League is where the heart is

Hero to zero… Mohammed Rafique poses with the trophy after his team, Atletico de Kolkata, defeated Kerala Blasters FC in the ISL final last year. Rafique, who scored the winner in dying seconds, went unsold at the domestic draft this year.-ISL/ SPORTZPICS

The advent of the leagues, despite their varying impact, has changed how India views and watches sport. To some extent, it has also changed how the country’s sportspersons measure their value, writes Priyansh.

“It would be just as accurate to describe the crowd as an audience — the majority were neutrals, there for the closing ceremony, the lasers and fireworks, the western fast-food brands and to spot their favourite actor in the VIP seats. Plus, of course, because they love football — they just never had a chance to show how much within a safe, family environment.

Everything that so many fans in Europe, especially England, decry as ruining the game has seemingly enriched it in India. There is a difference between a seemingly endless passion being mined for profit by greedy executives and soulless corporations, and the attempt here to rejuvenate a dormant love for a game marginalised by its flashier cousin, using whatever means necessary to improve the experience.”

So wrote Saptarshi Ray in The Guardian as he described the atmosphere at the D. Y. Patil Stadium for the first Indian Super League (ISL) final. It was a glitzy and glamorous setting; India’s rich and well-to-do providing the gleam to the 37,000-seater arena.

The narrative seekers had their share of joy too, as a relatively unknown Indian player by the name of Mohammed Rafique scored the winner in dying seconds for Atletico de Kolkata. Despite the obvious focus on foreigners and ensuring a high-quality product, the tournament was sold as a platform that would help rejuvenate Indian football. Nita Ambani, founder and chairperson of Football Sports Development (promoter of ISL), sang from the same hymn sheet in an interview to an English daily at the end of the competition last year.

“The ISL was created to provide a platform for India’s players, and the benefit is there for everyone to see. Through ISL, our boys got exposed to international standards, facilities, training, diet and coaching. Look at the difference it has made in the attitude and body language of our boys when they took the field with international players… The likes of Romeo (Fernandes), Sandesh (Jhingan), Cavin (Lobo), Durga (Boro), Balwant (Singh) have all suddenly become household names. What’s needed is to provide the right atmosphere for our boys, so that our own heroes can emerge.”

Mrs. Ambani’s pronouncements leave little room for disagreement, but it wasn’t all hunky-dory for Indian football. The rules allowed six foreign players to be fielded in the playing XI. This limited the opportunities for homegrown talent to display their wares. The subsequent impact on Indian football was more serious — there were fewer takers for the Federation Cup and I-League as compared to past years. The experience of the ISL had left a pleasant taste; the hunger had been nearly sated and an inferior level of competition was never going to arouse significant interest. Furthermore, Indians who had played in the ISL had been exhausted by the time I-League began. The dip was inevitable.

There is a distinct possibility that the downward trend will seep into the second season of the ISL. When Mohammed Rafique went unsold at the domestic draft, it was a symbolic moment. The ISL may bring only transient glory for the Indian footballer. In fact, it remains to be seen whether the future holds the same fate for the competition too.

Sushil Kumar... very optimistic about the Pro Wrestling League.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

With the exception of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the other leagues in India are taking baby steps. And true to the analogy, they are stumbling, getting up, balancing themselves through support and walking forward somehow.

The Indian Badminton League couldn’t even manage that. After one season, it lies in wait for its second iteration. The multiple delays have led some to believe the competition won’t return anytime soon, despite the claims to the contrary by the tournament organisers. Some reports suggest that the inaugural edition suffered a loss of Rs. 25 crore. Despite the presence of top players like Lee Chong Wei and Indian stars, the tournament received a lukewarm response from the public.

Other leagues are better placed, but their future remains unstable. A latest addition to the list once again promises to change the future of a particular discipline — wrestling. Pro Wrestling aims to field the best Indian and international wrestlers in a city-based franchise format featuring six teams from November 8 to 29.

“Pro Wrestling League is going to be very good for the Indian wrestlers as we would get a lot of exposure while competing and playing alongside top grapplers of the world. We always talk about getting exposure and through this event we would get it sitting in our own country. The fact that we would be able to fight some of the best in the world before the Rio Olympics next year will be an added bonus for us,” said two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar. However, again, it would be wise to receive the launch of a new league cautiously. The promises are rarely commensurate with what goes on later.

The only league that has arguably exceeded expectations is the Pro Kabaddi League. Even in its second iteration, despite the various cosmetic changes to the sport, it has managed to attract crowds. The television ratings are encouraging too.

No takers... action from a Hockey India League game between UP Wizards and Punjab Warriors. HIL's lack of popularity is indeed surprising.-RAJEEV BHATT

The Hockey India League (HIL) was expected to garner similarly huge crowds but it hasn’t witnessed a PKL-like popularity. While people have turned out in big numbers in the smaller cities, places like Delhi have witnessed a lukewarm response.

HIL’s lack of popularity is indeed surprising. Despite possessing top names and a top-quality broadcast on TV, the league has failed to capture the imagination of the people.

Perhaps, there are lessons to be learnt from a competition in Maharashtra that continues to attract attention. The Premier Tennis League (PTL), in spite of its small budget, has been a relative success. Organised by Amanora Education Foundation and authorised by the Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA), the competition solely possesses Indian players. Tournament Director Nitin Kirtane has overseen the tournament’s development since its inception in 2012. With the cream of Indian players participating in the PTL, it has found constant encouragement and support from the nation’s tennis fraternity.

The ups and downs of other leagues have been reflected even greatly in the most successful sports league in the country — the IPL. Since it began in 2008, the competition has seen various controversies. Some of the problems have threatened its success greatly, the latest being the suspension of Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals for a period of two years.

However, despite the major problems, the IPL remains the only Indian league that has had an impact on how the particular sporting discipline is played worldwide. The tournament’s success has had on- and off-field consequences for cricket.

The advent of the leagues, despite their varying impact, has changed how India views and watches sport. To some extent, it has also changed how the country’s sportspersons measure their value. With greater pay packages on offer, there is greater incentive for youngsters to play sport. However, there is much that needs to be done before it becomes a viable career option.

Moreover, the changes in the Indian sporting ecosystem have heralded a new age of marketing. For years, it was often said that the Indian market was ripe for the taking if entrepreneurs wished to exploit the opportunities to establish sporting leagues. This represented a sustainable business model. While the sustainability remains in doubt, the experiment with leagues is set to continue.