Indian Premier League (IPL) debuted in 2008, and since then it has created excitement among cricket fans across the world and has been the harbinger of many a sporting leagues in India. IPL’s star-studded Twenty20 cricket tournament has inspired a tranche of ostentatious new sports leagues seeking to replicate the winning formula that landed IPL a bumper $2.55 billion broadcast deal. Star Sports, under the Star India umbrella, shelled out an exorbitant $2.55 billion for IPL media rights over the next five years (2018-2022). Star Sports paid triple of what Sony, the previous TV rights holders, had paid for ten years in 2009. The Star Sports TV rights converts to Rs 55 crore for every IPL match and this leaves the IPL sandwiched between the English Premier League (English football league system contested by 20 clubs) at Rs 84 crore per match and the National Basketball Association (professional basketball league in the United States comprising of thirty franchised teams) at Rs 18 crore per match in terms of highest grossing sporting leagues in the world, with the National Football League (professional American football league consisting of 32 teams) the clear leader earning Rs 150 crore per match.
IPL – famous for its dazzling display, cheerleaders and huge player signing bonuses – has hit the jackpot as it never had trouble filling stadiums, and attracting huge TV audiences even a decade after its debut. IPL has brought not only excitement and the unflinching loyalty of fans, but it has also instilled and awakened a sense of confidence that constructing and executing a league is a possible affair in India despite the burgeoning lack of market space left by cricket.
THE RIPPLE EFFECT
The success of IPL has led to steady growth of sports league in India; currently, there are around 12 operational leagues in the country, with the Indian Super League (Men's professional football league in India comprising of 10 teams founded in October 2013 in partnership with IMG, Reliance Industries, and Star Sports) and the Pro Kabaddi League (professional kabaddi league in India, established in 2014 and administered by Mashal Sports) leading the pack with their steady rise. Indian Badminton League (IBL) when founded in 2013 as a franchise league, operated by Sportz & Live Private Limited. It was rechristened to Premier Badminton League in 2016. Non-conventional sports like billiards, poker, and polo are also establishing professional leagues, bringing together India’s best with the promise of big sign-up fees and prize money. The inaugural season of the Indian Cue Masters League (launched by the Billiards and Snooker Federation of India (BSFI) with franchises from New Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and Ahmedabad in the presence of top players such as 16-time World snooker and billiard champion Pankaj Advani) wrapped in August 2017, with foreign snooker players joining local professionals for a strong first showing. The field of professional franchise expanded further with the Match Indian Poker League and Poker Sports League (PSL) starting in 2017 to popularise poker in the country. Bhavnagar-based industrialist Chirag Parekh conceptualized the Champions Polo League (CPL) in March 2017, to revolutionize a sport that’s still referred to as a game of ‘royals’.
The league witnessed a new avatar of polo, where the size of the playing area was decreased, the ball’s colors were changed and the traditional format was tweaked to make it more entertaining for common people. Professional services and accounting firm Ernst & Young was hired for branding and promotion of CPL. Celebrity talent and big-name sponsors are being deployed by promoters to whip up excitement. Bollywood superstars are not the only investors in these nascent leagues, foreigners like British-Indian entrepreneur Bill Dosanjh are attracted to the growing Indian sports market and has launched two separate leagues in a single year—mixed martial arts and boxing. Advertising and marketing calendars are being built around the sporting leagues like IPL and brand revenue spends are orchestrated to match the sporting leagues surging connect with audiences.
However, sporting leagues in India didn’t start in 2008 with cricket, but actually in 2005 with hockey. The sports league format had been introduced in India with the Premier Hockey League, in 2005 sanctioned by the now-defunct Indian Hockey Federation (was suspended by the Indian Olympic Association on April 28, 2008). However, the audacious effort to get hockey (the national sport) closer to the people fell short and the league wrapped up in 2008 after the federation faced corruption allegations and was suspended by the Indian Olympic Association. Hockey persisted though, and after several hits and misses have found a life in Hockey India League (professional field hockey league in India consisting of six teams, organized by Hockey India, the governing body for the sport in India) that started in 2013 and seems to be gaining popularity over the years.
SPORTS LEAGUE AND THEIR IMPACT
The independent sports league are improving the quality and breadth of sport in India and offering young hopefuls a platform to showcase their talent beyond the national fixation on cricket. Kabaddi, wrestling, tennis, boxing, badminton, yoga, poker, pool—every sport imaginable is rebranding in India as a “super” or “pro” franchise-based competition chasing a slice of an emerging billion-dollar sports entertainment market dominated by cricket’s IPL. New franchises like Pro Kabaddi League are giving rise to sports icons outside the traditional domain of cricket and generating big money. Today, kabaddi players like Nitin Tomar (attracted a record bid of Rs 93 lakh by UP Yoddha’s in the 2017 Pro Kabaddi League auctions, making him the costliest player in the history of the sport) are a household name, earning huge signing bonuses. Pro Kabaddi League received a major ring of endorsement in May 2017 when Chinese smartphone giant VIVO signed a five-year sponsorship deal worth nearly $50 million.
Though the sporting ecosystem is still dominated by IPL, other leagues are contributing enough to build, drive and thrive in a market viciously led by revenue alone. 2016 saw a breakthrough in non-cricket leagues that had long been in the offing. There were two seasons of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) as well as the Kabaddi World Cup — kabaddi sponsorship alone increased by 154% over the previous year. Comprehensive sports sponsorship grew across the board in 2016 to $941 million, a big jump from $825 million in 2015. IPL has been a definite ‘game changer’ and has proved that constant connection to the audiences’ hearts and ability to actively build fan pockets will be the key to sports league success in India. In the new-age sports experience economy, sports as a whole with all leagues currently in existence and in the future, have opened themselves to the priceless value of game-driven data. Localised, fan-cued and loyalty-tuned digital content will provide sporting organizations the ability to leverage mobile, social, in stadia and fan park channels.
The introduction of sports league has made people aware of the importance of sports and also attracted them towards sports. The sports league has introduced Indian to the sports culture, prevailing in other countries, especially the United States. Before the advent of sporting leagues, only cricket and hockey were popular among the masses as they gave international recognition to India. Hockey gave India recognition and respect, as India won eight gold medals that include six successive gold medals from 1928–1956 at the Olympics. Cricket is like a religion to the people of India, where cricketers are worshipped, literally. In the changed scenario, sports leagues in India have invited valuable support and presence of corporate sector. Sports league have not only promoted sports but also created value for all stakeholders in the fraternity. All leagues have had varying levels of success in generating a fan base, inviting sponsorships and ensuring financial viability and profitability for team promoters.
The formation and popularization of sporting leagues in India have provided an opportunity for young talent at the grassroots level to showcase themselves at global platforms like IPL, PKL, etc. Teams across leagues are taking initiatives to attain success, focussing on fan engagement and marketing, apart from on-field performance to build and cultivate a loyal fan base. IPL’s ripple effect has undoubtedly made India a hub of sports leagues that have placed India on the international sports map and slowly but surely emerge as a sports nation.
Prof. Dhananjay Singh,
Assistant Professor, IMT Hyderabad