Indian cricket’s sticky wicket

Cricket fans in India and beyond were buoyed to learn that the Indian Premier League, the country’s large and lucrative Twenty20 tournament, would go ahead next month after all, despite being called off in April.

Since it came into being in 2008, the IPL has remade cricket with its high-tempo play, raucous off-field entertainment — replete with American-style cheerleaders — and aggressive commercialism. It attracts more than 1bn viewers and has a near $7bn valuation.

With coronavirus circulating ever faster in India, the tournament will take place in the UAE potentially with empty stands. But at the same time, a largely homebound Indian public is expected to propel viewership numbers to new highs.

But what should have been a guaranteed public crowd-pleaser quickly became the subject of a political storm.

The league’s decision to keep Chinese smartphone maker Vivo as one of its main sponsors caused fury among politicians, nationalist groups and fans, two months after a deadly border conflict between India and China spawned a widespread “Boycott China” movement.

Before long, the IPL and Vivo parted ways, abandoning their agreement for the season and with it the Rs4.4bn ($59m) the company had been due to pay the sport’s national governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

Outcry about the IPL organisers’ patriotism (or alleged lack thereof) aside, what the furore really highlights is the inconvenient truth that Chinese companies and investors have become ever more enmeshed in India’s financial and business landscape. 

Vivo’s sponsorship of IPL had caused fury among politicians, nationalist groups and fans © Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty

In recent years, China has grown into one of the country’s largest foreign investors. Its share of imports rose from below 3 per cent in 2000 to 14 per cent this year. Chinese venture capitalists have been indispensable to the growth of Indian tech companies too — more than two-thirds of Indian start-ups valued at more than $1bn have a Chinese investor.

Since the clash in the Himalayas in June, during which 20 Indian soldiers died, the country has banned dozens of Chinese apps and introduced curbs on Chinese business activity. But breaking business and economic ties with its neighbour, assuming it is even possible, would be a long and drawn-out affair.

This fact is underscored by the IPL’s choice of replacement sponsor, revealed on Tuesday: Dream11 is an Indian fantasy sports platform that counts Chinese internet giant Tencent as an investor.

For Vivo, breaking off with the IPL may not be a bad outcome. It allows India’s second-largest smartphone brand to maintain a lower profile at a time of intense scrutiny of Chinese companies, and to save some money. “It’s not as if they could have got anything out of it,” said one IPL veteran.

The real loser may be India’s favourite sports league, with both the BCCI and the IPL’s eight teams losing out financially in what is already a painful year. Dream11 secured the rights for Rs2.2bn, according to local media, a 50 per cent discount to Vivo.

To be sure, the sums are small compared with all-important broadcast revenues. More concerning is that the world’s most lucrative cricket league has found itself caught up in the anti-China backlash.

The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, a nationalist economic group close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party, had vowed to keep up the pressure on the BCCI as part of a “Quit China” movement.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India has come under pressure to break business ties with China © Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times/Getty

“Cricket has to choose between a self-reliant India and sponsors with Chinese money,” representative Dhananjay Bhide said, according to Indian magazine Outlook. “Players wear the tricolour [of the Indian flag] on their helmets and represent India on the international stage. How can they so easily ignore the movement against Chinese businesses?”

Certainly, a good amount of recent Chinese investment in India has found its way into the IPL, which has become as much a highlight of the nation’s commercial calendar as its sporting one.

Other Chinese smartphone makers like Oppo as well as carmaker MG, owned by China’s SAIC, have been prominent advertisers. Along with Dream11, many of India’s largest start-ups — now under scrutiny as recipients of Chinese capital — sponsor or run campaigns around the IPL, such as Alibaba-backed fintech company Paytm.

The IPL has been the target of outrage before, particularly over match-fixing scandals. In this case, times are already tough and it could do without the drama.

It will not be immune to the economic damage wrought by the pandemic in India and globally. Were it not for pandemic, the IPL could have grown in value by as much as 16 per cent, according to Santosh N, managing partner of consultancy Duff and Phelps in India. Instead, its valuation is now likely to be flat or lower. Advertising spending could suffer too, over and above the anti-China pressure campaign.

A successful tournament, by contrast, could be a welcome economic and mood booster. The knee-jerk targeting of the IPL, without a sober assessment of the role of Chinese money in India, risks being self-defeating on and off the pitch.

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