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The ripple effect of the IPL’s success cascaded into virtually every other sport, led by promoters teaming up with national federations. Of these, two have been relatively successful despite it being early days in the life cycles of leagues in India. The Indian Super League (ISL), football’s professional sports league along the lines of the IPL was launched in 2014, with significant promoter support, and corporate support on the franchise and sponsorship end. The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), also started in 2014, has been a unique success story, discussed in greater detail in the next section. The remaining leagues, however, have fallen short of sustainability for the organisers, the corporate investors, or the sportspersons themselves.
Name a sport, and it probably has or has had a league in the past decade. Pro Kabaddi League: Raider of the Lost Art Kabaddi’s success at the league level is a combination of several factors. It is a sport popular among the rural strongholds, and more importantly, a sport that cuts across socio-economic barriers. As a sport that would need the financial thrust to make it viable as a career option, corporate support is required, and this support would also have an external social benefit, given Kabaddi’s relatively humble origins. From the corporate sector’s perspective, it was relatively low-risk and low-investment as compared to sports which have an international presence, and already established stars and celebrity athletes driving the player wages in excess of total earnings of the franchises. In the absence of pre-packaged and pre-existing stars, the ceiling of potential for Kabaddi was high. And to broadcaster Star and league owner Mashal Sports’ (of which Star is now a majority owner) credit, the PKL seized the opportunity.
Savvy marketing, modifications to suit television audiences, and an organic strategy to seek a sponsorship premium and not negotiating below a sponsorship floor helped build the brand. Today, PKL is one of the few sports leagues in India where Indian players are commanding fees in excess of INR 1 crore. Kabaddi has inherent advantages that keyed its success. It is an indigenous sport that exists mostly because of Indians. When packaged as well as the PKL is, with the right combination of glitz and high quality production, the concept was earmarked for success. The overarching presence of celebrities was tapped. But, the PKL had a genuinely unique product – one that needed little introduction, relatively low investment, and a media partner in Star India that promoted the event with supreme enthusiasm. PKL has premier home-grown talent, a ready audience already existing in regions and pockets of Northern India along with a tier-2 and tier-3 city awareness of the sport, coupled with Kabaddi not featuring in most multi-discipline international events, all of which make it easier to expand and enhance the league.
IN 2017, PKL added 4 teams to take the total number of teams to 12. This led to an over 12 week league with 138 matches in contrast to the earlier 5 weeks and 60 matches. In fact, the PKL, more than any other league in India, replicates the North American NFL, MLB or even NBA structure. ISL: Football as a culture The ISL took on the mantle of creating an IPL-style league in football with its huge untapped potential given the following that the PL and La Liga have among the Indian viewership. Its challenge was the limited interest in domestic football given India’s relatively low ranking and relevance on the international football stage, and filling the gap between the offering the I-League, All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) traditional football league, provided, and where the real demand lay, through international stars of varying vintage. Unlike the IPL, the domestic talent was not wide or deep enough at the time to rival the EPL or other competitors, and the I-League itself had not been a successful on-ground model. For the franchises, although the ticket size for owning a franchise is much lower than an IPL team, there are limiting factors on the costs and revenue end which make this a longer term viability project than the IPL, which was essentially a plug and play model. The need for recruiting international talent for roster stability meant that expenses were significant right out of the gate. Star India being a key promoter for the ISL meant that its marketing and dissemination was sizeable, bringing it into the mainstream consciousness, but on the revenue side for a franchise, there is a huge gap since the revenue model does not include media rights revenues. The central revenue pool was extremely significant for a start-up league that wasn’t called IPL, but gate revenues remained limited, with one club’s senior management estimating total season gate receipts to be in the INR 1 crore range, with just the salaries costing a franchise close to INR 16 crore for a particular year. The increasing expenses and continuing challenges with viability haven’t prevented the league from expanding, adding two more franchises for the upcoming season, and renewing the title sponsorship with Hero MotoCorp for a significant mark-up over the original arrangement. This despite falling attendance in the previous season. There are future challenges that will need to be resolved but might end up helping league football in India in the long run.
A unified Indian football league to replace the currently competing structures, with promotion and relegation between ISL and I-League is the subject of debate including through a “key recommendation made by consultants appointed by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in a confidential report. ” Structures of leagues Leagues must offer a unique value proposition that builds upon an already popular and successful sport’s core offering and attraction, or it must fill in a gap that exists because of a lack of national or international fixtures in that particular sport. Otherwise, they will be susceptible to saturation, and an inability to leverage either revenues or imprints to enhance viewership. Essentially, two factors are critical when it comes to a league structure- significant participation at the grassroots and minor league level to ensure a ready supply of talent and viewership, and secondly, a wide window of 3-9 months annually in which to conduct the league each year. This makes the success of the IPL even more astounding, given that it has been able to achieve NFL and PL-rivalling broadcast deals and valuations on a pro rata basis despite the absence of the latter criterion. League first culture: pros and cons A league-first sporting culture in India has both its pros and cons. The three overarching pros are – a) the visibility and exposure the sport gets from having a league that is broadcast on a leading network, and for the most part, has distinct corporate owners who put marketing and dissemination resources behind the league itself; b) it provides a clear career path to some aspiring and elite sportspersons in that sport for earning wages that are significantly higher than they would earn through traditional sponsorships or organisational support. The IPL is, of course, the perfect example not just for escalated remuneration, but also as a platform for selection to the national squads. Also, if the league does succeed, the visibility and popularity of the standout athletes would be enhanced and, conceivably, so would the financial support base; and c) the creating of a sub-sector for employment opportunities in sports.
Leagues help not just players, but also youngsters who want to pursue a career in ‘sports’. This is a huge ancillary benefit for what was otherwise a sector with very limited opportunities in sports management, given that most careers would have needed to emanate from the federations/associations, or the limited events that private players could organize. Now, in any given year there are eight leagues with 6-8 teams, meaning roughly and extremely conservatively, 800-1000 non-unique opportunities to be involved directly with a league in some capacity. Ancillary businesses such as sports marketing, athlete representation, and professional services will eventually catch up as well, if in the battle for survival of the fittest at least 5-6 leagues remain consistent and viable. The cons exist as well. First and foremost, the league-first concept tends to gloss over and, at times, completely ignore the grass root development of a particular sport. Secondly, the leagues in less lucrative sports tend to not provide wages that would cover an athlete’ requirements to support his or her career.
Enforcement of basic rights in the less popular leagues is even murkier, including ensuring that wages are paid, or contracts honoured. Thirdly, most leagues in India are glorified tournaments that rarely succeed beyond a few seasons at the most, and at the end of the day, do little to promote or broaden the development within the sport. And therein lies the biggest issue with most leagues that are not the IPL, the ISL, or the PKL. Many are today defunct, or have undergone a complete ownership overhaul, or are in their second or third avatars, vulnerable to litigation, and certainly unable to build a long-term strategic vision that would support the owners, the franchises, the personnel, and most importantly, the athletes. There are also limited long-term branding opportunities for corporates given the ambiguity regarding naming rights of stadiums which is a moot point in the first place because no league today owns a stadium. In fact, finding venues for teams is a difficult proposition in and of itself, and frequently a huge cost-head.
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