As the plane approaches Raipur airport, the spanking new Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh International Cricket Stadium comes into view a little distance away-getting all dressed up for its first brush with the Indian Premier League (IPL) on April 28 and May 1. The hoardings have been installed, a paint crew is putting final touches on the giant logos near the bowling marks, and the bucket seats are being given a last scrubbing. At one corner, Raipur's Superintendent of Police Parul Mathur is busy shouting instructions to junior officers, asking them to keep in mind what they see on TV, as she goes over the security drill for the post-match presentation.
It is a big day for the Chhattisgarh capital and anxious local organisers want to prove they have it in them to run a big-ticket match smoothly. But little do they know that it's a big day for IPL as well, with several franchises turning to small-town India at a time when fan saturation in big cities is forcing a frantic change in business models.
Delhi Daredevils have decided to market Raipur as the franchise's home-away-from-home, or "naya ghar" hoping to benefit from greater ticket sales, loyalty from grateful residents translating into merchandise sales, and the creation of a second base that gets them fresh local sponsorship. Shah Rukh Khan's Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) have attempted something similar, by hosting their first away game in IPL in Ranchi on May 12, and Kings XI Punjab have decided to visit the hill town of Dharamsala twice this season, on May 16 and May 18. Cities like Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Cuttack, Kochi and Indore have registered full-capacity presence as IPL hosts for the two disbanded franchises Deccan Chargers and Kochi Tuskers Kerala. Rajkot almost joined the list of venues as well, when Rajasthan Royals threatened to shift their games following a stand-off over the Sawai Man Singh Stadium in Jaipur which was eventually resolved.
This push for smaller centres-three of the nine IPL teams now have a second base-is now inspiring more teams to fan out to different locations. It's a trend that has not gone unnoticed by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. The tenders they floated for a 10th franchise, after the termination of the Deccan Chargers last year, listed Ahmedabad, Visakhapatnam, Indore, Dharamsala, Jamshedpur, Nagpur, Cuttack, Kanpur, Rajkot and Ranchi as cities which had the right to own a new full-fledged franchise. "Ticket sales are a major source of revenue for any franchise, and big cities have reached saturation with several events taking place simultaneously. To add to it, there is always pressure from several agencies, particularly in Delhi, for free passes," Hemant Dua, the marketing and commercial head of GMR, the owners of Delhi Daredevils, tells INDIA TODAY.
Even though the IPL live telecast tries to avoid focusing on the empty seats in the stadium, it's easy to spot holes in the stands at most of the larger venues. For instance, spectators staying away from the PCA stadium in Mohali for several seasons had forced the Punjab franchise to go shopping for a second base as early as 2010. "The way IPL has grown, it makes sense to take it to newer places. Chandigarh is not a big city in itself. But going to Dharamsala in the peak of summer turned out to be a great idea because it is already a popular tourist spot. Tickets for the remaining home games in Mohali are still available, but tickets for both games at Dharamsala are all already sold out," says Colonel Arvinder Singh, Kings XI Punjab's coo. The franchise, which recorded a loss of Rs 35.26 crore in 2010-11, registered an 80 per cent increase in revenue in 2011-12. Ticket sales are about 30 per cent of the franchise's total income of Rs 90 crore.
Kolkata has also suffered a dip in spectator interest over the years, and KKR has not had great collections from the iconic Eden Gardens stadium, which is difficult to fill anyway because of its 65,000 capacity.
KKR CEO Venky Mysore agrees the concept of moving base to smaller places will soon become a trend in IPL. "There is a lot of interest and support in second and third-tier cities. In the short run, it does increase expenses of the franchise to play in two venues but having said that, it would be an investment worth our while," he says.
In comparison, Delhi Daredevils make a healthier sum through ticket sales. In 2012, they registered their biggest collection by logging Rs 5 crore from a single game against Pune Warriors India at the Ferozeshah Kotla. At the beginning of the 2013 season, prices were promptly increased by 35 to 50 per cent and yet four of the six games at the Kotla were sold out.
But it still made financial sense, apart from catering to GMR's other business interests, to head 1,200 km away to Raipur. The Delhi team first thought of moving two matches there at the behest of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh, who is showcasing the arrival of IPL to his state as a personal victory. GMR, meanwhile, is expected to get a foothold in a new power plant project coming up in the state. The franchise has already made an estimated Rs 30 crore from two games in Raipur, including an additional Rs 8 crore with the state government waiving entertainment tax on ticket sales. Such was the demand that the police created the first ticket-checking post about 10 km from the stadium in order to stop an estimated 20,000 people from trying their luck by getting close enough to the action.
Delhi Daredevils all-rounder Irfan Pathan, blown away by the brand new venue in Raipur, says: "When you have facilities like this at smaller venues, you will find that cricketers will automatically emerge from these places. I'm from Vadodara, a small town, and you can see how many players have come through because of the infrastructure in place there. When opportunities are created, and such facilities are in place, there is hope that new cricketers will emerge from these towns."
"It is clear that small towns are the future of cricket in India, and definitely for IPL," says GMR's Dua. "Teams will ignore them at their own peril."