How social media helped the IPL revolutionise fan engagement

Fans have multiple ways in which to feel connected with their on-field heroes now. (Image: KKR)

In the initial seasons of the Indian Premier League (IPL), spectators were passionate cricket fans. Fast forward to 2024, and it’s not just the love for cricket that drives fans to the stadium. It’s the love for the competition and teams. The same spectators are now IPL fans! What makes the Manchester derby one of the greatest Premiership clashes is the die-hard fan loyalty of the City and United fans. It is the same in Spain with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and in Italy with AC Milan and Inter.

In its early years, the IPL or, rather, the individual franchises did not have their legion of fans. It was only natural for it takes time for fan loyalty to crystalise. For some, it wouldn’t matter if a KKR or a Mumbai won. In a Delhi versus Chennai clash, many would be happy if Delhi won but Dhoni played well. With time, things have changed. Each of the more established franchises now have their dedicated team of fans. Teams have huge fan-engagement budgets and official fan clubs are now a reality. Fan merchandise is a serious business and broadcasters now target fans to add colour to their shows. And fandom, as we know, is one of the rare constants in human life. A Dhoni fan at the age of 6 will die a Dhoni fan at the age of 80. While other habits can change, fandom doesn’t. So while people change their clothes, food, reading habits, and even partners, a CSK fan will forever remain a CSK fan, adding to the success of the IPL.

Over the 15 seasons, IPL has influenced and completely changed the way teams and the corporates engage with the fans, bringing them closer to the league and their favourite team(s).

2008-2012Focus on TV, offline and merchandise-driven engagement
As such, IPL has been a popular choice among fans since inception. IPL 2008 secured the highest ESPN rating of 4.81%, as compared to 2.35 % for the ICC T20 World Cup 2007.
During the initial seasons, the focus was primarily on developing on-TV and offline fan experiences. IPL teams such as Delhi Daredevils opened a sports bar, Royal Challenger Bangalore organised a fan summit and so on. During the later stages of this period, merchandising became a popular choice to generate fan engagement. IPL 2012 witnessed a 10-15% increase in online merchandise sales over the season.
By the end of this period, the focus of fan engagement strategies was shifting towards – who knew that would completely revolutionise fan engagement – social media! Today, each IPL franchise has dedicated social media content teams who are all part of the team bubble and are tasked with creating content to cater to fan engagement. Some of the teams have launched their own digital television channels with dedicated shows to woo the fans. And the efforts are reflective in the enormous social media followings of some of these teams, which number in the millions.

2013-2017 – Move towards social media
This period saw IPL and social media completely changing the way fans consumed cricket. In 2015, Facebook released IPL Facebook’s Fandom Map which revealed that as many as 26M people created around 250M Facebook interactions around IPL.
In 2016, the IPL teams jointly gained as many as 7M followers across all social media platforms. So much was the focus in social media, Kolkata Knight Riders spent ~USD 5,000 per post on Facebook towards boosting the engagement.

Hike in IPL viewership after Hotstar acquired broadcasting rights in 2018
In 2017, around 6M mentions around IPL were registered across all social media platforms compared to 3.1M in 2016.
That was not it.

2018-2022 – Reigning over the digital fan engagement
IPL and digital engagement took the fan experience to the next level. After Hotstar acquired the broadcasting rights in 2018, IPL witnessed a 40% hike in total viewership.
IPL and the teams also leveraged technology to develop personalised team apps to enhance fan engagement. For instance, Mumbai Indians launched a fan outreach program ‘One Family’ including four innovative digital concepts – ‘MI Live’, ‘Paltan Play’, ‘Virtual Wankhede’, and ‘MI Buddy’.
Fantasy leagues also became the preferred choice of the competition and teams to enhance fan engagement. In 2020, Dream 11, official fantasy game partner of IPL, reached as many as 5.3M + concurrent users. Today the number has grown to a whopping 12 million. The growth of fantasy sport has in turn contributed to making the fan a more active consumer of the game. Now every fan who plays fantasy is a kind of super selector or coach and it has brought them far closer to the teams and players from just being passive consumers of the spectacle in the past. For all the issues surrounding the domain, it wouldn’t be wrong to say fantasy sport, or rather the investment in fantasy sport, has even helped fans know more about certain aspects of the IPL that they wouldn’t have normally invested in earlier. Uncapped players are a case in point. In normal circumstances, fans wouldn’t really follow a domestic T20 contest between two state teams. But now, they do. While playing fantasy cricket, they need to know more about the uncapped players who play for their domestic teams and are then scouted by the IPL talent scouts. And unless you know about them, it is impossible to win in fantasy on a regular basis.

41% – Will watch every match
47% – Carefully follow statistics
55% – Will regularly post IPL content on social media

How fans engage with the IPL
No surprise, the fan following of the IPL is immense. As per a recent survey conducted by Havas Media Group and YouGov just before the 15th season, 41% of fans said that they would watch every match that season, 47% followed statistics closely and as many as 55% of the fans regularly contributed on social media with posts, comments, and match statistics.
IPL has truly changed the way fans consume the sport. The pace at which the fan engagement strategies have evolved in a short period is truly phenomenal.


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