Moneyball: CSK does not need Dhoni
While CSK might think that getting Dhoni back is the right medicine for reviving the brand, they forget that the brand is very much alive and kicking

To retain or not to retain. It is the biggest dilemma facing Indian cricket now. With a decade over, one would think the Indian Premier League (IPL) would have got its act together.

Especially on team composition. While it always maintained that the 2018 edition would see all players being thrown into a common auction pool, there are franchises that would like to retain important players.

When Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Rajasthan Royals (RR) were suspended for two years from the IPL and new teams (Pune and Gujarat) inducted for just two years, the tournament lost a bit of its sheen. With just eight teams making up the league, replacing two of them, of which one had the largest fan following and trophies meant the tournament had to go through the motions till the 2018 edition.

The IPL governing council is said to have proposed that the players who were with the Rising Pune Supergiant and Gujarat Lions franchises could be retained by CSK and Rajasthan Royals. If the proposal is accepted, that means MS Dhoni could head back to Chennai. But the irony that there is a dearth of superstars like Dhoni in a game, which is religion in the country, gives rise to what is being termed as a crucial decision for many franchises – wh­ether they can retain few key players. Are all franchises happy about it? Definitely not.

Because there are others who would want MSD in their squad. Or a Virat Kohli. While these are two names that everyone would like to bid for going into the new era, the fact remains that there aren’t any more such superstars that franchises could chase.

Probably a Rohit Sharma. And then we hit a wall. Not that Dhoni himself is in his prime, as his performance in the last two seasons has shown. So what are we talking about. Put all players into the pool and the only player everyone would be interested in is Kohli. Once he is sold, then you could just go about building your team around anyone. And not that buying Kohli will bring your franchise any success. The India captain has set IPL editions on fire, but is yet to bring the trophy home. And that too after having an enviable line-up consisting of Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers and Shane Watson to support him.

While the first 10 years of the IPL has been a roller-coaster ride for every stakeholder involved with it, what stands out is the fact that, barring a few, the franchises are still finding their feet as far as creating a viable brand is concerned. With blockbuster sponsorship and media rights deals, new records are being set, and rightly so. But look around some of the franchises and they are still struggling to create a monetizable fan following around the brand.

CSK is the torchbearer as far as fandom in the IPL is concerned. When the team was suspended in 2015, the fans ran an online campaign in an attempt to save the team and ensure its return for the 2016 edition. The #SaveCSK campaign was a huge hit among fans who also gathered in various spots across the city to sign in their support for the team. Then 10 of these fans carried the petition with the thousands of signatures to a five-star hotel in Mumbai where the IPL working committee was scheduled to meet.

The efforts fail to bear any result as CSK sat out for two years, but brought to fore the passion and love for the franchise from diehard fans. On the other hand, there was not a whimper from any fan from Rajasthan for the so-called “moneyball” team, which had even won the inaugural edition of the league. Barring a Kolkata and, probably, Mumbai, one is unlikely to see any such action from fans of the other franchises.

In such a scenario, the arrival and departure of superstars gain importance and hence the clamour for franchises to get all players into the pool. ‘Break the bank for Kohli’, will be the mantra for success. The erstwhile owner of the RCB, Vijay Mallya, tried this strategy by bidding a humungous Rs 14 crore for Yuvraj Singh in 2014. His team finished second from bottom with five wins and nine defeats, prompting him to release Yuvraj into the pool.

But it was not a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ case for Mallya as he went on to bid Rs 15 crore again to get back Yuvraj. But as destiny would have it, there were more desperate people in the room in the form of the Delhi Daredevils management who went on to bag the left-hander batsman for Rs 16 crore. It doesn’t matter what was Yuvraj’s contribution to the Delhi team, but he definitely did not add to their fortunes. And that is not a statement about Yuraj’s value, but DD’s brand equity.

The superstars are supposed to add to the coffers of the franchise through multiple ways – better sponsorship deals, more ticket sales, greater demand for merchandise. But India is a unique market as far as “leagues” are concerned. Brands have a fixed range for sponsorship fees and don’t deviate much because of a star or two in the team. Maybe they might stretch for a Kohli now, and in earlier days for a Sachin and Dhoni. Not for anyone else. The sheer demand for IPL matches in a city ensures that the ticket sales remain more or less same.

Merchandise is a non-starter with an unaffordable price range for a majority of the spectators, and availability of pirated copies at a fraction of the cost. Thus the franchises continue to earn and thrive massively due to the share from the central pool consisting of money raised from the league’s sponsors and media rights. To ensure that they have a long-term model, it is necessary for the franchises to grow the brand beyond the superstars they employ for two months.

While the CSK might think that getting Dhoni back is the right medicine for reviving the brand, they forget that the brand is very much alive and kicking than any other. Dhoni needs CSK more now, than the machans need him. If Dhoni fails to recreate the magic, it will be the fans who will be more disappointed. Ask Sanjiv Goenka. It would be wiser to build on those glorious memories and reinforce the inherent strength of the brand without having to lean on an erstwhile or new superstar. And the other franchises too could look on 2018 as a fresh start to build a brand with a strong foundation that won’t shake with the coming and going of a superstar or two.

(The writer is co-founder, SportzPower & The Fan Garage)

CP Thomas