The annual calendar of Indian sports leagues showcases a buoyant industry at work. The year starts with the Hockey India League, Indian Badminton League competing with football's I-League. Pro Golf time comes in February, followed by the mother of them all, cricket's Indian Premier League. Kabaddi then takes centre stage – the Pro Kabaddi and World Kabaddi leagues. Football's new Indian Super League debuts in October, followed by Vijay Amritraj's Champions Tennis League, and Mahesh Bhupathi's International Premier Tennis League. Oh, don’t forget the Indian Wrestling League. Eleven leagues, and counting. Add in Elite Football League of India, an ambitious attempt to popularize American football. Punch in an Indian Boxing League into this robust calendar. Chess, carrom, volleyball, motorsports et al have similar ambitions.
Depending on which side you are, these leagues can be blamed for bastardizing the purity of the game or applauded for providing the impetus to a sector which has been lagging behind due to mismanagement by authorities heading sports organisations.
The blame starts with the highly successful IPL, perceived as the root of all problems. The match-fixing and betting-related controversies in the 2013 edition did not help. But the success of the formula is evident as each new league is a self-acclaimed IPL-style one, with all the same ingredients to create a 10- to 60-day extravaganza.
IPL established itself as a two-month league because it was the only window available. The short format, players' auction, daily matches, tailored entertainment, broadcasting innovations, tweaked rules, all have become templates which are being fitted into each sport. But it works. It works so well that the I-League, a classic league running over seven months, seems a misfit amongst these new-age sportainment properties. I-League now has to vie with a spanking fresh IPL-inspired ISL, with all the attractive frills of high-profile owners, and well-known, but semi-retired, foreign players.
Speaking of owners, there exist over 70 franchises across these leagues. With multiple owners for each team, there are more than 200 businesspersons/HNIs/celebrities as franchise owners. The cocktail of money and stardom that IPL introduced has attracted many others. Now there are very few among the affluent who do not own some team or the other; the sport doesn't matter.
While a quick-fix league is not the ideal path, it has ensured multiple sports to gain mindspace amongst brands who can now think beyond cricket, at affordable prices. As the best reality show, because the end is mostly unpredictable, sports has its loyal viewership and the leagues have ensured new converts.
But it can't be a reckless journey because these leagues are short-term solutions. Success will also be short-lived if the fundamentals are ignored. The long-term success of a league depends on quality sporting action and devoted fans rooting for their local teams. The development of a local healthy talent pool gains importance in order to guarantee the growth of this fan base that will spend on tickets, merchandise, memorabilia, as well as attract brands wanting to reach this target audience.
IPL succeeded largely due to world-class talent within the country. It was easy to create a new model around these homegrown stars. Other leagues are easily copying the template, but will find it difficult to create top-notch talent and infrastructure to support the template. Priority needs to be given to these aspects or the leagues will end up depending on has-been foreign greats like in the ISL, or exhibition matches between the world's existing greats like in Bhupathi's IPTL. Surefire recipes for quick death.
There is immense potential for the growth of the sports industry. To put it in perspective, the total players' salaries in the IPL is $80mln, while $100mln is the transfer fee for bite-happy footballer Luis Suarez. The leagues are a good starting point, and the upside is immense. The leagues' owners and organizers need to realize this and astutely build on the IPL template for long-term benefits to all stakeholders.
CP Thomas is co-founder, SportzPower
The views expressed by the author are personal