Business of Sport: IPTL has immense potential

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The 17-time Grand Slam champion played in three cities in this year's IPTL.

The second season of the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) came to a close with the Singapore Slammers taking home the title along with $1million in prize money.

The much-talked about league, a venture created by Indian doubles tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi, is an inter-city team competition that features most of the world’s top players – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova to name a few – competing in a shortened format that is tailored for television.

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The idea behind the IPTL is to “break the code” as its tagline suggests. Each team includes current stars from the ATP and WTA, rising prospects along with legends of the game. The league had four franchise teams in its inaugural season in 2014 – Manila, New Delhi, Singapore and Dubai – and this year a Japanese side, based in Kobe, took the total to five.

The league stops by each Asian city for three days where fans get to see a faster version of the sport played in an entertaining environment highlighted by music, cheerleaders, mid-match substitutions, an on-court shot clock, and power points (called by a receiving team and can count for two if won) amongst other features.

This year, a few high-profile personalities got involved as co-owners of some of the teams with India’s cricket Test captain Virat Kohli becoming part owner of the UAE Royals and Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan doing the same with Singapore Slammers.

While the league has been met with lots of scepticism from the start, ranging from people doubting its success, to critics resisting the new format, branding it a gimmick and questioning its longevity, all the top players involved have lent their support to the IPTL, which made the owners keep their faith in the new concept.

“There were a couple of things that interested me from the start,” says CEO of Emax, Neelesh Bhatnagar, who together with Kohli and Sachin Gadoya of Musafir.com, assumes ownership of the UAE Royals team.

“First of all it’s a very international league. You have teams all the way from the UAE to Japan. So something like that, happening at that level, is bound to be very successful in the long term. Secondly, the players that got involved, even in season one, Novak Djokovic was part of my team last year, this year we have Roger Federer. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Sania Mirza, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal… so when you have a league where the majority of the top 10 players are playing, one can anticipate success in a league like this.

“The format as well is interesting because you move around the cities and do a complete circuit so from a perspective of a prospective sponsor and the exposure that he gets in five countries was again a very big plus for this league.”

The format was always going to be a divisive element of the league. Tennis is as traditional a sport as can get and asking the public to take this new version seriously was always going to be tough.

But Bhupathi, the founder and managing director of the IPTL, bel-ieves tennis is bound to evolve and this league could provide the spark necessary to invoke change.

“Our format is fast and furious. Players are playing quicker, even someone like Rafa (Nadal), who we have heard constant complaints about his time on court, adapted to the format perfectly. So maybe down the line they will consider playing quicker. There has to be change, I think in every sport there is change over the last 10 years and tennis has to evolve,” said Bhupathi following the conclusion of the final in Singapore yesterday.

Bhupathi says a sixth team is not expected to be added next season, as it is an Olympics year, and it would mean players will already have a hectic schedule as it is.

The existing teams seem as committed as ever with Bhatnagar revealing he and Gadoya have signed a 10-year contract with the league. The Indian businessman says the players of the UAE Royals – Federer, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic, Goran Ivanisevic, Ana Ivanovic, Kristina Mladenovic and Daniel Nestor – have all been drafted for two seasons, 2015 and 2016, to ensure the team spirit is there and that they spend enough time together as a squad.

Federer appeared in three of the five cities this season, compared to just New Delhi last year, and while that must have translated into extra cost, Bhatnagar says they spent less on set up this year due to the venue change from the Hamdan Sports Complex – where the swimming pool had to be transformed into a tennis court – to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.

He also says the owners didn’t spend more money on players this year compared to 2014, despite having Federer on the roster.

“We pay a fixed franchise fee to the league to participate then we pay to the league the money for the players then everything else belongs to us. The sponsorship money, the gate money… all of this is our income. We get a share of the TV rights sold, we get a share of all the income that comes into the league, they give certain percentages back to the five teams equally,” explained Bhatnagar.

“The players cost is more or less the same for us, because they’re getting top dollar frankly. It didn’t go up. We restricted the players’ cost to what it was last year.”

Last year, the title sponsor for the UAE Royals was musafir.com, the travel online portal that belongs to team co-owner Gadoya. In 2015, smartphone company Obi was the title sponsor.

“This year it was much easier to attract sponsorship because last year we were only talking of a concept, we had no proof, but this year when we approached sponsors we had a lot of material from last year to show them,” says Bhatnagar.

“They had also seen what it is all about, TV coverage, online coverage, Twitter, Facebook… some of these players have millions of followers. One tweet from Federer will go viral and reach so many people. So this year we managed to get some big name sponsors. We have Obi, Huawei, Emirates NBD is our banking partner and Burj Stores, an online portal in the UAE.”

On when he expects to start turning a profit from the league, Bhatnagar added: “We have a 10-year commitment with the league for our team. This is year two, I feel by year four we should start making a good amount of profit in terms of cash and by year five we should be able to recover all our investment and then in the long run we hope to be making profits.

“There will be a valuation of the team, which is also one of the main things. Some of the other leagues running have market value for each team where some investors can come and invest and become part of the team. They run into big multiples and that’s what we will try to do with our team.”

Dubai attracted less crowds than the other cities in the first season and while attendance figures of season two are yet to be released, it’s doubtful the emirate fared much better. But Bhatnagar feels considering the smaller population of Dubai compared to other IPTL cities, it’s understandable that the attendance was less.

On whether he sees future for the league outside Asia, he added: “I think there is a vision, I am sure and I hope that happens, that the IPTL goes beyond Asia, definitely into North and South America or Europe. Given the experience of the first two seasons, the way it’s becoming so popular, Japan has received this league very well, they have packed houses there and I’m sure as the league grows it will become much more international. As owners, we’ll push the league to take it forward.”

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