC Chair Greg Barclay, is “getting squeezed” given domestic T20 leagues continue to crowd the cricket calendar. He admitted a foreseeable, and unavoidable, outcome could be a decline in test fixtures given “there’s not a lot we can do” about the space crunch.
“The single biggest issue that we’ve got in front of us now is we’re creating the cycle for the next eight years (and) just fitting everything that we’ve got into that calendar,” Barclay told the BBC on June 4 , during the opening England vs New Zealand Test at Lord’s. Test cricket, “with the exception maybe of one or two series,” he added, “is effectively loss making for member boards,” so “it may well be that there’s less Test cricket, and some countries will just have to make room and play less test cricket.”
The doom and gloom might not be reserved for the longest and oldest format alone, though. Nor is it only of the IPL’s doing, though its influence as a trendsetter is undeniable.
Cricket Australia’s Big Bash League is eyeing a revamp in January next year, when new domestic leagues in South Africa and the UAE, owned fully or in part by their respective national boards and with a significant cash-flow secured from India, are also set to launch. (The same month could potentially also see the start of the 2023 seasons of the Pakistan Super League and the Bangladesh Premier League).
The casualty of these new leagues in a crunched calendar could be the cancellation of South Africa’s three-ODI series against hosts Australia, scheduled for mid-January, the two boards should not be able to reschedule the engagement.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the deal underlines the overwhelming power and influence of the BCCI and the future of the global game may largely hinge on it’s support.
Shah has vouched that the Indian board is “committed” to international cricket and “to playing even the smaller nations”. Ganguly, for his part, in an interview to The Times of India on Thursday, said: “Bilateral tours will continue. The IPL is an Indian tournament. Bilateral tours are for the rest of the world to generate revenue. Players from other countries need bilateral series.”
While a full house at Trent Bridge enjoying Bairstow’s glorious innings vindicated Nottinghamshire’s decision to waive the entrance fee, whether the eyeballs the IPL promises to grab with its mega media-rights deal make such days of Test cricket more obscure remains to be seen.