There was a world-class stadium waiting to stage world-class games, there was a cricket-deprived audience waiting to block roads that led to the stadium, and there was a city waiting to have a professional sports team to call their own.
When the Sanjiv Goenka-led RPSG group won the Rs 7,090 crore bid to own a franchise originating from Lucknow, a new region became associated with the Indian Premier League. The populous state of Uttar Pradesh and its rising status as a preferred investment destination was bolstered when the Lucknow Supergiants was officially announced.
But by the early signs, some believe that Lucknow is missing from Lucknow Supergiants.
For example, Abhay Chaudhary, a student and resident of the state who keeps track of the local domestic talent very closely says, “The absence of local lads in the franchises is not a new story but for a team making their first appearance, one would’ve expected LSG to go for some of the state’s best during the auctions. It is surprising they didn’t even try bidding for them. The lack of a local touch is a dampener in every aspect.”
There is also the case of Ahmad Bilal, who was among the many disappointed with the franchise largely because of the same reason. He said, “I always wanted a local team to support. But now that we finally have a team, I don’t feel that connection because they themselves did not want to be a franchise with a local taste. A look at the name, the logo, or the squad... nothing is local.”
The other new team, Gujarat Titans, acquired Baroda all-rounder Hardik Pandya in the drafts and announced him as the captain, and checked the local connect box almost immediately. Interestingly, they did not add any more players from Gujarat to their squad from the auction.
Lucknow Supergiants, on the other hand, bought three players from Uttar Pradesh in the auction namely Ankit Rajpoot, Karan Sharma and Mohsin Khan but there was still some discontentment among viewers because the regional connect seemed to be missing.
The first time that LSG hinted towards a lack of local connect was when the name and logo for the franchise were announced. While none of the names of the existing teams have any regional or cultural connotation attached to them either, the official communication explaining their logo and identity was met with some criticism on social media.
The logo that included tri-coloured wings was meant to represent a pan-Indian appeal. The communication also specifically mentioned, “Lucknow Supergiants is a team for every Indian. It is a team that unites the nation.”
Lucknow, an untapped market
Cities like Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi, where some of the bigger IPL teams come from, are relatively tried and tested places because the sporting culture has thrived there. However, Lucknow has produced individual sports stars such as KD Singh, Ravinder Pal Singh or even Suresh Raina, but it is yet to produce a professional sports team.
Abhinav Kohli, a former sports industry professional with stints at Star Sports and Sony and experience in expanding base for sporting events such as IPL, ICC Champions Trophy and the Pro Kabaddi League, suggests having a look at the biggest success story in the Indian Premier League – the Chennai Super Kings.
According to him, it is important to contextualise a franchise in the cricket culture it is part of. He points out that the environment in Tamil Nadu has a hyperlocal model that boasts of a strong feeling of regional pride in the state, making it far more conducive to opt for a regional approach.
In the case of Lucknow or the state of Uttar Pradesh, the lack of a sporting culture or the absence of local cricketing superstars coupled with the decades-old image of the state makes it difficult to ‘market’ it.
However, Kohli points out that Lucknow features prominently in the Hindi-speaking media and entertainment space (which comprises a major chunk of the cricket viewership in India) as a market of opportunities because of underdevelopment and underexposure.
“It makes sense for the Goenkas to expand their brand presence in India on the back of their most high decibel investment, which is sport,” he said. “In a market that is going to be closely linked to the development of the overall media and entertainment space, they see that growth and opportunity in an untapped and underutilised market in Lucknow.”
Gibran Rahman, a Sports Marketing Associate at Roundglass Sports, a company that offers sports development programmes in football and hockey, says, “Lucknow Supergiants’ official communication that they are a team that reflects all of India is helpful because from a city-branding perspective, it isn’t exactly the most marketable place.”
However, he reckons that there is a lot of potential for growth in terms of infrastructure and healthcare and that is precisely where the owners, who have business interests in the state, come into the picture.
“I think the team is going to be an interface between the fans, people of the state, the company and their business interests,” said Rahman.
