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The business of sports: Cue the cricket

What's bigger than the NFL and NBA? Ask an Indian.

Dwayne Bravo of the Mumbai Indians plays a shot during the 2009 Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 cricket tournament against the Kings Punjab in Centurion, May 12, 2009. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

BANGALORE, India — Anjali Rai Hamilton, a realtor based in Bangalore, is hooked on cricket, specifically the Indian Premier League (IPL). She follows the matches, conveniently scheduled in the late evenings. Many of Hamilton’s friends are recent cricket fans, and together they root for the home team Royal Challengers.

India’s IPL cricket league, a heady mix of sport and entertainment, grew to a gravity-defying $4 billion in valuation since its inception just three years ago. But the ambitious league, forecast to outgrow the NFL and NBA and become the world’s top revenue-earning brand in the next few years, has been recently ambushed by allegations of scandal and sleaze.

Now captivated fans are wondering if the world’s flashiest cricket brand can survive all the problems.

"The explosive brand which built a worldwide following in a short span of time is now facing questions of credibility,” said Nandan Kamath, a sports lawyer whose firm manages brand protection for IPL.

In a country where cricket equals religion and its stars are living gods, the high-flying IPL certainly faces a deep crisis. But cricket-crazy India rules the game worldwide, accounting for three-quarters of game revenue. The impact of the scandal will be felt globally and experts say reform is essential for the game's glory to be restored.

The IPL scandal peaked last week when Lalit Modi, the flamboyant, high-flying creator of IPL’s Twenty20 version of cricket, was suspended and charged with 22 counts of corruption.

The dynamic Modi, feted until recently as the brain behind the brand, was charged with manipulating team auctions, favoring his family and friends who were proxies of his holdings, and accepting kickbacks for advertising deals.

The parent cricketing body, the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI), which quickly moved to name a successor to Modi, alleged that Modi had awarded franchises to several people, including a Bollywood star, who were fronting shadowy owners and routing investments through tax havens like Mauritius and British Virgin Islands.

Modi is also alleged to have received a big split of an $80 million "facilitation fee" for handing over the television rights of IPL. He is accused of holding a substantial stake in the IPL team Rajasthan Royals, whose consortium was expanded to allegedly include Modi’s son-in-law, as well as Lachlan Murdoch, the older son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and Raj Kundra, the London-based husband of the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.

The IPL fiasco ensnared India’s politicians too.