Kolkata Knight Riders ride in a procession across the streets of Kolkata, greeted by fans

Fans in Kolkata swarm the procession of Knight Riders parading the IPL trophy after the 2012 win

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Which is the most popular IPL team?

Different teams have held sway at different times. But we may have a winner

Tariq Engineer  |  

Ask observers to name the most popular cricket league in the world and virtually all of them, even its critics, will say the Indian Premier League. Ask about the most popular team in the IPL and you are likely to get a variety of answers.

So which team has, in fact, been the most popular in the league's 12-year history?

Let's consider the main factors that contribute to a team's popularity. Some of these are: the team's performance, the size of its home market, and its marketing and advertising muscle. None of these factors are sufficient by themselves, nor does the absence of any one indicate a team will be unpopular.

"Surprisingly winning does not always matter for popularity," Jasal Shah, head of Velocity MR, which published a consumer-insights report on the IPL last year, told the Cricket Monthly. "If you see some of the teams, especially Royal Challengers Bangalore, they are losing regularly but still they are near the top of the popularity chart. Other teams have won the IPL, but are not that popular."

The location of a franchise obviously determines the size of its market, which gives teams in metros a big advantage. "Punjab and Rajasthan will always be small advertiser markets and will always struggle to command higher sponsorship deals when compared to the big-four teams [Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore, which are also capitals of big states]," Indranil Das Blah, founding partner of Kwan Entertainment, said in a 2018 IPL report produced by Duff & Phelps, a multinational consultancy firm.

How will Chennai Super Kings' brand be affected once MS Dhoni retires?

How will Chennai Super Kings' brand be affected once MS Dhoni retires? Dibyangshu Sarkar / © AFP/Getty Images

Duff & Phelps estimate that franchises spend anywhere between 5% and 15% of their revenues on marketing and promotion. Obviously, some teams have been better at it than others. "CSK has invested in every aspect of branding," Harish Bijoor, a brand strategy specialist, told the Cricket Monthly. "They have a terrific name; they have MS Dhoni, who is a brand icon for them; the 'whistle podu' campaign was great and they took the brand deep into the hinterlands in Tamil Nadu. It was bottom-up brand building, which is not easy."

Then there are a couple of popularity factors that are specific to India. "What is important in India that is unique is some sort of celebrity angle," N Santosh, a partner at Duff & Phelps India, told the Cricket Monthly. "Celebrity involvement makes a team appealing to its fan base and helps to retain them, whether it is Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta or Shilpa Shetty." Obviously, the bigger the star, the bigger the influence, though star power comes with a downside too: if the popularity of the celebrity dips, so can the popularity of the team.

Another factor is the presence of an Indian star player such as Sachin Tendulkar or Dhoni. A Chris Gayle or an AB de Villiers may have cache, but they are still seen as international players. This is different from other big leagues. Frenchman Eric Cantona was the face of Manchester United in the early years of the English Premier League, while Egyptian Mo Salah is Liverpool's most popular player today. "If Virat [Kohli] moved to Rajasthan Royals, there would be a switch in loyalty," says Shah.

To answer our question, we will look at television viewership (and latterly, streaming figures), brand valuations, social media following, and anecdotal sponsorship and advertising information. For our purposes, the 12 seasons of the IPL naturally lend themselves to examination in two blocks of four years each, followed by two blocks of two years each (Super Kings and Royals were suspended for the 2016 and 2017 editions).

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2008 to 2011: Knight Riders and Royals charge off the blocks
Television ratings are a blunt instrument for measuring popularity, but they do provide a relative idea of the interest in each team. They are also the only metric we have for the first four years (access to data was limited because of the lockdown), and by this measure, Kolkata Knight Riders and Royals were the two most popular teams.

Knight Riders had the highest Television Viewer Rating (TVR) in three of those four years, while Royals took the top spot in the 2009 IPL, in South Africa, according to data provided by TAM Media Research. (TVR is a time-weighted figure that accounts for time spent watching as well as the number of viewers.) Knight Riders had Eden Gardens, Sourav Ganguly and Shah Rukh, while Royals had Shane Warne, a charismatic cricketer with Bollywood flair, and actual Bollywood fame in the form of co-owner Shilpa Shetty, who bought a stake in the team in 2009. Plus, Royals were the underdogs who triumphed in year one.

