Cricket is undoubtedly the main sport in India, and yet it’s one that doesn’t always catch on with international markets. As such there’s something of a limit to just how big the IPL and even the Indian national team are able to grow. This is not, for example, like English football or American professional basketball, both of which have extraordinarily large followings around the world. While much of the world adores cricket, the places with the most passion for it have their own teams and leagues to follow. This is why international attention directed toward Indian cricket appears to have its limits.
However, Star India CEO Uday Shankar made a massive bet earlier this year that he could change this. Committing the company to a $3 billion investment in Indian cricket, Shankar has stated his firm belief in Indian cricket and claimed that the main goal of Star’s investment is to relate to the India story. Shankar explains, rightly, that the big picture of said “India story” has to include cricket, and agrees that the IPL serves the purpose of connecting the sport with the people better than anything else. In other words, he is looking at growing the IPL’s audience as a means of storytelling, and broadening India’s cultural reach. It’s a bold idea, but an exciting one as well.
The idea’s success or failure will ultimately depend not on Shankar directly, however, but on Gautam Thakar, who was hired as the CEO of Star Sports beneath the Star India umbrella. Thakar comes from LivingSocial (where he was CEO), and before that a background in P&G in India. He has no specific sports experience, but has grown modern companies via brand management, and has experience leading up-and-coming companies as well. His job in this case will be to effectively monetize the aforementioned investment in Indian cricket, or more bluntly, to figure out a way to get Star a suitable return on it. And while the company clearly has the utmost confidence, Thakar appears to be at least something of a wildcard hire for the job.
Ultimately, the task ahead may be best aided by the fact that Thakar has experience in business in both India and the United States – the latter being potentially the optimal place to expand international viewership and engagement with the IPL. While America has its fill of sports and then some already, it is only now venturing into the betting industry that for so long has made would-be obscure sports (horse racing, boxing in some areas, Olympic activities, etc.) popular. There are brand new markets emerging as a result of the legalization of sports betting, and those markets, if they imitate the popular ones in Britain, will include listings for a variety of international sports. Thakar could conceivably make progress toward his goal by doing his part to make sure a new population of American bettors takes note of the IPL as an option – first to wager on and then, inevitably, to follow.
This is not only a worthwhile idea because of Thakar’s business experience in America and the budding betting business; it is also because the U.S. may be on the verge of more cricket interest anyway. The U.S. group recently sought T20 professional proposals – a clear move toward growing the game across the country. The focus in this regard is on the American game, but should he play his cards right, Thakar also has an opportunity to position the IPL as something of an example, not unlike how many Americans have transitioned from being fans of English Premier League football to taking more interest in their own Major League Soccer.
One way or another though, Thakar has an awfully large investment to make good on. Whether or not he’s up to the challenge should be interesting to watch over the coming years.