Pro Kabaddi League to ISL: The decade of financial avenues

The fact that a badminton and a table tennis player, a wrestler and a boxer, and not just a cricketer, have a manager to promote their business interests is the new reality for an Indian sportsman.

P. V. Sindhu of Hyderabad Hunters, the Premier Badminton League franchise, shares a light moment with Chennai Smashers’ Chris Adcock and Gabrielle Adcock, in Bengaluru last year.   -  K. MURALI KUMAR

 

It has been a wonderful decade for Indian sports. Achievements have come in varied fields and the success story has led to a proliferation of events, some competitive and some not. But overall there has been an acceptance of sport becoming professional in approach and deeds. Youngsters are looking at sport as a career option and that is the essence of how the decade has panned.

When you hear that hockey players are vacationing overseas it reflects on the healthy state of affairs in Indian sport. This privilege was restricted to mostly cricketers, who would pamper themselves with the luxuries of life. Gradually, the cricketers were joined by the golfers, badminton and tennis players, boxers too, as prize money increased in domestic sport and along with it the commercial value of achievers in the field of sports.

The healthy state of Indian sport is a confirmation of society having realised the need to recognise the heroes. Cricketers have benefited the most from the Board’s earnings through television rights. In the last decade, many state governments took encouraging steps to award their sportsmen handsomely and that led to a huge surge in participation. As a result the quality too improved and the youth could look forward to a “good life” from a career in sport.

High stakes: Kabaddi players are now household names. Star raider Siddharth Desai became the second-most expensive player in the history of PKL after Telugu Titans paid ₹1.45 crore to get his services.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

“There is much to gain from being a sportsman now,” asserts former India hockey great Zafar Iqbal. “We may have played for the love of the game but there is much more than that now. There is money to be made to ensure you live a secure life and I think we must thank the government for keeping various schemes going through monetary benefits to the sportsmen.”

The government offers incentives in the form of jobs and financial support to talented sportsmen. “We played sport for social security also. There was no big money but there was the assurance of a job if you excelled at sport. That was a huge encouragement for sportsmen of my generation,” admitted hockey great Ashok Kumar. “I saw my father (the legendary Dhyan Chand) end his career with little earning from hockey but the government job kept the family going.”
 

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Sportsmen, other than cricketers, who ended their careers in the 80s and 90s tasted the early fruits of sponsorships and an increase in financial returns from their feats. “For a table tennis player, the biggest attraction was a secure job and of course participation in tournaments at home and overseas. There were a few tournaments where a player could look to make the most of the prize money on offer but that was hardly enough to sustain a career. The support came from the government job. All that has changed now,” noted veteran star Kamlesh Mehta.

For Manika Batra, the golds at the Commonwealth Games changed her life. The achievement fetched her a financial boost from various government award schemes and also established her image in the society. She emerged as a brand and a few commercial deals landed in her lap. “It was unthinkable in my times,” smiled Mehta. It was very much the difference between the times of Mehta and Manika. She figured in quite a few advertisements and her stock went up thanks mainly to sport being recognised as a field of excellence.

How fortunes change!: For table tennis star Manika Batra, the golds at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 changed her life. She won a silver and a bronze, too.   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

 

The Indian Premier League (IPL) was a sporting revolution that was to change the face of Indian sport. Cricketers, some with negligible achievements at the international level, became millionaires overnight through the franchise-driven league. Lalit Modi, with his amazing business acumen, turned cricket into a money-spinning platform and the cascading impact saw other disciplines too progress in a big way.

“Who would have imagined first-class cricketers making millions from annual auctions?,” asked former India all-rounder Madan Lal. “It was a fantastic development. It gave the players financial security and improved the lives of cricketers overall. Thanks to the IPL, the game went through welcome changes and there was much to look forward in a career that promised such security,” noted Madan Lal.

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The success of IPL led to more and more disciplines introducing sporting leagues. It changed the way people played and watched sports. “It was not just about money. There was a complete transformation of the image of a sportsman and his fans. The focus was on quality and performance because the franchise owners paid the players handsomely and expected returns too. I think there was a big reason for one to pursue a professional career in sports and credit must be given to the introduction of the sporting leagues,” observed Mehta.

It was a decade of franchisee leagues in India and it changed the landscape of Indian sports. The leagues not only boosted the profile of the sport and the sportsmen, but also created a new set of followers. The advent of the IPL, Indian Super League, Pro Kabaddi League and Pro Badminton League, showed the way for more such competitions in boxing, hockey and wrestling. The winner was the sportsman who gained individually.

Another aspect: Former hockey player Ashok Kumar, the son of the legendary Dhyan Chand, has a different viewpoint. “There is a dearth of good tournaments at the domestic level. You can’t always depend on these leagues to throw up talented faces. There is little work at the ground level because everyone is struck by money and glamour,” he argues.   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

 

The football leagues of Europe became shining examples for franchisee-driven concepts in India. The IPL attracted players from all over the world to an extent that some picked private leagues over national teams. “Mercenary” was a new term as players restricted their participation mostly to the leagues. The fans did not mind as long as they got to see world class players.

