IThe Indian Premier League, called the Super Bowl of cricket, is preparing to roll out a women-only version of the game as organizers seek ways to make the third most-watched sporting event bigger, more profitable and more diverse.
Board of Control for Cricket in India – the sport’s governing body runs the hugely popular men’s edition of IPL whose broadcast rights will be contested by media titans including The Walt Disney Co. and Amazon.com Inc. – wants to auction the broadcast rights to the women’s games and its six league teams by early next year, the BCCI chief Jay Shah told Bloomberg in an interview in Mumbai.
“Right now there is a lot of interest in media rights,” Shah said, adding that he hoped the owners of the men’s IPL franchisees would also bid for the women’s teams in the league. The association, he said, also wants to bolster the women’s games – a format that is generally overlooked in the otherwise cricket-mad nation of nearly 1.4 billion people.
Shah’s game plan for bolstering diversity is underpinned by pure business acumen as he seeks more niche ways to monetize the 15-year-old sports franchise. IPL, estimated at $7 billion, drew 600 million viewers last year and trails only the Premier League and National Football League in terms of eyeballs, according to BCCI estimates.
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A men’s league broadcast rights auction in June is expected to draw bids of more than $5 billion in a heated competition that could include Amazon Prime Video, Walt Disney, Sony Group Corp. and Reliance Industries Ltd, led by Mukesh Ambani.
As long as cricket continues to be played in every lane of India, IPL’s popularity will continue to rise, according to Utkarsh Sinha, Managing Director of Bexley Advisors in Mumbai.
“IPL is one of the stickiest media properties available, and heavyweights will go after it for media rights,” Sinha said. “It’s probably the first format designed globally with ads and profit in mind.”
Cricket niche formats
BCCI is counting on the auction’s success to fund subsidiary niche formats like the women’s cricket league. IPL’s five-year broadcast rights fight underscores the scramble between media giants to win eyeballs in the biggest consumer market that is still open to foreign companies but has proven difficult to break into even for Netflix Inc.
Amazon announced plans to add live sports to its platform in India, including cricket in late April, while Reliance-controlled Viacom18 Media received $1.8 billion in funding from a company backed by James Murdoch as it prepares for the bidding battle.
A girl plays a shot during a practice session at a cricket academy on February 29, 2020 in Agra, India.
Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Demand for IPL is currently so strong that BCCI has raised the base price above which offers will be accepted to $4.2 billion. He also, for the first time, successfully sold all sponsorship slots for 2022 matches with backers including Saudi Arabian Oil Co to Tata Group, according to Shah.
The online bidding format for the men’s league in June itself is new to BCCI and underscores Shah’s attempts to modernize the style of operation of the 94-year-old cricketing body. Bidders can also offer only live broadcast rights or TV broadcast rights. Previously, BCCI sold these rights in batches through a closed bidding process.
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“The decision was made to double the media rights reserve price after assessing the growing interest in the game,” Shah said. “We have also decided to go with an online auction this year to make the process transparent and ensure maximum participation.”
A longer season for cricket
The cricket watchdog for India, which accounts for around 80% of the sport’s global revenue, is working with the International Cricket Council to increase the IPL season window from the current two months of the sporting calendar. A longer window will mean more matches and higher earnings.
A portion of the board’s share of the money raised through the franchise is spent on state-level cricket associations, setting up sports infrastructure and other expenses, including including board and player fees.
Shah said online streaming will soon overtake broadcast and removes the risk of viewer fatigue – one of the biggest risks for any sporting event. Online streaming accounts for just 30% of the game’s viewership, but it’s on a solid footing after pandemic-induced restrictions on movement forced people to watch more content on the internet.
Shah is confident that the upcoming auctions will be a source of money.
“There will be a strong four-way fight for the media rights to the game,” he said, referring to Amazon, Viacom18 Media, Disney, Sony. “The more money we raise the better it is for cricket because we will reinvest it all.”
—With the help of Sanjit Das
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