Professional sports league made a rather belated entry in India – 135 years after the first ever professional sports league in the USA.
The now-defunct Indian Hockey Federation conceived the Premier Hockey League (field hockey) in 2005, three years before the beginning of the IPL. The league wrapped up in 2008 after the federation faced corruption allegations, an all-pervading malaise of Indian sports, and was suspended by the Indian Olympic Association.
Indian Premier League or the IPL was to follow soon after in 2008.
Over 12 national professional sports leagues exist in India now, each at different levels of evolution. Not surprisingly, IPL is the most established of all the national professional sports leagues in India.
With a wide fan base, cricket is the most popular sport in India and together with the liberal sponsorship money it attracts, IPL is the richest cricket league in the world. The money in turn attracts the best of talents from across the world, which leads to massive global television viewership, not just the millions of Indians.
Currently more than 100 professional leagues in various sports exist across the world. Not all leagues are financially on the same footing, in terms of yearly revenue that it generates.
NFL, MLB and NBA are the top three, profitability wise. Out of the top 11 profitable professional leagues in the world, five are association football (soccer) leagues.
Impact of professional sports league on India’s international performance
Over the years, global professional sports have contributed significantly to raise the standard of some sports. Football, tennis, cricket, basketball, baseball, track and field events in athletics and boxing, to name a few.
Television provides widespread reach and affords professional leagues invariably to also attract sponsors who are eager to invest in tournaments, in return for the right to advertise their products and services in stadium as well as during ad breaks.
The heavy cash flow coming through selling advertising rights and television broadcasting means higher wages for players which in turn attracts some of the best of players from across the world to these professional leagues. Big money also allows franchise owners to hire the best coaches and support staff, acquire the best sporting equipment and facilities, and also develop scientific knowledge about sport disciplines.
To understand the impact of professional leagues on Indian sports, we look at four men’s sports which perhaps have the most interest in India – cricket, hockey, football and kabaddi.
The Indian Premier League
IPL, a 20-20 league, started in 2008 and with it started India’s love for professional sports leagues. Contemporary international cricket is now played in three formats – 20-20, 50 overs one day, and Test cricket.
India’s performance in the usually biennial 20-20 World Cup, since 2008, has been less than satisfactory. They have never won the 20-20 World Cup since 2007 but are now the second ranked side in world in the ICC rankings, out of 80 countries. India won the 50-over one day World Cup in 2011 and their current ICC standing is third out of 20 countries. In Test cricket, India was ranked fifth in 2008.
India’s journey to be the top-ranked test team has been fraught with many obstacles, not in the least their past performances overseas. In 2020, an under-strength Test team with many rookies in their ranks managed to upstage Australia in their home turf! All the rookies, many of them who made their Test debut in this series, graduated from the tough IPL whirlpool.
Even though the IPL format is radically different from Test cricket, which is more of an endurance game, these rookies adapted well to fit into the scheme of Test cricket. One aspect that may have toughened them is that they got a chance to rub shoulders with the best in the world in their formative stage. IPL seems to have a positive impact on the young players who represent India today, in every format.
Hockey India League
In recent years India’s world ranking in hockey has also steadily improved. For a little context, Indian players dominated the field of hockey until 1964, after which India’s world ranking started to steadily decline.
India won a bronze medal both in 1968 and 1972 Olympics and a gold medal in Moscow in 1980, this was the last time when India won a medal in the Olympics.
As noted earlier Indian Hockey Federation conceived the Premier Hockey League (field hockey) in 2005, three years before the beginning of the IPL. The league wrapped up in 2008 after the federation faced corruption allegations.
In 2013, Hockey India League was launched. India’s world ranking that year was the 10th. Lamentably, Hockey India League was last played in 2017, however the league seems to have had a positive impact on India’s FIH standing which currently is fourth in the world out of 91 countries. The participation of the best of talents from across the world, together with overseas support staff in HIL might have contributed to India’s exciting ascendency on the world stage.
Indian Super League
In 2014 the ISL, India’s premier football league, kicked off. Ever since then India’s performance overseas has seen some incremental change for the better. The FIFA world ranking which started in 1992, at one point ranked the Indian men’s team at 94 – its highest rank ever. India is now down to 105.
In 1996 India started its maiden national football tournament called I-League with the existing clubs from the states competing against each other. The tournament was conceived to introduce a greater degree of professionalism and ambition to the sports but due to a range of problems starting from poor infrastructure to conflict among clubs it never achieved the level of success that it had initially hoped for.
By 2014, when ISL started, India’s ranking had plummeted to 174. Unlike the I-League, ISL was a franchise-based sports league much like IPL.
Every year, ISL attracts many overseas players with some renowned players of yesteryears, who are well past their prime. Whether these players have any shelf life remaining or not, is debatable, but just rubbing shoulders with them perhaps positively impacts the performance of the Indian players, particularly from the perspective of playing tactics.
