Ashok Kumar, the son of Indian hockey legend Dhyan Chand, narrated a revealing anecdote about his father in an interview to Rediff in 2003. If Kumar is to be believed, one of India’s greatest, if not the greatest, hockey players could only give his wife Rs 400 a month to support their family during his playing days in the 1960s. Contrast this with the fact that just a few days ago, Akashdeep Singh, an Indian hockey player, was sold for $84,000 to the Uttar Pradesh Wizards in the Hockey India League auction.
The proliferation of professional franchise-based leagues in India over the past few years has been quite astounding. Leaving aside the usual suspects like the Indian Premier League or the Indian Super League, there are similar leagues for badminton (Indian Badminton League), kabaddi (Pro Kabaddi League), tennis (International Premier Tennis League) and even golf (Golf Premier League). In the offing are proposed leagues for athletics, wrestling and even racing.
The Indian Premier League (which was created in response to the rebel Indian Cricket League) is mostly credited for the flourishing of such franchise-based leagues but there was an earlier candidate – in 2005, Leisure Sports Management and the Indian Hockey Federation had launched the Premier Hockey League, a revolutionary concept in Indian sports at that time. The traditional 70-minute format was tweaked to four quarters of 17.5 minutes each, ostensibly to make it more interesting. Like such leagues now, the Premier Hockey League also included teams from different parts of the country, but without an auction or a franchisee system. Despite a lot of hype during its inaugural season, the PHL failed to sustain the excitement and was scrapped after four seasons in 2008.
Most sports governing bodies have been favourably disposed towards creating new leagues. The reason is simple – there is an immediate infusion of money, which comes as a huge boon for these cash-strapped bodies. Corporations pay huge amounts of money to own various franchises and then there is the resultant sponsorship money. If a celebrity or a well-known personality evinces interest in being associated, media coverage is guaranteed. Of course, usual noises about how the money will be used to benefit that particular sport are always made, but the jury is still out on whether that has actually happened.
Supporters of these leagues point to the huge salaries of the players and argue that the players are finally being paid their worth. Detractors, however, argue that the auction system, which is being used by almost all leagues nowadays, is hardly a fair indicator of a player’s worth. In many ways, the arguments resemble the debates over free markets and regulation – while supporters of these tournaments argue that allowing private bodies to invest in these sports would allow for greater development of sport, the detractors counter that in the absence of any kind of control, the sport gets converted into nothing more than a money-making enterprise.
The IPL, being the most high-profile of all the leagues, has been no stranger to such criticisms. But despite many controversies surrounding it, more mini-IPLs have popped up – Karanataka hosts the Karnataka Premier League modelled on the IPL, and Odisha has its own version called the Odisha Premier League.
The situation for Indian football, however, paints a worrying future. After the All India Football Federation introduced the Indian Super League, India became probably the only country in the world with two football leagues. This has created a dichotomy – despite being India’s premier football league, the I-League has hardly been able to compete with the glamorous ISL, with the result now that some of Indian football’s top clubs are thinking of shutting shop. This has created a bleak situation, where, according to a report in the Times of India, some of India’s leading footballers are out of a job and may have to look for alternative careers. (When asked for a reaction on this, the AIFF general secretary Kushal Das dismissed it as a “natural thing”.)
All these leagues begin with immense fanfare, with most headlines revolving around the astronomical sums of money being paid to the players. But apart from a few players turning into millionaires overnight, has there been any impact at the grassroots level? Perhaps, rather than speculating on whether Salman Khan will invest in an ISL team, it is time those uncomfortable questions were asked.