Is Indian sport poised for a big leap, with corporates taking the lead to put in huge money into various disciplines that would help us become a sporting powerhouse?
A nation whose energy, money and adulation so far has been focused on just one sport — cricket — has suddenly found benefactors who are now buying and selling players across the sporting arena, be it hockey, golf, boxing and even wrestling or kabaddi.
Judging by the response of the public and players alike, the mushrooming of various private leagues is seen as a boon not only for sports but for the players as well, who are for the first time being paid substantial amounts.
The latest sport to join this bandwagon is badminton, where around 36 Indian players have been auctioned and bought by various franchises for between R20 to 90 lakh.
This may still be a pittance in comparison to what cricketers are being paid for playing in the domestic T20 league, but a handsome bounty when compared to what they have been getting so far to represent the country.
Welcome as this money is for the cash-starved sports disciplines in India, the question remains as to whether this going to help the collective growth of Olympic sports.
The IPL-isation of Indian sport, where franchise-owned private leagues are mushrooming, is the reality of the day. It is obvious that many businessmen see in this a potential to not only increase the brand value of their wares but also make profits from these leagues. In the process if Indian sport benefits, why should anyone have a problem!
Scratch the surface and one suddenly sees many pitfalls in such a structure whose edifice is based on the success of the domestic T20 league. Unlike any other sport in the country, cricket's popularity and the fan-following of the players is unmatched anywhere in the world.
An Indian fan would go to see even the 12th man of an England team than remember the name of a sports star in any other field.
The cricket league's popularity lies in this fan-base where the fan gets to see the best players of the world play against and with each other in a format that guarantees instant thrills.
Yet, as we know today, not only is its revenue model flawed (franchises are suffering loses), its opaque governance has also created many problems that include the obnoxious spectre of fixing by the players. Its success has come at a cost that any sport can ill afford to pay.
Now transfer this model to other sport and what results would one expect? True, the costs of creating these leagues are much, much lower than the domestic T20 league, but so is its fan base.
Does anyone seriously think that this badminton league will draw mammoth crowds or shoot TRP ratings through the roof? Obviously not. Crowds may come to watch Saina Nehwal play, but would be unlikely to switch on their TV sets when the rest of the pack is playing.
The same holds true for the other leagues and once the franchise owners realise that this is a game of losses they might lose interest. After all, one should not forget that private enterprise is not about altruism, but about money and profits.
The second critical aspect of these leagues will be its governance. The Badminton League created bad blood among the players the very day it was launched. The glamour girl of the sport Jawala Gutta, cried foul, accusing the organisers of demeaning her dignity and self-respect by selling her at half the price that was reserved for her.
And once the tournament begins, there could be a repeat of all those unsavoury incidents that have now become part of the cricket league. This is not to say that these things are bound to happen, but only to warn the organisers of the dangers of organising such leagues, unless proper regulations are put in place.
As far as overall development of sport is concerned, a recap of a newspaper item that described the travails of the Indian badminton junior players, on the very day the top stars were being showered with money would be instructive: The qualifying tournament for the junior nationals carried on till 4.30 am in the morning, frustrating and disgusting everyone connected with the game.
True, sports stars need good money as reward for their hard work and achievements but for the game to grow and spread, it needs money at the grassroot level and proper administration in place. Unless that happens, these leagues, as long as they last, will fill the coffers of a chosen few, but not benefit the overall growth of the sport.