Ask any sports lover to trace the true roots of sports leagues in India and chances are their first guess will be the Indian Premier League (IPL). Every cricket fan remembers the first match of the inaugural IPL season in April 2008 when New Zealand’s Brendon McCullum, representing Kolkata Knight Riders, played a swashbuckling innings of 158 runs, helping his team beat Royal Challengers Bangalore.
However, what if we were to tell you that the ‘league fever’ in India didn’t start in 2008 with cricket, but actually in 2005 with hockey? Three years before the IPL started with much fanfare in the country, the sports league format had already been introduced in India with the Premier Hockey League, which was sanctioned in 2005 by the now-defunct Indian Hockey Federation. It’s another story altogether that the audacious effort to get 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, has found a life in Hockey India League that started in 2013 and seems to be gaining popularity over the years.
Interestingly, the Premier Hockey League is just one of the many sports leagues in India that either fizzled out or are still having a tough time competing with the ‘big boys’ (read the IPL, Indian Super League and Pro Kabaddi League). Despite this, however, many new sporting leagues are being launched in the country—the latest in the series are yoga, polo and poker. This brings us to the question: are new sporting leagues being launched just because it’s fashionable to do so or because they are seen as a way to make quick money? “The IPL’s success has triggered off many other leagues, but not all of them will be successful. There is a ‘hardship’ quotient in running a league. Cricket is a big and lucrative sport, but every league will not have it so easy. We have seen badminton skip a year… even wrestling is facing issues. It’s not a given that there is money to be made for everybody. That is not going to happen,” says cricket expert and senior journalist Ayaz Memon.
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If we talk about yoga, one wonders how exactly a 5,000-year-old practice will be moulded into a league. As per various news reports, sports marketing firms Baseline Ventures and Republic of Sports, the organisers behind the league, plan to introduce it as a mix of yoga and ‘Bollywood entertainment’. Contestants from various teams in India and across the world will perform yoga asanas to the tunes of Bollywood songs. The two firms have also acquired the long-term rights for the property from the Yoga Federation of India and Asian Yoga Federation to conduct the Yoga League in Asia, which was to start in the first quarter of this year, as per reports. Reports also suggest that the team franchisees will not be sold and a number of Bollywood and international celebrities, and yoga gurus will be part of the league. Given the fact that viewership, sponsorships and broadcasting play a key role in the success of a league, how the Yoga League performs remains to be seen.
Then there’s the upcoming Poker Sports League (PSL), the brainchild of businessmen Amit Burman, Anuj Gupta and Pranav Bagai, which aims to popularise poker in the country. In its first edition, the PSL will consist of 12 teams—Bengaluru Jokers, Chennai Bulls, Delhi Panthers, Goan Nuts, Gujarat Acers, Haryana Hunters, Hyderabad Kings, Kolkata Royals, Mumbai Anchors, Pune Sharks, Punjab Bluffers, Rajasthan Tilters—with a total of 108 players. Each team will consist of nine players, who will compete for a prize money of `3.36 crore. The stakes are high, but again, what face it takes is a million-dollar question.
Another trend being noticed now is the launch of ‘state’ versions of national leagues. Take, for instance, the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL). The TNPL, inspired by the IPL, started in August 2016 with eight franchisees from across the state. In the first season, it recorded viewership numbers of 44 million, as per industry data. In comparison, the first three matches of this year’s IPL had a phenomenal reach of 185.7 million viewers, as per audience measurement agency Broadcast Audience Research Council.
In 2011, a similar cricket league was started in Odisha. After just two seasons, the Odisha Premier League ran into financial problems. Efforts to revive the league have so far gone in vain. “The issue is continuity, as well as money. All these leagues are commercial entities. So unless there is money to be made for promoters, players, team owners, etc, there won’t be any attraction,” Memon explains.
Sometime back, the Board of Control for Cricket in India also announced a ‘mini’ IPL to be held in the US, but recent reports suggest that the plans have been put on hold for now.
The scene is not very much different in football. Goan clubs Dempo Sports Club, Salgaocar FC and Sporting Clube de Goa pulled out of the I-League last year to protest against the proposed restructuring of domestic football in India that would make the Indian Super League a top-tier league, relegating the I-League lower down the ladder. The turmoil comes at a time when India is preparing to host the Fifa U-17 World Cup in October.
Besides restructuring of teams and formats, other issues like the government’s demonetisation drive last year also forced many leagues such as the Pro Wrestling League and the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) to take a step back. The IPTL, whose India leg was held in Hyderabad from December 9-11 last year, didn’t see Roger Federer and Serena Williams participating due to the “economic climate” of the country. “We have had challenges… but we are hoping to get past them. With the economic climate in India and the uncertainty, I reached out to both Roger (Federer) and Serena (Williams) to explain the situation… we look forward to having them in future editions,” IPTL founder Mahesh Bhupathi had said in an official statement at the time.
Goldie Behl, co-owner, Haryana Hammers of the Pro Wrestling League, says, “Some leagues and teams are not doing well. Monetising sports is a new avenue in India. We must take conservative steps towards it.”
Despite the uncertainty, upcoming sports leagues are going full steam ahead. Take, for instance, the Champions Polo League. Conceptualised by Bhavnagar-based industrialist Chirag Parekh, the league aims to revolutionise a sport that’s still referred to as a game of ‘royals’. “The league will be a new avatar of polo. We are trying to revoultionise the sport and find a way to involve the masses. Many corporate and luxury brands have also shown a lot of interest. The response has been positive,” says Parekh, a polo player himself.
Parekh conducted a ‘Bhavnagar League’ polo tournament in Gujarat in April 2016 and says it attracted around 25,000 people. The size of the playing area was decreased, the ball’s colour was changed and the traditional format was tweaked to make it more entertaining for common people. The Champions Polo League, Parekh says, will be played on similar lines. Around 30-40% of the format will be based on the Bhavnagar League, Parekh says, adding that professional services and accounting firm Ernst & Young has been handed the task of branding and promoting it. “We are also in talks with national and global polo governing bodies. We have asked them if this new format can be accommodated and recognised. We want to take this concept around the world,” Parekh says.
Announced in December last year, the league, in its initial run, will have a total of six teams, with plans to extend that number to 10. Parekh says every team will have four-five players. This, he says, will give a chance to a lot of players who never make it to the field. The league will also rope in celebrities connected to the sport, he adds. “On every match day, there will be three matches. Two of them will be official, while the third will take place between breaks and will see participation from younger and amateur players, as well as women polo riders,” says Parekh, adding that the locations for the tournament have been selected ‘strategically’. “All three cities—Jaipur, Ahmedabad and Mumbai—are mad about polo.”