Why Chennai Super Kings is more than a team

April 25th 2010. A day no one in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu will forget. The region’s top cricket club, Chennai Super Kings, won its first Indian Premier League title after coming close in the first two seasons of the league. A team comprising of local heros like Murali Vijay and Ashwin Ravichandran, imports from elsewhere in India like MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina, and overseas superstars like Doug Bollinger and Muttiah Muralitharan finally lived up to its potential and cemented its place as the most successful club in the league’s short history.

It was due. It was due because even before the club won the IPL, they were creating a very special legacy. A legacy which makes them more than just a team.

“Barcelona es mes que un club”, or “Barcelona is more than a club” is the motto of FC Barcelona, one of Spain’s and Europe’s most successful clubs. For a variety of reasons, that rings true for the Catalan club. What makes it similarly true for the IPL champions?

First of all, the Chennai Super Kings are a brand. Think of Chennai Super Kings, you think not of 11 players batting, bowling and fielding. But you think of fearless, attacking cricket. You think of aggressive batsmen in yellow smashing the ball to the boundaries. You think of fearless bowlers taking stunning wickets. You think of the passionate crowd which feels like an extension of the team.

As someone in the marketing industry, I know that it’s critical for a brand to define what is known as a brand essence. Chennai Super Kings have done this by defining their brand essence as “fearless, entertaining cricket”. The adage they give themselves is “The Fearless Entertainers”, and with aggressive players like Matthew Hayden, MS Dhoni and Albie Morkel, they live up to the moniker. Even supposedly defensive anchor batsmen like Murali Vijay and Subramaniam Badrinath seem to discover a hidden gear of attacking intent when they don the yellow shirt.

Murali Vijay 127 vs RR

Murali Vijay mauls Rajasthan with 127 in April 2010

The concept of the brand molecule suggests that each brand is an atom in a molecule, where bonds link it with other brands. Some of these bonds are stronger than others, as indicated by the distance between the brands. Consistent with this, a whole host of brands have associated themselves with Chennai Super Kings. 7Up has a close association with the club, and created a movement called the 7Up Pattalam, where thousands of 7-a-side teams from all over Tamil Nadu competed for a chance to play against the Super Kings. Other brands that associate themselves with the Chennai Super Kings include Reebok, Fosters, Yahoo, Peter England, and the Chennai-based Aircel. A study done this year claimed that the total sponsorship value of the Chennai Super Kings was the highest among all the IPL teams. The value of these brand associations is mutual. The Chennai Super Kings brand is strengthened, as are the associated brands.

Secondly, the Chennai Super Kings are a family. The players, coaching staff, franchise owners, supporters and even the team ambassadors seem to be part of a big family supportive of one another. Fan bonding was critical to create this atmosphere. And one way Chennai Super Kings developed fan bonding was through their Chennai Super Kings Juniors programme, aired on TV, in which thousands of promising youngsters had a chance to show their talent and win an opportunity to train with the club at junior level. The aforementioned 7Up Pattalam had a similar effect. The Kings Club fan club, and jerseys anyone can personalize by having their name on it, are two other factors that bonded fans with the club.

Equally importantly, the players and the coaching staff have bonded very well with one another. The core group of players play together for Tamil Nadu in the domestic circuit and have a great understanding. This includes Murali Vijay, Subramaniam Badrinath, Ashwin Ravichandran, Anirudha Srikkanth, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Arun Karthik, Abhinav Mukund and Hemang Badani. Then you’ve got players like MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina who play together for India, as do Vijay and Badrinath occasionally. Likewise you’ve got the Aussies (Matthew Hayden, Mike Hussey, Doug Bollinger, George Bailey), the South Africans (Albie Morkel, Justin Kemp, Makhaya Ntini), and the Sri Lankans (Muttiah Muralitharan, Thilan Thushara, Thissara Perera).

But it’s not just national and state-level bonding. Chennai Super Kings nurtures players and gives them a sense of belonging. Suresh Raina was just another promising youngster in 2008 when Chennai Super Kings signed him up. Under the tutelage of captain Dhoni, batting legend Matthew Hayden, and the intelligent Chennai Super Kings think-tank, Raina has blossomed into an amazing player who contributes immensely in all three departments of the game. No one had heard of Ashwin Ravichandran and Shadab Jakati two years ago, but they have developed so well under the Chennai Super Kings umbrella.

Suresh Raina catch

Suresh Raina repays Chennai's faith with a Man-of-the-Match performance in the IPL 2010 final

The family atmosphere of the club was reflected in an anecdote coach Stephen Fleming shared earlier this year. On a tortuous bus ride to Dharamsala, Fleming watched in fascination as Michael Hussey and Muttiah Muralitharan engrossed themselves in a mammoth discussion on every aspect of cricket. Fleming said Mike and Murali were like “Mr and Mrs Cricket”, a moniker that extended Hussey’s usual nickname of “Mr Cricket”. They had bonded as if they had been playing cricket together since the age of five.