Knight Riders were the only team to have an average TVR higher than the overall average rating for the league in each of the four years.

"They were the first team to be profitable based on the information we have," says Santosh. "That's because of Shah Rukh. He is a brand guru. He marketed the team better than anybody and made them one of the top three teams even before IPL started. They also have a monopoly in east India and a large stadium in Eden Gardens. Because of these reasons, they benefitted."

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2012 to 2015: Mumbai challenges Knight Riders
Knight Riders continued to be arguably the most popular team in the league, even after releasing Ganguly. They were the most watched team in the 2013 and 2015 editions, according to TAM data, and they started to perform as well on the field as off it. Led by Gautam Gambhir, they won the title in 2012 and 2014.

Mumbai Indians topped the ratings in the 2012 IPL, while Kings XI Punjab, led by Virender Sehwag and Glenn Maxwell, both attacking batsmen, led the ratings in the 2014 edition, when the team reached the final.

Super Kings made three finals in this period, and it was clear that they had pulled off a masterstroke by selecting Dhoni as their captain in 2008. By this time Dhoni was a huge national star and had become inextricably linked to the franchise despite not being a local. Even so, despite two titles and four finals in the first eight years, Super Kings were not the most watched team in any of those seasons.

It was Mumbai who were rising to challenge Knight Riders' popularity. Rohit Sharma had stepped into Tendulkar's shoes, not with the same level of adoration from the fans, but with greater success on the pitch. They alternated with Knight Riders for the title, by winning in 2013 and 2015.

At the end of the first eight IPLs, Knight Riders had the highest brand valuation in the league at $86 million, according to Duff & Phelps, followed by Mumbai at $72m and Super Kings at $67m.

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2016 and 2017: Mumbai rises, Kohli emerges
While Super Kings and Royals served two-year bans for their roles in the spot-fixing and betting scandal, Mumbai and Royal Challengers rose to the top of the viewership table, displacing Knight Riders.

According to data provided by Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC), Mumbai attracted an average of 18.5 million impressions per league match in 2016, just ahead of Royal Challengers with 18.3m, while Knight Riders drew 16.5m. (Impressions are the number of individuals of a target audience who have viewed an "event", averaged across minutes; BARC's figures do not include viewership for the knockout stages.)

Royal Challengers' ascent was largely powered by Kohli, who had been Test captain for over a year by this time and had established himself as one of the best batsmen in the world. And he was dating a Bollywood celebrity. This made him must-watch TV, and he was the most talked about player on Facebook in 2016, according to a Duff & Phelps report. Royal Challengers also made their third final that year, where they lost to Sunrisers Hyderabad. Winning the title didn't do much for Sunrisers' popularity: the team drew the fewest viewers per match, with 14.8m impressions, the same as Kings XI, which finished last.

In 2017, Mumbai won the title for a third time, and were the most watched team again. Royal Challengers went to the basement, winning just three matches and finished dead last. Yet their fans stayed loyal: they had the second-highest TV viewership, and their brand valuation jumped by 31% from the previous year to $88m.

Sridhar Ramanujam, a Bangalore resident and head of the consultancy firm Brand-Comm, told the Cricket Monthly that Bangaloreans take great pride in their city. "Even when the match was of no consequence and the team would be seventh or eighth, the match would be sold out. The cricket heritage here is strong. A lot of RCB fans also play league cricket and might have played with some of the guys on the team."

According to Duff & Phelps, 2017 was also the year social-media activity around the IPL took off. Knight Riders led here with 19m combined followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, well ahead of Mumbai and Super Kings.

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2018 and 2019: The Super Kings years
Broadcast rights switched from Sony to Star Sports, which blitzed the IPL across multiple channels and in multiple languages. It also drew millions of viewers on Hotstar, its digital platform.

In a fairy-tale return to the league, Super Kings won the 2018 IPL. In the process they attracted an average of 26.1m impressions per match, the best in the league, ahead of Mumbai, who drew 24.9. Games between these two teams became the most anticipated and the most watched in the league.