In an interview with Times of India, the Indian men’s cricket captain and the co-owner of FC Goa, Virat Kohli shared, “I see football developing in India in a massive way. The kind of awareness that the ISL has created, everyone around it talks about it. It’s been a wonderful change in Indian sports and I totally want to endorse it.”
He further added in the same interview that the factor that has been holding Indian football back for so many years was the lack of professional leagues. Kohli said, “There is nothing like globalising the sport. With the kind of visibility on television and the kind of access people have, It’s creating awareness. People know Indian players. They knew all those who played at the Under 17 World Cup. It’s all about visibility. Unless you get to show your talent on television, it’s very difficult for people to like you.”
Interestingly, in the case of kabaddi, the Pro-Kabaddi League seems to have enhanced the exposure of international players to the traditional Indian sport.
Players from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and South Korea are rapidly learning how to beat India in their own game. Until the 2018 edition, India had dominated the sports at the Asian Games by winning the highest number of gold medals in both men’s and women’s category.
The Pro-Kabaddi League, again a franchised based league, started with much fanfare under the aegis of Star Sports in 2014. To give it an international flavour to the sport the franchises took onboard international players. So, in the 2018 Asiad when Iran and South Korea lined up for the gold medal match, with Iran ousting India in the semi-finals, many people were left surprised.
What the Pro-Kabaddi League seems to have done is raise the stock of several international players, who had just about started playing the sport.
Inspired by the IPL model, many professional sports leagues have started in India, some have already fallen by the wayside, more are being conceived.
To start a professional sports league in India the management of the league have to pay a hefty sum each year to the respective apex sports federations in India.
“The problem is that federations demand a lot of money – it isn’t perceived as a way to promote the sport…Over the last couple of years, badminton has closed down. In volleyball, there was a major legal tussle with the federation. So, the international volleyball federation who were delighted to see volleyball doing well now find it is no longer there,” said Joy Bhattacharjya, CEO of the inaugural Professional Volleyball League.
He goes on to add, “From my experience of working with FIFA for four years, I can say that there isn’t a single international federation that does not want India to do well. There are 1.3 billion people, we have a free market and 1/10th of the control used in China. The problem is when these international federations come to India and see the kind of people they have to deal with, they opt-out. Purely from a commercial lens, there is a huge opportunity. They are all interested and want us to do well. And yet, the bottleneck of federations and bottlenecks of bringing money into India is what stops them.”
Television viewership without a doubt contributes towards the success of professional sports leagues. Higher the viewership, more profitable it is for the broadcasters who have to pay a handsome sum for the more popular sports, upfront, to the organisers of the professional leagues, to get the broadcasting rights.
According to the 2016 figures released by the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), based in Mumbai, the IPL was viewed by 362 million viewers, followed by Indian Soccer League 224 million, Indian Kabaddi League 220 million, the Pro-Wrestling League by 109 million, Hockey India League 43 million and Pro-Badminton League by 36 million.
“The IPL’s success has triggered off many other leagues, but not all of them will be successful. There is a ‘hardship’ quotient in running a league. Cricket is a big and lucrative sport, but every league will not have it so easy. It’s not a given that there is money to be made for everybody. That is not going to happen,” says Ayaz Memon, a leading cricket expert and senior journalist in an interview with Financial Express.
Despite the ‘hardship’ quotient, many other professional leagues are waiting in the sidelines to take off.
But the question is, is it really beneficial for the country to start arm-wrestling, yoga, polo and poker professional leagues? Can these really be a great viewing sport? Will the country ever win laurels by promoting these sports? Or are these just to cater to the whims of a select few, which could possibly make money for just them, in a manner that could be questionable?
Yoga is an excellent way to stay fit, but could it ever be a competitive sport?
At any rate, we need to have a system in place to regulate the mushrooming of professional leagues in the country, to check the viability and intention of such an endeavour, which may always not be so honourable. There are already murmurs on how some of the state cricket leagues are run. Not to forget the Indian Cricket League misadventure.
Persistent need for better governance
Despite the spectacular success of some of the sports leagues mentioned above, there remain concerns regarding their functioning. At the moment there is no system in place through which the management of each of these top leagues can be held accountable for their actions.
Sports tournaments like the IPL, with its unique format and controversial share-holding, evidenced by the frequent use of shell companies and complex paper trails, suggests that the old game of corruption has found a new playing field.
In a scenario such as this, it is essential to think about a new model of corporate governance that can effectively protect the interests of the game’s various stakeholders without compromising on its profitability. This is especially important if we want to keep seeing India’s performance across different sports improve at the international level and to secure the future of our sportsmen and women.
India cannot evolve into a sporting nation through watching television alone; people’s interests as both viewers and potential players need to be taken into account and respected by sports leagues for a transformation to occur. Accountability and transparency also need to be built into the system on how sports is governed in India.
Ranajit Bhattacharyya, Anoushka Gupta, Sugandha Vats, Avital Datskovsky and Pritha Bhattacharya are all associated with Pratham’s ASER Centre. The views expressed in this article are personal.