Why you should care

Believe it or not, India is set to become a sporting superpower — that is, if investors have their way.

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International soccer sensations Alessandro Del Piero and Robert Pirès are two of the sport’s most decorated players, both listed among the best 125 players ever. So what’s next for them?

India. Yes, that’s right: The land of temples and tigers and more than a billion souls is playing host to the soccer stars, along with a bevy of brand-new professional sports leagues, like tennis, badminton and the ancient pastime of kabaddi. Even basketball’s global evangelists are making an aggressive play for the subcontinent. Now, none of them hopes to dethrone cricket from its position as de facto national sport, at least not yet. But all are jockeying for a share of rising India’s attention — and its disposable income, too.

There will be shrines to Del Piero.

 

The Indian Super League, where Del Piero and Pirès decamped this year, launched Sunday to apparent great success: 70,000 came out for the inaugural match between Atlético de Kolkata and Mumbai City Football Club. “There will be shrines to Del Piero,” says Saptarshi Ray, a journalist for The Guardian and Outlook magazine.

Soccer players in action

Alessandro Del Piero (left)

Someday, maybe — though for now it’s hard to imagine Del Piero alongside Hanuman. Still, even this moment could be a watershed for Indian sport, a chance for the country FIFA President Sepp Blatter famously called a “sleeping giant” to wake up and leverage its enormous financial and cultural potential. A sport that wins over the 1.25 billion-strong nation would have access to one of the largest, and most coveted, emerging markets in history. The middle class is projected to reach 267 million people by 2015 and top half a billion by 2025.

The Super League, like all the others, is hoping to replicate the smashing success of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL), which deployed Bollywood-star owners and entertainment to transform cricket into to a five-star family extravaganza. It broadcasts well on TV, of course, and it can’t be missed that Indian television revenue grew 15 percent from 2012 to 2013 and is expected to continue at the same rate through 2018, according to the 2014 PwC India Media Entertainment and Outlook report. The Premier League commanded some $4 billion in revenue at its peak.

A return on investment is galvanizing the next generation of Indian soccer players to pursue the sport as a profession, not just a hobby.

There’s promise. Consider preliminary results from Pro Kabaddi’s first five-week season: Nearly half a billion people tuned in to watch the modern reinvention of the schoolkid pastime, a combination of tag and wrestling. (It looks rather like Steve Irwin poking a pack of crocodiles with a stick, then trying to escape without being mauled.) That was the second highest viewership for an Indian sports tournament ever, after this year’s IPL. The finale, on Aug. 31, reached 86 million people. Compare that to the measly 19 million viewers who tuned in for last year’s World Series at its peak.

Rohit Sharma (L) of India plays the ball during the second one-day international cricket match between England and India at the Glamorgan County Cricket Ground in Cardiff, Wales

Rohit Sharma (left) of India

But then again, both kabaddi and cricket have long histories in India; soccer and basketball, not so much. Which is why investors are watching closely. Is the initial success of the Super League and others more than beginner’s luck, or will they fizzle out as the latest show-biz bust? The answer may depend on whether the leagues have the legs to ignite a long-term grassroots movement of young player development.

“India is very celebrity-driven,” says Arunava Chaudhuri, the CEO of Mumbai City FC. “The IPL has shown that you need celebrities” to grab the attention of viewers. And so, the Super League intends to make its soccer matches into four-hour entertainment bonanzas, with extended halftimes filled with dancing, music and more space for advertisers. Celebrity owners and a roll call of the sport’s top veteran players help, too.

But as Chaudhuri acknowledges, grabbing viewers’ attention is one thing. Holding on to it is another. Cultivating it into a grassroots movement is completely different. Indians will want to see their countrymen making big plays, but judging from the first match where all goals and assists came from foreign feet, they have a lot to learn. For most, making a return on investment is a means to galvanizing the next generation of Indian soccer players to pursue the sport as a profession, not just a hobby. And some are skeptical that glitz and glamour will translate to true quality and youth development.

Anyone remember the 2010 Commonwealth Games fiasco? It’s not resolved.

If entertainment claims center stage in the ISL, true Indian soccer fans will return to foreign leagues like the Champions League and the English Premier League to satisfy “their football [soccer] cravings, leaving ISL with only fly-by-night football supporters,” Neel Shah, director of the consulting firm Libero Sports India, wrote in an email.

India’s bureaucratic woes don’t bode well for budding leagues and a streamlined youth development framework, either. Anyone remember the fiasco of the 2010 Commonwealth Games? It’s not resolved. A report by global consultancy KPMG highlights an array of shortcomings in India’s sports infrastructure, including lack of community-level involvement, limited corporate investment and poor monetization of leagues. Indian sport, especially the IPL, is no stranger to controversy, either. Poorly regulated and organized, governing bodies are prone to fraud and corruption. Though the 2013 Sports Bill takes a crucial step forward toward improved governance, a lot is left to be desired, including a procedure to educate players and officials of rules, ethics and guidelines for fair play and mechanisms to investigate infractions.

No matter, say the enthusiasts: When the Super League kicked off Sunday, it was a fresh start. India’s national football team may be a 158-ranked joke now, but in 10 to 15 years, the league will finally bear fruit in the shape of quality young talent, says Chaudhuri. Just in time for the 2026 World Cup.

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