In a cricket crazed nation, other sports have languished for far too long. Is change on the anvil?
In the sweltering Indian heat, eight teams are undergoing grueling practice for an upcoming league tournament. The auctions for its current sporting season last month recruited 96 players for Rs 12.82 crore ($2 million). The organizers are expecting packed stadiums and sponsorship deals are on the rise. It will be the first time in the short history of league matches in India that a sport will have two seasons during a calendar year, because of the immense interest generated.
If you think we are talking about another celebrity studded cricket extravaganza or a posh tennis tour, you are wrong. This is the upcoming season of Pro Kabaddi League slated to be held in various Indian cities from June 25-July 31.
In a sort of urban irony, a game long confined to nondescript smaller villages and dismissed by city slickers as too ruffian and lowly, is finding a riveted new audience.
It’s not just kabaddi that’s undergoing a revival. Several other sports, such as badminton, hockey, football, wrestling, and boxing, too are having their moment in the sun, after long being overshadowed by cricket, the big daddy of all games in India.
The stupendous success of Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008, which was inspired by the local fervor of cricket in India and the international idea of sporting leagues, set the ball rolling for other forsaken games and ways to format them anew.
With this spurt of interest in other indigenous sports amongst Indians and non resident Indians, greater investments and sponsorships are pouring into sports other than cricket. Promoters are salivating over at potentially untapped sporting opportunities, which may herald perhaps a more balanced sports economy in India?
Cricket rules the roost in India, with the 2015 IPL season topping Rs 11.5 billion ($182 million) in revenues. According to Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the total economic output associated with IPL matches in India was estimated to be Rs 26.5 billion ($418 million) last year.
Other sports can scarcely hold a candle by comparison, but commentators are upbeat about the opportunities for the other sports.
Sexed Up Cricket
Sports commentator Gautam Bhimani says, “Cricket in India received its first fillip in 1983 when India won the World Cup against all odds.” Recalling the electrifying atmosphere in India post that historic win, sports writer and popular cricket and tennis blogger Deepan Joshi says: “We won the 1983 World Cup by luck as West Indies was the star team back then. This sudden recognition changed the dynamics of cricket as a sport in India. Soon after, liberalization happened, coinciding with the rise of cricket. With the opening of economy, things became promising, then Sachin Tendulkar, the modern day God of sports created a passionate fan following that was unmatched.”
Everyone got a little too involved in cricket to care about any other sport.
Harish Krishnamachar, founder of Sportoid Sports Solutions, says, “Bringing the attention back to other sports were also factors such as Commonwealth Games 2010 held in Delhi India (and the 101 medals won by India during the games) followed by the interest in London Olympics.”
Individual successes of players, such Saina Nehwal, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa, fueled the interest in badminton. Joshi adds: “Though we were not able to find a great F1 driver after Narayan Kartikeyan, we were able to build a beautiful F1 track in Noida. All this showed to Indian sports lover that there is life beyond cricket too.”
A large number of Indians abroad are drawn to the idea of promoting indigenous sports as well as popular sports, such as cricket in all its new avatars. Earlier in the year an exhibition cricket match by retired players, featuring Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne, drew massive eyeballs in Los Angeles, Houston and New York.
Reflecting growing NRI interest in the newly formed Indian league culture, Next Generation Sports Network (NGSN), a soccer streaming service in the United States, recently added Indian Super League to its portfolio, offering U.S. fans an opportunity to watch live, on-demand Indian football league matches. ESPN, the major U.S. sports broadcasting network, telecast all the matches of Vivo IPL 2016 during April and May. ESPN also inked a deal with Mediacom to broadcast IPL games and the live action was available on mobiles, desktops and Roku devices.
Joshi says: “There can be no NRI who would not know of Saina Nehwal’s achievements. There is a sense both of both pride and patriotism there. Also when Indians abroad think about Kabaddi getting mainstream they can’t help but get nostalgic.”
Bhimani says, “People in the UK already watch Kabaddi. Countries like England and the Netherlands have already leapfrogged India in terms of standard. Badminton too has got acceptance in Europe, not just the Far East. There is immense possibility in viewership internationally once it is packaged as a form of entertainment, like 20-20 cricket has done in the USA.”
One of the major challenges for popularizing the marginalized sports is encouraging the youth to take them seriously. A major difference between the school structure in India and United States is that sports, such as soccer, baseball or basketball, are organized and structured by American schools and volunteer minor leagues. In cities and suburbs alike parents dedicate time for ferrying kids to and from games, instilling a sporting culture early on.
Joshi says money also holds the key to development, “If there’s not much money, there would be no motivation.”
Many talented Indian players are sidelined because of lack of resources. Bhimani recalls a moving story: “One incident closest to my heart is of a footballer from Kerala VP Sathyan, who was captain of India. He was chief guest at a function I was hosting just before the 2006 FIFA World Cup. I heard he had financial issues, but he didn’t show it. He was full of life and didn’t spare me either with his stinging shots. On July 18, 2006, a month after the event we did together, he jumped in front of a train and killed himself, all a result of being in pathetic penury: a former captain of the nation.”
Krishnamachar says, “An absence of professional administration and conduct of events, followed by a lack of infrastructure and visibility makes it impossible to get adequate recognition.”
Sports experts believe that Indian sports stars should be encouraged and positioned for international leagues. There have been very few international successes: footballer Sunil Chhetri joined the American major league soccer club, Sporting Kansas City ,in 2010; Bhaichung Bhutia was recruited by the English club Bury in 1999. By contrast, 15 of the 22 members of Afghanistan’s football team play in European circuits.
Joshi is realistic, “For now there’s no chance of any other game in India achieving what cricket has.”