Disrupted Flow: The Indian Premier League (IPL) Rain Delay
Kathryn Hartzell / University of Texas at Austin

Sai Sudharsan of the Gujarat Titans mid swing
Sai Sudharsan bats for Gujarat Titans

On May 28, 2023, millions of people around the world turned their attention to the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad for the highly anticipated cricket showdown between the Chennai Super Kings and the Gujarat Titans for the 2023 TATA IPL final. However, before the match could get underway, a massive rainstorm hit the stadium, dousing the pitch and lingering far longer than weather experts had anticipated. Officials observed the grounds and the weather for hours, hoping to continue on with a modified number of overs before eventually deciding to postpone the match until the next day. On May 29th, after an exciting first inning, another deluge of rain halted play for over two hours. It wasn’t until after midnight on May 30th that the Super Kings completed their dramatic comeback to win with the final ball. Although the match may go down as one of the greats, for global fans trying to watch, the experience was more confusing and frustrating than anything. The delays disrupted distributors’ planned flows and led to scrambling which exposed the regulatory, financial, technological, and ideological structures which in the U.K. maintain the IPL’s distance from a hegemonic, White English cricket.

Rain covers come out as rain delays the matchMen

In the UK, the IPL final was available live on pay television channel Sky Sports Cricket and could also be accessed via their OTT service, Now TV. However, the 2023 IPL season proved to be a challenge for Sky even before the storm. Sky considers itself to be “English cricket’s key strategic partner,” but the IPL’s distribution in the UK has always been tied up with larger issues of transnational conglomeration. Sky first began distributing the IPL in 2015 as part of a deal struck by parent company 21st Century Fox, who wanted the IPL’s domestic rights for their subsidiary Star India. Fox expanded that deal for the 2017-2022 seasons, licensing the combined global rights for both linear television and streaming. For an eight year period, Sky delivered the IPL to the UK market, with the exception of the 2019 season following Comcast’s acquisition of Sky and Disney’s acquisition of Fox. The change in network was short lived, as Sky negotiated to sublicense the IPL back from Disney from 2020 through the end of 2022. But with the 2023-2027 rights cycle, Sky once again lost out. Viacom18 (a joint venture between Reliance Industries and Paramount Global) won distribution rights in key global cricket markets and chose to make a deal with pure play sports streamer DAZN. However, only days before the tournament kicked off on March 31, 2023, Sky announced the IPL would be telecast on its channels after all. The non-exclusive agreement emerged after DAZN failed to negotiate terms with ITV to help them share the cost. 

With the last minute deal, Sky relied on telecasts and commentary provided by Viacom18 and their global distribution services provider Planetcast for ad insertion, highlights, graphics, and commentary tracks. It’s common practice for global sports telecast distribution to contract with a specialist production and distribution services company—Steven Seculars’ book, The Digital NBA, describes the NBA’s relationship with NeuLion (now Endeavor Streaming) which enabled them to build up their global service. Secular notes that NeuLion allowed the NBA more control through their digital offering, NBA League Pass. However, from a television network’s perspective, the rain delay revealed the limits of relying on a production service provider based in a different country rather than having direct access to sports journalists and camera crews inside the stadium. Without their own studio show to fall back on when the match failed to start as planned, Sky’s telecast featured long shots of the crowd, the rain, and the grounds. Commentary initially continued as organizers assessed conditions, but then tapered off into the ambient sounds in the stadium. Viewers were left to guess at the soggy footage’s implications for the resumption of play. With uncertainty over when and if the game would begin stretching on, Sky began programming edited versions of cricket matches from the past. From time to time, the feed from the stadium returned, showing images of the rainy pitch with a few words of voiceover commentary that reflected a “wait and see” approach. Finally, the decision came to move the match to Monday. 