Franchisee-driven leagues may have boosted the financial status of the players but the process has led to debates on the quality of the competition. “It is mostly entertainment,” said former India captain Bishan Singh Bedi. Being a traditionalist, Bedi does not appreciate the importance given to private leagues. And rightly so. These leagues don’t always reflect the true standard of the sport.

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In football, the fan has not been happy with the state of affairs since the advent of the ISL. The league has given a new shape to football in the country, with the support of the All-India Football Federation. “It is the way forward,” says D. K. Bose, a long-time promoter of the game. Most clubs have found the going tough at the local and domestic level and the ISL is seen as a “saviour” by many.

Many private football clubs have shut in India and the ISL is seen as the lifeline for the game. As veteran journalist Jaydeep Basu observed, “The base of the game are the local clubs and franchisee-driven leagues don’t encourage that concept. They promise money to the players but where is the competitive flavour? I don’t think the ISL has promoted the game at the same level as the clubs have over the years. The death of many clubs is a poignant reminder that this is not the best way forward for Indian football,” he maintained.

A welcome thing: “Who would have imagined first-class cricketers making millions from annual auctions?” asked former India all-rounder Madan Lal. “It was a fantastic development. It gave the players financial security and improved the lives of cricketers overall,” he added.   -  R. V. MOORTHY

 

One sport which has gained from having a competitive league and television exposure is kabaddi. It has emerged from the background of a rural sport to offer a league (started in 2013) which has come to boast of a niche following. Star Sports has done an excellent job as a broadcaster to make kabaddi players household names. Star raider Siddharth Desai became the second-most expensive player in the history of PKL after Telugu Titans paid Rs 1.45 crore to get his services. The sport has only extended its base and the fans have come to accept it as an essential part of their sporting calendar.

When Mehta thought of a league for table tennis players he met with ridicule. “There was hardly any encouragement but we have managed to boost the profile of the sport. We offer world class facilities and decent prize money. Of course, support from broadcasters and the media plays a big role but we are happy to have a more than decent response from the spectators and the top rung players in the game,” said Mehta.

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Badminton too has improved its image with players commanding good price from the franchisees. P. V. Sindhu has been an icon for the game and a price of ₹ 77 lakh for her at the auction in November 2019 only reconfirmed the growing popularity of the league. As P. Gopi Chand had remarked, “The leagues have come to stay and it is certainly a good development for the game.”

Highly lucrative: “There is much to gain from being a sportsman now,” asserts former India hockey great Zafar Iqbal. “We may have played for the love of the game but there is much more than that now.”   -  SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

 

The franchisee-driven leagues have not only changed the life of sportsmen, but also the spectators. The loyalty factor has led to a new fan following for sports with the youth looking forward to cheer for their heroes even when they are not playing for the country. “I don’t miss the league competitions because there is so much to savour and enjoy. True, there is nothing like a country versus country contest but I have grown watching these leagues and accept them as much for their competition as entertainment,” remarked Ashwin Krishnan, a sports consultant.

How these leagues have helped individual sports and the players — past and present — is an interesting case study. They have created niche followers and also the desire to perform consistently well among sportsmen. “If you are not consistent and don’t deliver your price falls at the next auction,” says former India hockey star Jagbir Singh.

The flip side of these leagues is the death of traditional tournaments. State championships have lost their relevance as players are noticed for their showing in these leagues. “There is a dearth of good tournaments at the domestic level. You can’t always depend on these leagues to throw up talented faces. There is little work at the ground level because everyone is struck by money and glamour,” argued Ashok Kumar, who spends time coaching junior girls in Ajmer.

There are many who feel the proliferation of leagues has helped Indian sport grow. “At the end of the day, you have to run the kitchen of your house and that comes from the earning from these leagues. I don’t agree that there is a lack of quality competition. Look at cricket, badminton, football. They are as good as you can get. You get to see some top foreign players. In any case, how are they harming your traditional sports? Would kabaddi have become so popular without the idea of a league which is so well projected on television?” insisted Krishnan, who is acknowledged for his skills as venue manager in the IPL.

Sporting leagues in the last decade have given the Indian spectator some exciting stuff to enjoy at the venue and on television. The players, past and present, have carved professional careers for themselves. There are job opportunities for the players and the organisers and it is a thriving industry. “The earnings from these leagues (selling merchandise) helps us sustain ourselves for the year. There is some work or other for everyone,” said Kuldeep Singh, who sells t-shirts and franchisee flags during the sporting season.

The sporting profile has witnessed huge changes in the way one plays and watches the games. Watching sporting leagues on television is an addiction for the youth but as a veteran sports lover observed, “There is nothing like enjoying the contests at the venues.”

A sea change: “It was not just about money. There was a complete transformation of the image of a sportsman and his fans. The focus was on quality and performance because the franchise owners paid the players handsomely and expected returns too,” is former table tennis star Kamlesh Mehta’s take.   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

 

Sadly, sports, and the leagues, have become entertainment mostly on television. The last decade has created a new set of sports followers, much to the delight of the sportsmen. The fact that a badminton and a table tennis player, a wrestler and a boxer, and not just a cricketer, have a manager to promote their business interests is the new reality for an Indian sportsman. Much of the credit for this image must go to the sporting leagues which promise a good life to a professional player.