lmost eight years ago, in a five-star hotel in Mumbai, auctioneer Richard Madley brought down his hammer with a thud and opened a Pandora's box. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s ODI captain fetched a whopping bid of $1.5 million (approximately Rs. 6 Crores) from Chennai Super Kings in the auction to mark the start of the cricketing carnival called the Indian Premier League (IPL). As people watched in awe and shock at the money thrown around for the cricketers, no one would have imagined that these leagues, auctions and city franchises would come to occupy such a central role in Indian sport in the years to come.
After the success of the cash-rich Indian Premier League, professional franchise-based leagues have cropped up in many sports in search of the “Moolah”. From the Indian Super League (ISL) to the Hockey India League (HIL), and now there are even leagues for badminton, wrestling and kabaddi. But the real question is what did these sports get back from all the hype and money surrounding these leagues.
Based on the model of the Major League Soccer (MLS) and the NBA in the United States, the Indian Premier League (IPL) came into existence way back in 2008 as the brainchild of Lalit Modi. Eight years have passed, and even after the stupendous success of the IPL, India’s only title triumph in the format has been the Twenty 20 cup back in 2007, even before the arrival of the cash-rich league. And who knows, may be India’s success in the inaugural T20 World Cup welcomed the IPL and the now defunct Indian Cricket League (ICL) into the scene. In fact, before their series winning performance down under against the Aussies, the Men in Blue were languishing at 8th in the ICC T20 rankings.
The success of the IPL in terms of producing young talents is also debatable. Paul Valthaty, Swapnil Asnodkar, Manpreet Gony and Saurabh Tiwary have proved to be one-hit wonders by throwing up big IPL performances and flopping at the domestic circuits. Thus apart from the hype and the aura it created around, it is difficult to pinpoint IPL’s contribution to the Indian cricket team. With yet another T20 World Cup coming, India has been tagged favourites to win the title on the back of IPL experiences – which proved unsuccessful the last three times.
There is no denying the fact that cricket has been the predecessor for the professional sporting leagues in India, but even before the arrival of IPL on the scene, there have been attempts to replicate the professional league scenario in India.
The first kid on the block was the National Football League, which was launched way back in 1996. The league, launched as the first national football competition in a league format in this nation, showed glimpses of a promise before a slow demise. By 2007, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had rebranded and relaunched the NFL as the I-League in a bid to improve the professionalism and fortunes of Indian football. However, similar to its predecessor, the I-League also went into a steady decline after its initial hype to signal the arrival of yet another league “to save Indian football.”
Based on the city-based franchise idea, the ISL was launched in 2013, and the first season of the tournament took place in September 2014 to add another league to the Indian football scene. After two seasons of “Let’s Football”, the competition has sustained the hype surrounding it and has carved into the world of Indian football leaving the I-League in the doldrums.
Despite seeing three football leagues in 20 years launched purportedly to improve the state of Indian football, on the ground, nothing seems to have changed - India who were ranked 120th in 1996, now rank 163rd in the world. Even though ISL is still in its infancy, the last two seasons have only shown us the glitz and glamour with arguably no end product.
Premier Hockey League (PHL), which was launched in 2005 to revolutionise the hockey scene in the country, also folded up after four seasons losing its initial hype. However, the innovations of the league found acceptance in the international hockey games after a few years, for e.g., the match being divided into four sessions of 17.5 minutes and the new system for the penalty shootout. But it also marked the worst phase of Indian hockey with the team failing to qualify for the 2008 Olympics.
Professional league around hockey came back to the Indian television sets in 2013, this time under a different name called the Hockey India League, promoted by Hockey India beating the rival Indian Hockey Federation’s World Series Hockey (WSH). Into its fourth season, the league is credited for Indian hockey’s recent resurgence, but with players from Holland and Belgium giving the ongoing season a miss to prepare for the Olympics, the league’s contribution will be assessed based on India’s performance in Rio.
Similarly the new entrants in the professional league jamboree like the Premier Badminton League (PBL), Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), Champions Tennis League (CTL) and Pro Wrestling League (PWL) have all arrived at the scene promising “revolutionary changes” in their respective sports.
Indian Badminton League (IBL), which was rechristened as Premier Badminton League (PBL) was held at the start of the year as a pet project of the Badminton Association of India (BAI). The 15-day “Bad-minton” event also showed us some bad effects of the league. Saina Nehwal, the flag bearer of Indian badminton, looked visibly injured and short of fitness during all her matches in the PBL. With the Indian ace opting to pull out of the recently-concluded Syed Modi GPG with injury, the unwarranted exertion in the PBL may come to haunt India’s hopes of an Olympics medal six months down the line. Like HIL, PBL also saw the withdrawal of many international stars with the Olympics just six months away.
(Also Read: A Saina fan's plea to India's badminton authorities)
The first edition of Pro Wrestling League (PWL) has also a similar story with several International wrestlers pulling out at the last moment citing the Olympics preparations. It remains to be seen whether Indian wrestlers will gain or lose from their exploits in the league.
Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), which came into existence in 2014 has put the sport of Kabaddi on a higher pedestal and made it popular even in metros. But then, the organisers are now out to kill the golden goose by conducting two seasons a year. Even while showering all the praise on the organisers of putting a “not-so-popular” sport in the public eye, questions do arise over viewer fatigue.
Then there are the tennis leagues, the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) and the Champions Tennis League (CTL). Apart from the high-profile match-up between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the IPTL, both leagues went under the radar in their second season. Lack of upcoming stars meant the tournaments putting its faith on veterans like Leander Paes, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza.
Like all the newly formed leagues, it remains to be seen whether any of these will translate into performances for the country on the world stage.
On the positive side, every league will talk about the exposure and experience it will give to the Indian players by giving them an opportunity to play along with the International stars. Apart from cricket, all the other leagues are also giving their respective sports a branding and a much-needed attention. The remuneration the players receive from these short tournaments is also another positive considering the peanuts they receive as salaries for their hard work and toil to bring glory to the nation.
But are these reasons enough to celebrate these leagues? In my opinion, they need to do much more than provide “entertainment” to be celebrated as revolutionising Indian sport. The popularity and the money the leagues make may play a huge part in terms of advertising and marketing, but it matters very little on the performance side. Even with arguably the most popular football league in the world, England is yet to make a substantial performance at the International tournaments.
From the IPL to the latest entrant PWL, all professional leagues in India offer glitz and glamour, replete with Bollywood stars and cash-rich businessmen, cheerleaders and month-long marketing campaigns. But at the end of the day apart from throwing the money around, none of these leagues have put in a proper plan of developing talent from the grassroots. The development of any sport will only happen from the grassroots level, and without academies and nurturing young talents, the noise surrounding these leagues will slowly fade away. With international competitions awaiting India in various sporting arenas in the upcoming months, we will come to know the impact of these cash-rich leagues very soon.