It is beyond doubt that India, especially in the sporting landscape, has witnessed some divides as well as contradictions. While glamorous and cash-rich leagues have burst onto the scene, penetrated deeper into the fan base and taken sports in the nook and cranny of the country, there is the other side with a different story altogether.

One can often see how sportspersons struggle to make their ends meet and get crushed under adversity. Despite a thriving, cash-rich league structure all around the country, has India’s sporting ecosystem changed for the good? In the case of cricket, a sport that is religiously followed in India, the introduction of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008 created a benchmark for professional cricket leagues worldwide. It presented a template for every sport in India as well. While IPL brought exponential growth in terms of revenue in cricket, the biggest gainers were indeed cricketers and technical staff. Other sporting leagues tried to follow the IPL formula but barring a few, not many could create a successful revenue model.

The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) has become a franchise-based professional league and is a hugely successful template for non-cricket sports in the country. The PKL has been able to make its way to the top especially when in India, it is very difficult to topple cricket from its numero uno position. However, controversy, the fiasco in the Kabaddi Federation of India, has let the sport down. The loss of the Indian men and women’s teams at the Asian Games last year, perhaps, bares cracks that run deep and goes on to show that India’s already small foothold of the game is also fading away.

Football indeed has made steady growth, thanks to the introduction of the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2013. The ISL has strong financial backing from both the Reliance Group and the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The I-league has been pushed to second division in order to make ISL the premier tournament in the country, and the latter has benefitted from this. However, confusions and controversies are galore and every now and then, critics and football analysts opine that ISL’s vision to create a proper footballing ecosystem in the country has remained just a pipedream.

As unfortunate as it sounds, India is yet to have an ecosystem conducive to and encouraging of privately-run sports leagues. Apart from the three sports leagues mentioned above, no other can be said to be as successful or claim to have penetrated as deep into the fan base or resulting in as massive a following.

“In India, if one closely follows the sporting ecosystem, they can figure out the root of all problems. It goes like this – a sports league is supported by a federation and the federation is backed by big political names. Unfortunately, unlike cricket, other sports have been following this formula for quite some time. Politically backed sports leagues can somehow survive but cannot thrive. The sporting ecosystem in India starts with politics and ends with it, as unfortunate as it sounds,” said Ritoban Mitra, a freelance sports journalist in Kolkata.

Paul R., a sports management professional from Bengaluru, is of the opinion that a strong fan base is
pivotal in a healthy sports ecosystem. “For any sports league to succeed, the most important component is a fan base. There are so many elements that create a fan base, like players, games won, the popularity of the sport, brands promoting the sport and so on. Currently, all these elements are lacking in most sports other than cricket,” says Paul. “There is definitely a possibility of other sports leagues coming up if they are able to develop fan engagement. Innovative methods can be used to improve interests in other sports. It’s not an easy task, but not impossible as well.”

BCCI’s model of governance has assured a certain return for the franchisee owners and helped them believe it will continue to be a flourishing business model. In the long run, administrators of other sports have not been able to take a similar approach. In the case of ISL, the model assured by the trio of Reliance Group, AIFF and Star Sports has convinced franchisee owners to believe an assured growth is guaranteed, although FC Pune City, a Pune-based franchise club winded down its operations recently.

“Marketing and brand building play a pivotal role in making a league successful irrespective of the sport. Then it comes to the commitment by the league owners which help the franchisee owners to perceive it as a successful business model. That has been the case for leagues like the IPL or ISL,” says Paul.

“Unlike IPL or ISL, or even PKL for that matter, lack of planning and unprofessionalism among the owners have marred other leagues. All you need is a sustained effort and honest commitments,” he added.

Over the years, there have been external factors that have hindered other sports from flourishing in India. These include unrealistic statutory compliances, red-tapism, and exorbitant costs for hiring stadiums or grounds discourage league owners to dream big. Therefore, unless other sports are seen as a tool for development, they cannot grow as an industry, eventually harming athletes and sportsmen from making a decent living, unlike their cricket and football counterparts.

So, what can be done to change the current ecosystem so that other sports in the country get the same popularity as cricket and football?

“The sports league franchisees entering the Indian market should be able to address the concerns of those currently involved in various sports,” Paul opines. “They should also focus on bringing up the new generation with the right trainers, infrastructure and emotional support. Budding athletes should be made to understand that apart from earning money, becoming a part of these leagues is prestigious, and they should put their best foot forward.”

“At the same time, creating a fan base is equally important. For sports other than cricket to be religiously followed, active involvement of the masses is the need of the hour,” Paul signs off.

Saptak Ghosh

Saptak Ghosh is a Sports Management Professional, Writer, Solo-Traveller, History-buff and a Conservationist.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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