Opinion: Franchise loyalty in the IPL is a myth

Blog Opinion

The biggest issue for the IPL is that there are so many ways that the league actually makes a loyal worldwide following less likely, writes Peter Miller.

In the aftermath of his blistering 89 runs off just 41 balls, AB de Villiers told us that he was 'Royal Challengers Bangalore for life'. This was a striking statement, not least because he hasn't even been with that franchise for his whole IPL career.

Before he joined the Bangalore side he was a Delhi Daredevil. This kind of expression of undying loyalty to a team is common place in other sports, but the more cynical amongst you may think it is all too often a bargaining chip. Just ask Liverpool's Steven Gerrard.

One of the most compelling aspects of sport is its tribal nature. There is a sense of loyalty that fans and players feel towards a club badge. Be this geographical ties, family bonds or any other number of reasons your team is your team. Changing allegiance is something that is frowned upon.

One of the reasons that football has been such a successful product is that this sense of belonging is exported worldwide. There are die hard Liverpool fans in China, passionate Arsenal supporters in India. I even know a German who is a West Ham aficionado.

Where the Premier League in England has the advantage of over one hundred years of history to live off, this kind of support does develop over time. Major League Soccer in the United States is starting to see the passing on of fandom from father to son and mother to daughter. This has taken 20 years but it is happening.

The Indian Premier League is only in its seventh year, and to expect this kind of loyalty from fans and players so soon is perhaps unreasonable. The biggest issue for the IPL is that there are so many ways that the league actually makes a loyal worldwide following less likely.

In just six seasons there have been three teams that no longer exist. Two have been wound up completely, a third has been rebranded as the Sunrisers Hyderabad. If there is a chance that the team that you have made a personal investment in disappears overnight it is hard to make the same commitment again. Money and politics were more important than the feelings of the fans of those teams that were inhumanely put to sleep.

Even when a franchise remains, politics and petty squabbles get in the way of the supporters. The Rajasthan Royals played all of their home matches in Jaipur before this season. Thanks to an argument between the BCCI and the local cricket board the whole circus was packed up and moved to Ahmedabad. If you were a loyal fan of the Royals you would be well within your rights to be seriously upset about your team moving 700km away.

Then there is the auction. For the first year this made perfect sense, teams could build a squad from the players that were available quickly and with limited fuss. Having the option to add to this each year makes sense. Teams decide that certain players don't fit in their plans and they move on. A player that was previously unavailable for the tournament can now play so he is signed up.

Then the IPL decided to completely reshuffle the deck. The teams could keep a maximum of five players, but were heavily punished in terms of the impact it has on their salary cap if they chose to do so.

Just as teams were starting to get used to a player being part of a team set up he was moved on somewhere else. As you began to feel real affection for one of your team's players he is suddenly turning out for the opposition.

The auction makes sense for the TV companies. A regular change in personal generates excitement for the casual viewer. Getting to see different combinations of players turning out together gets 'eyeballs' for the TV coverage. Those viewers mean more advertising revenue, the only way TV executives can get a return on their multi-million dollar investment. Again the fan is the least of anyone's worries.

What this engenders is people being fans of a player, not a team. You watch for Chris Gayle, Virat Kohli and Kevin Pietersen. Who they play for is secondary, just a colourful shirt bedecked with sponsors.

Without that passion the whole exercise is nothing more than a series of friendly exhibition matches. Who wins and who loses isn't really important. While winning is great, losing isn't a massive issue. The players and coaches still get paid, the BCCI still gets its TV revenue and the owners get their share of the profits.

While you see enthusiastic crowds chanting the player's name you have to ask, are these people caught up in the moment or experiencing the feeling of togetherness that makes watching live sport such a fulfilling experience? Will there be bars full of fanatical Chennai Super Kings or Royal Challengers Bangalore supporters living every ball as they breathlessly follow their team?

If the IPL keeps this model of moving players on, disbanding franchises and relocating teams at the drop of a hat, the league will never become more than a diverting reality TV show.

If the BCCI are serious about the IPL becoming a global brand competing with England's Premier League or Spain's La Liga then it needs to start looking after the guy in the stands with his face painted in the team colours rather than the man in the corporate box wearing a nicely tailored suit.

<b>Peter Miller</b>

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