Rain covers are rolled out for the second day in a row

Rain delays hit again the next day following the IPL’s first “half time show.” Sky once again filled time, rerunning features on cricket athletes in addition to past cricket matches. As with the previous day, viewers were left to consult the internet for information about when to expect a decision on the match, the latest update about the sogginess of the grass, and whether or not the rain had really stopped this time. It was only when Sky began showing a live domestic cricket match between Durham and Nottinghamshire—part of the Vitaly Blast’s T20 Tournament—that the broadcast journalists covering that match in England could address what was happening in Ahmedabad. The lovely sunny day in Durham, England sharply contrasted with the late night rain soaked conditions in India. Cricket presenter Dominic Cork took a moment during the Vitaly Blast match to mention Kevin Piertersen who was currently calling the match Ahmedabad, but from whom viewers had not heard. Piertersen was one of many of the journalists and presenters who frequently worked for Sky who were in India covering the final, but Sky never produced any sort of live news show to help collapse the distance between the UK and India and lessen the uncertainty around the event. As a result, the match between Durham and Nottinghamshire felt more urgent and important than a final featuring some of the greatest players in world cricket.

In addition to the constraints faced by Sky in terms of control and access to the IPL’s telecast production team, Sky likely faced limitations in terms of access to archival materials. Notably, Sky did not fill the long period of waiting with highlights from the 2023 IPL season, or any of the previous clashes between the Titans and the Super Kings. The Titans were in fact trying to defend their title, but Sky never reran any footage from their victory in 2022. Instead, Sky aired edited versions of the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup final between England and India and the 2013 ICC Cricket Women’s World Cup final between England and Sri Lanka which took place in Mumbai. They also played a package created for Moeen Ali, a Muslim cricketer who captained England’s National Team, in which he discussed his values, influences, religion, and thoughts on diversity. 

Sky’s choices of programming to fill its linear channel as it waited for play to begin also suggest the ideological ways in which they view the IPL. In 2022, the rights for the IPL sold at the highest price per game of any sport except for the NFL. Journalists often referred to the auction for the 2023-2027 seasons as a war between the biggest and wealthiest media companies in the world. But in England, the IPL continues to be viewed as “other.” The emergency programming choices resembled executives playing word association games. Moeen Ali is a prominent non-white cricketer who played T20—that’s similar to the IPL! This 2013 tournament took place in Mumbai and featured non-White women—that could be similar to the IPL! The IPL might be a highly commodified, professional league, but in England it maintains a marginal position relative to White, masculine, English cricket. Even before the game began, Sky’s Now TV app listed the final day of the English Premier League season, The PGA Tour, Formula 1, and the French Open before the IPL final, visually relegating it to a less important space in the larger Sky Sports schedule. 

Daya Kishin Thussu argues that technological innovations in distribution technology enabled a “contra-flow” of media from the Global South back into the Global North (Thussu, 2010, p. 230). However, as demonstrated by IPL’s final on Sky, these technologies also act as constraints upon these media. Access to telecast production services is highly regulated and transnational distributors operate from points of distance. The rights to archival footage resides with the leagues (in this case the BCCI) rather than with the media distributors, so television partners may not be able to reuse footage that ran over their networks. Finally, the ideological ways that distributors view transnational sporting events themselves can influence how they promote and program around the game. With their continued reliance on liveness, sporting events highlight the ways transnational media do not exist simply as individual texts, but within a larger television flow which continues to have ideological implications for how people and places around the world are represented. The distributors responsible for creating the “super-text,” which includes interstitial material such as network promotion and advertising, and scheduling (Browne, 1984), rely on “various events, agendas, professional ideologies, [and] notions about the audience” (Pillai, 1992). In order to really interrogate the subversive potential of contra-flow, it is necessary to dig beyond the rights deals and into the messy assemblage of transnational partners who shape text. 

Image Credits:
  1. Sai Sudharsan bats for Gujarat
  2. Rain covers come out as rain delays the match
  3. Rain covers are rolled out for the second day in a row

Browne, N. (1984). The political economy of the television (super) text. Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 9(3), 174–182. https://doi.org/10.1080/10509208409361210

Pillai, P. (1992). Rereading Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model. Communication Theory, 3, 221–233.

Secular, S. (2023). The digital NBA: How the world’s savviest league brings the court to our couch. University of Illinois Press.

Thussu, D. K. (2010). Mapping global media Flow and contra-flow. In D. K. Thussu (Ed.), International communication: A reader (pp. 221–238). Routledge.

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