Think of sport in India and your mind’s eye inevitably turns to cricket, specifically the global phenomenon that is the IPL. There were those who had doubts about whether a franchise tournament would take off. Not only has it become a global phenomenon, but by basing it in a nation of 1.4 billion sports fanatics, even becoming a national phenomenon would have been enough to guarantee success.
Other sports are always eager to find new viewers and sports bettors in new markets, and it is hardly surprising that India is eyed covetously. The IPL generates millions in broadcasting and gambling revenue and was the inspiration behind Indian Super League football. The world’s most popular sport might still lag behind cricket in India, but it has a strong following and is rapidly growing. Indian betting sites are also shifting what used to be almost exclusive cricket focus to other sports, and in particular to football (see https://www.gambleonline.co/en-in/sports-betting/football/) Could India represent football’s new frontier and tap into the nation’s enthusiasm for watching and betting on sport?
Indian Super League Represents An Important Step
India’s national football team is still developing and has never come close to qualifying for a World Cup. But success in internationals is not necessarily the point. Yes, the football World Cup, European Cup and Copa America are important. Still, football’s real bread and butter lie in leagues like the EPL, Bundesliga, European Championship and even MLS.
The success of cricket’s IPL delivered some important lessons and was instrumental in bringing about the Indian Super League. It launched in 2013 and immediately supplanted the I-league as the top tier of domestic football in India. Like the IPL, the eight Super League teams did not just rely on domestic talent, instead drafting in some international superstars.
Names include Alan Costa, Matt Derbyshire, Michael Chopra, Robbie Keane, Andy Keogh and Robert Pires to name just a few. The influx of these global stars raised the profile of the ISL, garnering both local and international interest.
Developing young Indian talent
Perhaps a better comparison with the ISL is America’s MLS as opposed to the IPL. Like MLS, the initial season or two saw its share of international stars who were past their peak and clearly taking the opportunity to top up their pension funds. MLS was exactly the same 20 years ago.
The interesting thing was that within a season or two, showing up and hoping to get by on past glories would not cut it. Michael Chopra said the quality came as something of a shock when he initially joined Kerela in 2014. He essentially had to go away and work on his fitness for a year before returning in 2016, or he would seldom have made it off the bench.
ISL teams have strict limits on the number of overseas players they can have both in the squad and on the field at any given time. The international stars raise the profile and bring in investors, TV networks and sports betting companies. The real point of it all is to give young Indian talent an opportunity to develop and play alongside and against the very best.
Parth Jindal is CEO of Bengaluru FC and says clubs now have the means and the incentive to invest in grassroots football, something that was not happening a decade ago. India’s path to becoming a football powerhouse will be long, but the first steps have already been taken.