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Cricket’s Super Bowl comes to town

Dubai: To be or not to be? After a good two months of speculation, uncertainty and what have you, the event they often call cricket’s Super Bowl is finally upon us.

From being the proverbial dark horse when the names of various offshore venues were first aired to host the first leg of the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the UAE will now become only the second overseas venue after South Africa to host the spectacle. It all seems like a dream for the cricket fans of this Gulf state, but they are ready to live it up for the next two weeks.

There were often doubts raised, sometimes legitimate ones, over the past few months over the choice of an “untested” venue in the UAE.

The question marks over crowds at the three venues of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, especially on weekdays, was quite a ticklish issue — something that made the stakeholders agree on keeping the base prices of tickets extremely reasonable.

The overwhelming response among the expat crowd as soon as tickets went on sale online on April 3 was quite a revelation, once again underlining the strength of the IPL as a product for any segment of the cricket-loving public.

While some of the enthusiasm can be attributed to the pent-up demand for seeing India’s stars in the flesh after a gap of more than a decade, it’s more of the desire to get a taste of the “real thing” that has ignited the imagination of the people here. The UAE has experienced more than its fair share of high-quality international action here, but the IPL can be a different beast altogether.

The high-octane action perpetrated by the game’s best impact players (well, a large percentage of them), the glamour quotient, as well as the jingoism of a “Mumbaikar” as against a “Delhiite” have made it such an irresistible proposition — despite all odds.

While one hopes that the bandwagon can pass on without a glitch back to India after April 30, it will only be a job well begun for the decisionmakers of the IPL. It’s perhaps a blessing in disguise that an offshore venue can allow the heat and dust to settle over the league, but it can by no means be swept under the carpet.

The legendary former batsman Sunil Gavaskar, now the interim boss of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), struck the right note when he said at the launch conference in a Dubai hotel earlier this month: “When the league finishes on June 2, I want people to remember it for the quality of cricket only.”

While only time will tell if this can be a reality, the magnetism of the IPL once again seems to be confounding the critics — if the response of some of the sponsors in the build-up to IPL-VII are anything to go by.

The last week has seen at least three new sponsorship deals being announced, with Etihad Airways tying up with Mumbai Indians; ICT solutions provider Huawei India becoming the principal sponsors of Royal Challengers Bangalore, and UST Global announcing a joint sponsorship with India Cements for Chennai Super Kings.

There could be a few more in the coming days, and this despite clear indications that “Brand IPL” has taken a hit with the rash of scandals over the last two seasons.

Brand Finance, a leading brand evaluation company, had pegged IPL’s brand value at $3.03 billion (Dh11.1 billion) last year, showing a decline from the all-time high of $4.13 billion in 2010.

“The latest spot-fixing is another self-inflicted wound in a long list on the IPL ecosystem. This is negatively impacting the property’s sustainability,” the analysts observed in a report in May last year, much before the scandal even became full-blown.

And just hours before the first ball is actually bowled in the opener between Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders in Abu Dhabi tomorrow, the apex court of India has a hearing scheduled on the spot-fixing case.

“It’s the hunger of the fans which has kept the product alive despite its track record of poor governance and falling brand value,” remarked one of the industry watchers.

Let the action begin then, for the fans’ sake!