Super Kings also developed a rivalry with Royal Challengers, as the old gunslinger Dhoni went up against the young(ish) gun Kohli. This helped Royal Challengers round out the top three in the viewership table.

"Most sponsors who are associated with say a CSK or an RCB, they are associating 50% for the team and 50% for the marquee players, like Dhoni and Kohli," Kwan's Blah said in the 2018 Duff & Phelps report.

The other returning team, Royals, made the playoffs, but with no big stars in the team, brought up the rear in terms of TV viewership. Super Kings were the most watched team on Hotstar too, with a cumulative reach of 86m viewers for the season, according to Star's India Watch Report.

In 2019, Super Kings came out on top in the TV ratings again, with 30.1m impressions per game, according to BARC data, though the team lost the final to Mumbai Indians by a solitary run. Mumbai and Knight Riders tied for second in the viewership stakes. On Hotstar, Mumbai just edged out Super Kings, with a cumulative reach of 138.2m to 138.1m. The number of Tamil-speaking viewers on Hotstar, which offers Tamil commentary, doubled when Super Kings played.

A study by Velocity MR following the 2019 IPL concluded that Super Kings and Mumbai were the two teams with a national following. The firm created what it called "impact scores", based on four parameters: viewership, home-city appeal, national appeal, and brand recall. Super Kings came out on top with an overall score of 4.83, while Mumbai was second with 3.27, and Knight Riders third with 2.89.

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"Super Kings should not really be on top of the table," Shah said. "If you look at a regional movie, it is never a chartbuster. But here it is the opposite. Chennai is on top because of MS Dhoni. They have also stayed in the hunt until the end [of the tournament] and therefore you have to watch them." The report found, however, that Royal Challengers and Knight Riders were better options for brands that had regional goals.

In terms of brand valuation, Mumbai now lead the pack, at $116m, followed by Super Kings at $105m and Knight Riders at $90m. Explaining why Knight Riders' valuation has fallen, Duff & Phelps' Santosh says, "SRK [Shah Rukh Khan] isn't the same star he was ten years ago. His movies are not doing that well, so his brand is not working as well for KKR. The team has also been lacking in good performances."

Looking to the future
Knight Riders still have the most followers on Facebook, with 16.2 million as of late April, 2020, but Mumbai now has the most followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter combined - 23 million.

The Mumbai team appears set with Sharma at the helm and young stars such as Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya in their ranks. The latter, in particular, is a favourite among younger fans. "That kind of aggression seems to impress viewers," says Bijoor. "It says that this guy is a passionate guy and is willing to show emotion. Hairstyles and hair colour matter too."

Super Kings, on the other hand, may face a problem when Dhoni retires. As the Chicago Bulls found out after Michael Jordan retired, replacing an icon is no easy task.

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"I think [replacing Dhoni] is going to be one of the biggest challenges," says Brand-Comm's Ramanujam. "They probably missed a trick with R Ashwin. They had a leader, someone who was competitive, and he was a local guy. To my mind, he would have been the logical successor. And if you look at the team composition, they don't have a strong local player - that's one area which they have to look at."

Looking further down the table, one team that has the potential to challenge the current leaders is Delhi Capitals. The team has a bright young core in Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer, all of whom have already played for India, and may blossom into international stars.

"If they can maybe win one or two seasons in the next five to ten years," says Santosh, "there is very high chance they will be one of the top two or three teams."

The verdict
As things stand today, Chennai Super Kings and Mumbai Indians have clearly separated themselves from the pack, both on and off the field - with Super Kings perhaps marginally ahead in terms of national popularity.

According to Santosh, Super Kings and Mumbai have the ability to charge sponsors anywhere from 1.6 to two times more than the other teams. Before this edition of the tournament was cancelled, Exchange4media.com reported that Star was offering separate advertising packages for these two teams' matches because of the higher viewership when they play.

Over the entire course of the first dozen years, though, even if their popularity has waned of late, Kolkata Knight Riders can lay claim to being the IPL's most popular team.

Tariq Engineer is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He covers business, sport, general news and the environment