The players have also bonded with the city they represent. Captain MS Dhoni who hails from the far northern state of Uttarakhand has said that he wants to stay with the Super Kings because he is identified as a Chennaiite now. Australian Matthew Hayden says Chennai is his second home and he has gotten so much from it, as he spent a lot of time practising there in his younger days, and it helped him develop as a batsman. Sri Lankan spin legend Muttiah Muralitharan is the son-in-law of Chennai, having married a girl from the city. And with typical Tamil hospitality, the people of Tamil Nadu have accepted these “outsiders” as one of them. They call Dhoni “thalaivar” (leader), Hayden “namma ooru singam” (lion of our city), and Muralitharan “maapillai” (son-in-law).

An interesting person who makes every Chennai Super Kings home match more entertaining is not even a cricket player. A drummer called Sivamani, who may be familiar to aficionados of the Tamil film industry based in Chennai. He attends every match and provides a soundtrack with his drums for everything that happens on the field, particularly victorious moments like a boundary or a wicket. Needless to say, he’s decked in the famous yellow jersey with his name on it.

Thirdly, Chennai Super Kings is the alternative national team for the people of Tamil Nadu. The state, particularly Chennai, is known to be cricket-crazy just like the rest of India. But on top of that, they are known as the most intelligent and knowledgeable cricket watching crowd in India. But in spite of the significant importance given to cricket there, Tamil Nadu has yet to produce a genuine cricketing superstar. While a steady stream of players have played a handful of games for India, Chennai has not produced a Tendulkar, a Sehwag or a Ganguly. Only the magnanimous view that the Indian national team was more important than local loyalties meant that Chennaiites remained passionate about cricket.

As a result, Tamil Nadu had become an underserved cricket market. There were insufficient channels for the people of Tamil Nadu to show their interest in cricket and their knowledge of the game.

The Chennai Super Kings have bridged this gap. Chennaiites are now able to cheer their local heroes as they lead their side to victory. Tamil Nadu players who couldn’t get into the Indian team for various reasons suddenly have the limelight they were craving for. And like a match made in heaven, Chennai’s path crossed with a genuine cricketing superstar who did not come from a major cricket-loving city and therefore did not have a local IPL team. His name was Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Tamils who have always prided themselves on their “virundhombal” (hospitality) and “vandhaarai vaazha vaikkum thamizhagam” (the Tamil land where anyone is welcome to come and prosper) had no trouble taking Dhoni as their “thalaivar” (leader). After all, this was a land where the two biggest movie stars of all time had both been outsiders. With Dhoni’s talent, stardom, leadership and charisma making him the heart and soul of Chennai Super Kings, the club’s status as an IPL powerhouse was never in doubt. Thalaivar’s unforgettable rescue act in Dharamsala and his great captaincy in the victorious IPL final meant that he would forever be a hero in Tamil Nadu.

Dhoni is mobbed after his stunning rescue act takes Chennai into the IPL 2010 semifinals

The special space that the Chennai Super Kings occupy in the hearts of Tamils means that wherever Tamils are, a large number of them support the Chennai Super Kings. When the Super Kings won the IPL, fireworks went off in Coimbatore, 500km to the west of Chennai. Theatres in San Jose were filled with Chennai Super Kings supporters watching the final and celebrating. Sri Lanka and Singapore are two other countries known to have a sizeable number of Chennai Super Kings supporters.

It’s not by accident that the Chennai Super Kings became a brand, a family, and a national team. The franchise owners have looked at what successful clubs in other sports and other countries do, and tried to follow in their footsteps. Just as soccer clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona have gained a huge fan following based on their entertaining, attacking soccer, Chennai Super Kings decided that entertaining, attacking cricket would be their philosophy. They have picked the right composition of players: Tamil Nadu players, top players from the rest of India, and top players from around the world are all there in a healthy ratio. They have given importance to having a catchy name and a catchy anthem. They have realised that fans are part of the club and not distant spectators. Even the Sivamani phenomenon was built after observing the exploits of Manolo Del Bombo, the famous Spanish drummer who attends every Valencia and Spain match. By painstakingly building a legacy beyond just the bat and the ball, Chennai Super Kings have ensured that they are the only IPL team which is more than a team.

Other IPL franchises treat their team the same way they would treat a state side in the Ranji trophy. Many aspects of the club, including the name and anthem, seem an afterthought to them. Mumbai for instance gave themselves the unimaginative name of Mumbai Indians, inviting comments like “the ultimate height of laziness in name selection” and “like they chose the name by throwing darts at a wall”. The Bangalore team owners wanted to strengthen their Royal Challengers whisky brand by naming their team Royal Challengers Bangalore. In doing that, they strengthened the Royal Challenge brand, but ensured that the Bangalore IPL team would never become a brand in its own right. And when places like Punjab and Kolkata with no cricket culture tried to create teams out of thin air, it was inevitable that what they created would be just a team and nothing more.

The Chennai franchise, on the other hand, are known as the most intelligent, whether it’s the player auctions, individual match tactics, or brand building. A reputation for intelligence is not new to Chennai, but on this occasion it has translated itself into something special on the cricket front. If the English Premier League has its Manchester United and Major League Baseball has its New York Yankees, the Indian Premier League is beginning to have its own cricket religion called the Chennai Super Kings.