The Goenka brand
For the RPSG group, sport is a passion as is reflected in their full or partial ownership of sports franchises such as the Rising Pune Supergiant in the past, the ATK Mohun Bagan Football Club, or the RPSG Mavericks Kolkata in the Ultimate Table Tennis league. Sport is also, more importantly, a business for the multinational conglomerate. It isn’t their primary business but one that they aim to develop further in order to diversify their brand presence.
The Goenkas are prioritising the growth of sport but they also seem to be aware of the emerging market areas, the possibilities to maximise effect, the opportunities to gain brand engagement and where the potential to build the brand further in that ecosystem lies.
Because they are already associated with football, cricket and table tennis, the consensus is that they have invested in the Lucknow Supergiants team to diversify their portfolio.
From that standpoint, they are already doing a lot of things in Noida in terms of infrastructure and since they have economic interests in the state, building a base in Lucknow can prove to be beneficial to them.
Is a local connect necessary?
Considering the players LSG bought, the messaging on social media, or the official communication regarding the team’s identity, the only local aspect about the Supergiants so far remains the possibility that the cricket-deprived audience in Lucknow and surrounding cities is going to storm the Ekana stadium for every home match.
However, that too remains just a possibility for now considering the team’s inaugural season will not be played in the city at all since all league matches have been confined to Maharashtra in the backdrop of the pandemic.
This raises the question of whether a local connection is even necessary.
According to Chaudhary and Bilal, both of whom ensure they watch the matches scheduled at the Ekana stadium, the franchise’s association with the city shouldn’t merely end with adopting and adding its name. Since there is enough quality among the local players to be selected, there is a case to be made to back these players, expose them to the big names in the setup and help them develop into much better athletes.
They aren’t entirely wrong. A look at Uttar Pradesh’s very own Shivam Mavi is a good example of that. He was taken under the wing by Kolkata Knight Riders even if the early years suggested that he needed to get quite a few chinks out of his armour. He is now a regular in the playing XI and will feature with them for the fourth consecutive year.
To be fair to the think-tank, Lucknow Supergiants created one of the most well-rounded teams on paper. They balanced it with experience as well as talent worth grooming and a variety of skill-sets.
According to Gibran, a local connect then takes a back-seat because they seem to be building a team that is better placed to give them returns even in the long term.
“Lucknow didn’t pick too many UP players because they haven’t really performed in the past year,” said Gibran. “Instead, they have gone for a performance-based approach for players.”
Kohli backs that up by saying that for everyone in the new set-up – from the owners to the team manager – ensuring on-field success remains the priority. When that is sorted, the sponsorships and the local fans don’t become a hindrance.
“The base point for everybody to consider is that nothing sells like success. You need success to get people involved. Building a team that is based around performance and stepping into the IPL is not just a safer way, but a proven way. In fact, it is the only way to win,” he said.
If the priority is the development of talent that may not necessarily be local, the Supergiants may be on to something. It is important to note that across the league model in global sports, there are plenty of examples that suggest this is possible.
One of the biggest stars in cricket, a through and through Delhi-boy Virat Kohli, is the only player to have played for only one franchise in IPL and that is one based out of Bangalore.
Abhinav Kohli explains it in very simple words: “Michael Jordan didn’t come from Chicago yet he is synonymous with Chicago Bulls, Kobe Bryant did not come from Los Angeles but is an LA Lakers legend. Lionel Messi did not come from Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo did not come from Manchester or Madrid.”
Mahendra Singh Dhoni, too, is not from Chennai. But some will tell you the jury’s out on that.
While it is imperative we acknowledge that franchises like Chennai Super Kings, Mumbai Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders are successful because of the sporting culture they are part of, or because they have been the power centres in cricket, the marquee players they have, or their on-field achievements, it is also important to note that they are the sum of that and more.
Off-the-field efforts and communication strategies such as the team anthems, mottos such as ‘Whistlepodu’ and ‘Korbo Lorbo Jeetbo’, and the ability to master social media dynamics have also ensured that they are able to garner and sustain fan attention, brand awareness, and maintain communication with the fandom.
Lucknow Supergiants’ debut season will give a glimpse of whether the new team will take a leaf out of the books of these teams both on and off the field.
Note: The article was originally published on 1 March, 2022. It’s being reshared with a new headline ahead of the Indian Premier League season.