A little over a month ago, a young man held a poster at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata which read "Say No to Cricket". The grin on his face said it all as the City of Joy erupted to welcome the Indian Football League (ISL), the latest football championship in India that has eight teams representing major football centres across India.
The ISL is the newest of the professionally managed sports tournaments that have sprung up in India featuring sports like hockey, tennis, badminton and, hold your horses, kabaddi - the sub-continent's own home-grown sport. The poster at Kolkata reaffirmed the thoughts of young Indians as they now have more and better opportunities to watch and participate in sports other than cricket.
One of the biggest reasons for the change in the psyche of the average Indian sports follower is the proliferation of sports, other than cricket, thanks to the mass penetration of cable and satellite television. The English Premier League (EPL) has a huge following, along with other European Football leagues, thanks to live broadcasts of major games featuring big stars.
The broadcast of the EPL and tournaments like Wimbledon is seeing more and more children in Metros (and mini Metros) across India preferring to play sports other than cricket. The jerseys that kids wear today feature Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi among other stars - a far cry from our generation which "traded" cards that featured Gary Sobers and Nawab of Pataudi.
Moving away from cricket
There are many instances, in the recent past, where children have urged their parents to move them from cricket to other sports. Rahul Jalan, a prominent Mumbai-based lawyer, moved his nine-year-old son, Arjun, from a prestigious cricket academy in South Mumbai to a football academy because his son preferred football over cricket. Not surprisingly, Arjun's hero is Ronaldo and Manchester United is his favourite team.
Cashing in on the craze, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) decided to fold the National Football League (NFL), India's premier football tournament - which was started in 1996, and rechristened it as the I-League featuring two divisions in 2007. The equation in football further changed when AIFF sealed another 15-year mega-deal with IMG-Reliance worth Rs700 crores to start the ISL.
Along with the football trend in India, Hockey India started the Hockey India League (HIL) in 2013 to resurrect the national sport of the country. The first season had six franchises and featured players from Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Argentina, Ireland, England, South Africa apart from India. The results of the league, which has finished two seasons, can be seen with India winning the Asian Games, beating champions Australia in a Test series and qualifying for the Olympic Games.
More sports like badminton, tennis, basketball and kabaddi are attracting more eyeballs in India with the introduction of professional leagues. Last year saw the birth of the richest badminton league in the world - India Badminton League. Featuring international stars like Malaysian Lee Chong Wei, Indonesian Taufik Hidayat and local icons Parupalli Kashyap and Saina Nehwal, the first edition of the league was a success.
TV and celebrities big help
Tennis has seen the advent of two tournaments featuring top international players - the Vijay Amritraj-backed Champions Tennis League (CTL) and the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), promoted by Indian star Mahesh Bhupathi.
The two factors that have made other (non-cricket) sports attractive are the media (particularly television) and the involvement of celebrities in the leagues. Football leagues have Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Ranbir Kapoor backing them or owning teams while kabaddi teams have Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham as their owner mascots.
Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar, who is associated with leagues promoting badminton and tennis, believes these tournaments are a boon for the young aspiring Indian. "To see world-class players at such close quarters should definitely inspire some youngsters to try and emulate them," says Gavaskar. "Also, to be able to see how they prepare for a match is something that is priceless," he adds.
For Clifford Miranda, playing the ISL for FC Goa amid superstars is an amazing experience. "Every player has the desire to play with established players and I feel really proud to be able to share the pitch with great players Robert Pires and Andre Santos. They are very humble and very good human beings. We have learnt a lot from them and they keep guiding us at every point. Never did I imagine that I will be playing with them," says the Indian midfielder.
Corporate investors, too, are flocking to get a piece of the action. A sport like kabaddi, which was considered down market, is looked at as an opportunity by investors who are happy staying away from cricket. Rajesh Shah, co-chairman and managing director of Mukand Ltd which owns Patna Pirates, was attracted to kabaddi because it is a wonderful ancient sport.
"It requires fitness, agility, endurance and the ability to think on your feet. The modern version of this sport is even more exciting." Mr Shah got into the sport purely to promote talent and a culture of fitness. "I can see its huge potential to create jobs and reach out to markets in every nook and corner of the country," he adds.
While cricket continues to dominate in India, recent developments like the spot-fixing and betting sagas have put the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) on the back foot. The BCCI mandarins do not seem to realise that the image of the game in India is being sullied and is, slowly but surely, weaning fans away from the game.
According to Gavaskar, the impact on cricket will be minimal as it is still the most widely-followed sport in India. He feels that as long as these Leagues do not clash with the cricket season they will be fine. "Surely some people will stop following the game (cricket) zealously but that does not necessarily mean that they will follow another sport," he adds.
Though the Leagues are a long way from breaking even commercially, they are attracting top brands that want to use the power of television, coupled with international and national stars and celebrities, to reach their target audience not just in India but also in the South-east Asian region and the Middle East. IPTL, for example, has franchises representing Singapore, Manila and the United Arab Emirates apart from India.
While the CTL got lukewarm response from the Indian audience, the Pro Kabbadi League and the ISL have shown promise, which will enthuse the hearts of the investors. More and more international sports organisations are making forays into the new and burgeoning Indian sports market. Manchester United started football schools in India in 2011 followed by Bundesliga which hopes to touch over five million athlete students across 100 Indian cities over the next five years.
The impact of these programmes and leagues can be seen in recent performances by Indians in international tournaments. "Playing with top names in badminton has helped our players who recently won the men's and women's singles titles in the China Open, so let's hope others will follow suit," says Gavaskar. The Indian sports fan must be hoping that his perennial dream of seeing his country as a top multi-sport nation may come true much sooner than he would have imagined.
Hemant Kenkre, a cricket analyst, is a former Bombay University opener who has captained the Cricket Club of India.
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