Sports Leagues in India: Commercialisation and its Impact on Indian Sports

4 min read
Image Source: The Hindu

The Indian Premier League (IPL) was the right step forward to take cricket to the next
level. The success of the (IPL) on its incubation in 2008 fueled the imagination of
investors in India and provided them with a template that could be used to grow, promote
and commercialize other sports in India. Of course, India decided to blindly copy &
paste the template on to other sports without understanding or appreciating the nuances
and on ground realities.

Leagues promised a renaissance in Indian Sports. Between 2007-12, when the league
template started being implemented across other sports in India, the on-ground realities
of sports such as Kabaddi, Wrestling, Tennis, Hockey & Football was in stark contrast to
that of cricket. The Federations were toothless, we lacked iconic stars, India was not a
a dominant team in international tournaments, there was no talent pipeline and the
awareness or the grass root network was non-existent.

But of course, there was passion in pockets but no sustainable future for youngsters entering the sport. India needs a framework for sports development as below:

Rather than developing this framework for sports (as above) from the grass root up and simultaneously strengthen the institutional structure around the sport, India decided to immediately adopt the league format as a way to grow & promote sports. I guess the thinking involved was if an iconic platform such as a league is created at the top,
youngsters would foresee a future in the sport as a viable career option.

This commercialization of the sport would in turn fuel the development of the sports
ecosystem, over time, through a trickle-down effect. Essentially, growing demand would
automatically take care of the supply side.

Unfortunately, this was wishful thinking. And therefore these leagues have only been partially successful in meeting their objectives. Leagues are only one element of sports development. There is an entire universe of choices available as highlighted below. Gamekeepers, sports promoters and corporates have to pick and chose their spots in order to create a sustainable impact on sports.

No one can deny that the leagues have created some careers, developed the sports
ecosystem, created employment, brought corporate funding into sports, popularized
sports and build an audience base, but the larger ‘BIG BANG Impact’ has been missed. Or
maybe we were expecting too much from the league format.

How Does Indian Sports, Move Forward

Having now adopted the league format as a model for sports development (16 leagues
incubated – some successful, some active, some defunct & new ones germinating), the
only option before the gamekeepers of the sport is to ensure that vertical and horizontal
interlinkages are created to strengthen the ability to deliver holistic and measurable
results.

Revisit the league intent – Focus on Sports Education & Awareness

If the ‘Big Objective’ is broad-basing, structured efforts have to be initiated to grow
game at the grass root level. Sports have to be integrated at the school and the local
community level by spreading awareness, creating competitive interaction platforms &
building engagement and stickiness with on ground audiences.

For this to happen, the federation, league owners & credible grass root operators have to come together with corporate support to make this happen. In addition, Khelo India has to extend its focus towards the 13 – 17 age group. Programs, schemes, and efforts need to be coordinated and streamlined to deliver specific results.

Re-evaluate the league success factors

If the ‘Big Reason’ is to strengthen the vision for sports development, the Federation &
the league owners have to work together to plot a long-term game plan. Isolated
measures have not delivered any credible impact on the sport.

And if the ‘Big Reason’ is the league commercial structure, league owners have to find a way to allocate some long-term money (from one pocket to another) towards grass root development programs to build a talent pipeline. Too much money is spent on buying
international athletes and rationalizing this, maybe one option.

Build and strengthen missing links

If the ‘Big Factor’ is developing a talent pipeline and building a robust feeder system,
institutional reform within sports has to be planned. While we need coaching factories to
a broad base, we also need personalized & specialized coaching efforts to create
performance excellence. Access to sports facilities for the passionate has to be costeffective.

Our policies need to encourage participation. Emerging athletes across sports
have to be encouraged by the federations, provided financial security and actively
adopted by corporates and brands.

Vertical and horizontal integration

Vertical alignment between the various levels of play (league, international, national,
regional, community & grass root) and horizontal integration of services (playing access,
equipment, coaching & performance centres) have to be created. All round visibility
creation for the sport and its ecosystem has to be activated in order for sports to
become mainstream. Unless this happens, athletes will continue to slip through the
cracks. And our efforts and outcomes will be sub-optimal.

The leagues were never meant to broaden the sports base, drive social
community impact and create vertical & horizontal linkages, such is the reality. At this
point of time, rather than fight it, and blame one another, the prudent way forward is to
now make it work in India’s benefit.

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