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Long Read: 10 franchises, at least 50 cricketers united by online fantasy games, IPL’s new cash cow

Kolkata Knight Riders are one of the most beloved brands in the Indian Premier League, and their shirts have often reflected sectors going through boom times. Back in 2008, when the IPL was launched, the prominent Nokia logo on the purple jersey indicated how momentous the year was for the smartphone industry. Fourteen years later, they tell the story of the growth of another industry – fantasy gaming.

On Saturday, when KKR opens its 2022 campaign against Chennai Super Kings at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai, their players will be sporting shirts with the logo of real money gambling app WinZO. And it’s not just them – each of the 10 franchises and at least 50 former and current players – from legends like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli to newcomers like Ruturaj Gaikwad and Rahul Tewatia, and even BCCI President Sourav Ganguly – are associated with real-money gambling platforms, affirming the rise of an industry that for most of its existence in India has operated in a legally gray area.

“For a standalone category, everything is happening like this, it’s unprecedented,” says sports marketing consultant Abhishek Ponia.

Given the IPL’s unique space and positioning in the Indian sports scene – no other national competition attracts so much attention – it has invariably been a vehicle for different products and brands who often plan and design intensive campaigns. around the league.

Over the years, “a lot of the money has flowed from traditional brands to new-age brands,” says Ponia, with digital start-ups now a dominant force.

While cryptocurrency is seen as the next big trend, based on examples seen in the sports industry in the West, no category has been more visible than fantasy sports through its advertising blitzkrieg, especially during the IPL.

According to a Mint report, fantasy gaming platforms spent around Rs 200 crore on TV and digital ad campaigns alone in the previous IPL season, while some platforms spent up to 70% of their promotional budget during the league. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Santosh Desai, social commentator and advertising professional. “Until a few years ago, I don’t think anyone would have remotely imagined that fantasy sports would be spending as much money as they are.”

Obvious conflicts

Desai emphasizes “corporate adjacency” – platforms pay players and teams money to endorse their games and attract users, who pay money to platforms and predict player and team performance.

The legality of this business model, which resembles betting, has been challenged in several courts. Yet their rise has been dizzying, even – rather especially – during the pandemic. Recent favorable verdicts, in which the courts ruled that these games require a certain level of skill and therefore do not constitute betting, have only added to their momentum.

According to consultancy KPMG, the number of online gamers in India is expected to grow from 360 million in 2020 to 510 million this year. Last year, the industry generated $1.8 billion in revenue and that figure is expected to grow to $3.84 billion over the next five years. Dream 11, which has a sponsorship link with more than half of IPL teams and has half a dozen cricketers on its roster, reported revenues of Rs 2,070 crore for the financial year 2020, according to Fintrackr.

“Venture capital liquidity has come to the fore and there has been significant funding for start-ups, especially digital start-ups,” says Ponia. “They were able to put that money into IPL to be able to market themselves at that scale and at that level. It is common that if, in a particular industry, one company goes after it, the others don’t want to miss out, otherwise their market share will be affected. Therefore, if Dream 11 invests a lot of money, others will do the same.

As competing platforms jostle for eyeballs, the IPL, its franchises, gamers and even broadcasters have been the beneficiaries, financially speaking. And with their aggressive marketing tactics, fantasy gaming platforms have been able to multiply their revenue through user fees.

“Combining passions”

“In a sense, it combines passions – one of which is underground, gambling – and the other is cricket. It combines those two things, and does so in a way that is much more legitimate and socially acceptable than it is. It’s otherwise,” Desai says, adding that it’s also changed the way fans interact with the game. “It’s so easy to do, a perfect hobby.

The addiction of these games, which are readily available on phones, has been a cause for concern. A New York Times report earlier this year chronicled the struggle of a fantasy gambler in the United States, who started out gambling casually but became a compulsive gambler over the years.

This is something that is supposed to happen in the Indian context as well. Ponia believes that the rise of online gambling platforms is a “stepping stone to the day when sports betting could be legalized in India”.

“There has been an increase in substitute betting brands. This implies that Indian users have a strong interest in betting sites,” he says.

In November 2020, then Finance Minister Anurag Thakur – now in charge of the Ministries of Information and Broadcasting, and Sports – reportedly told Press Trust of India that his “suggestion will be to legalize the activities betting and gambling”. A few days later, Niti Aayog, the government’s policy think tank, published a draft that talked about regulating online fantasy sports.

The government has made it mandatory for gaming platforms to have appropriate disclaimers in their advertisements regarding the financial risks involved. Although these disclaimers appear with television commercials, these disclaimers seem to be missing when the logos of these companies appear on team jerseys.

Desai says the fantasy game business “needs an injection of responsibility because of its inherent nature.”
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, but it’s desirable,” he says. “Wherever there is business potential, everything else becomes subordinate. The IPL has enough benefits on its own without it necessarily being a major part of it. The BCCI should have an open eye and draw limits.

Right now, however, everything is fantasy land.