Leagues of opportunity

As two-month leagues sprouted, with each sport seeking desperately to improve in profile, corporate India saw an opportunity in areas outside cricket. These competitions have enjoyed varying degrees of success. The ProKabaddi League has been a sensation; the Indian Super League, it now seems, will shape the future of domestic competition; and the HIL sees the world’s best players in action. Badminton, in its two avatars (IBL and PBL), has also managed to attract some of the sport’s top-ranked professionals.

The Indian Super League is changing Indian football's thought processes for the better.   -  AFP

The ProKabaddi League has been a runaway success.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Life for Harjeet Singh, the captain of the Junior Indian hockey team, has not been easy. The 20-year-old’s father, a truck-driver back home in Punjab, did his best to support the family but there was always hardship. So when earlier this year Delhi Waveriders paid USD 2000 for his services in the 2016 Hockey India League, Harjeet was more than grateful. “We were saving up to build a house of our own. We still live in our uncle’s home. We could begin construction when this money arrived,” he said at the SAI during the team’s preparatory camp for the Junior hockey World Cup.

A number of his team-mates — Armaan Qureshi, Parvinder Singh and Varun Kumar — have similar tales to tell: of cash from the HIL proving useful in difficult financial circumstances.

The explosion of shiny, new franchise-based leagues in India, since the inception of the IPL in 2008, has undeniably put money in players’ pockets across sports. But their emergence is more than just about financial reward.

Rakesh Kumar, who attracted the highest bid when the first ProKabaddi League auction was conducted in 2014, put it well. “I have a very good job with the Railways. The money is not the main issue; it is about recognition and respect,” he said at the SAI in Bengaluru. “This is the first time something like this is happening with our sport.” As two-month leagues sprouted, with each sport seeking desperately to improve in profile, corporate India saw an opportunity in areas outside cricket. These competitions have enjoyed varying degrees of success. The ProKabaddi League has been a sensation; the Indian Super League, it now seems, will shape the future of domestic competition; and the HIL sees the world’s best players in action. Badminton, in its two avatars (IBL and PBL), has also managed to attract some of the sport’s top-ranked professionals.

What, though, is the impact of these leagues on Indian players and the sport in general? It cannot be disputed that the ISL — whatever the quality of play — has exposed Indian football to a new level of professionalism.

 

“Everything is so scientifically done,” felt former India international Raman Vijayan, an assistant coach with Delhi Dynamos. “The programmes for fitness and recovery are so elaborate and detailed. Having swimming pool sessions at the team hotel, being in the sauna and the gym at a particular time — everything is monitored.

“All these ideas existed in our time as well, but they were not strictly implemented. If you look at the I-League now, teams do their pre-season training at home. Whatever facilities you have — you don’t bother. In the ISL, almost all the teams have gone abroad and trained. The facilities and the standard of practice matches are completely different. That has helped the players a great deal,” Raman Vijayan said.

Indranil Das Blah, CEO of Mumbai City FC, agreed. “The physiotherapists, masseurs, and doctors that all the clubs have brought in are those you’d find in any leading club in Europe,” he said.

In the HIL, interaction with the world’s best has helped India’s players improve their skills. Rupinderpal Singh admitted that he had to work on his tackling as a defender at the start of this year. “In the HIL, I spoke to overseas players who played similar roles for their team,” he said. “I took their views on board and implemented a few changes. I spoke to my Delhi Waveriders team-mate Iain Lewers (of England) often. He was quite helpful.”

Even to a player as established as Rupinderpal, success in the HIL — he was declared ‘Player of the Tournament’ — made a big difference. “A lot has changed after the HIL. I didn’t imagine that so many people watched hockey,” he said. “My dad was thrilled. I got a lot of love, from my friends, neighbours and relatives. All of them felt proud that one of them — from their little town — had achieved something like this.”

Vijay Lancy, a former National Games gold-medallist in badminton, was CEO of the Bengaluru franchise, Banga Beats, in the IBL’s first edition in 2013. “With clever marketing you can make a tournament big but you can’t replace the fact that you have the best players in the world currently playing,” he stated. “There was Lee Chong Wei, Carsten Mogensen, Saina Nehwal and Carolina Marin. You were not watching ex-players or players ranked 70 and 80 in the world. These were active, top players. How often would a fan in India get the opportunity to watch Lee Chong Wei? Someone like Akshay Dewalkar, who is one of the best in India at doubles, gets the chance to play with Carsten Mogensen, who’s the best in the world at doubles. Players get to observe top players and be with them. It’s great.”

However, it is the PKL that is, arguably, the greatest success story among all these. It has changed the face of kabaddi. According to TV viewership figures released by BARC, the PKL has shown a cumulative growth of 51% over its four seasons. The impact on the popularity of the Kabaddi World Cup was palpable.

A tournament hitherto forgotten was given a fresh lease of life. The World Cup, held in October in Ahmedabad, received total TV viewership of 114 million according to BARC, with the final registering a staggering 20.3 million impressions. The PKL flourished because of how it was packaged, produced and broadcast on TV. Two seasons in a single calendar year originally felt like overkill but it did not seem to subdue the interest in the World Cup.

What the long-term impact of these leagues will be, though, remains to be seen, for they are all just a few editions old. The ISL, for all its glamour and high professional standards, is only a two-month tournament. There may be gains for players involved in it now, but the competition has done little to improve the standard of Indian football in general. A lot rests on how the AIFF handles the proposed merger between the ISL and the I-League.

In the new year, kabaddi will return, as will the HIL. The Indian Table Tennis League is poised to take off next, with the inaugural edition tentatively scheduled for the middle of 2017. The star-studded Pro Wrestling League was dogged by problems in its first year but a second edition has been scheduled.

How successful these events are will be determined by how relevant they are able to remain. There is undoubted benefit for current players like Harjeet, but the futures of the sports themselves are far from secure.