Have Indian sports leagues delivered their mandate?
Around 2005, Cricket was already a religion engrained into the soul of every Indian. The game had created a trail of iconic stars over many decades. India had already won a World Cup in 1983, hosted the1996 World Cup tournament in India & finished runners-up in the 2003 World Cup. The BCCI was already a dominant force in international cricket. The Indian team under Sourav Ganguly had emerged as a dominant force in world cricket and we had started winning abroad. Brands were aggressively leveraging the sports and its ambassadors to reach consumer pockets. Cricket coaching stables such as the ones run by Ramakant Achrekar, Lalchand Rajput & Bishen Singh Bedi were hotbeds for grooming talent. The MRF Pace Academy in 1987 and the National Cricket Academy in 2000 strengthening the institutional backbone. And although the domestic structure of Indian cricket was not fully developed, India was still producing the likes of MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and a pipeline of high potential talent. And to top it all, we had Sachin Tendulkar.
With this backdrop in mind, IPL was the right step forward to take cricket to the next level. The success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) on its incubation in 2008 fueled the imagination of investors in India and provided them a template that could be used to grow, promote and commercialize other sports in India. Of course, India decided to blindly copy & paste the template on to other sports without understanding or appreciating the nuances and on ground realities.
Leagues promised a renaissance in Indian Sports. Between 2007-10, when the league template started being implemented across other sports in India, the on-ground realities of sports such as Kabaddi, Wrestling, Tennis, Hockey & Football was in stark contrast to that of cricket. The Federations were toothless, we lacked iconic stars, India was not a dominant team in international tournaments, there was no talent pipeline and the awareness or the grass root network was non-existent. But of course, there was passion in pockets but no sustainable future for youngsters entering the sport.
Rather than developing the framework for sports development from the grass root up and simultaneously strengthen the institutional structure around the sport, India decided to immediately adopt the league format as a way to grow sports. I guess the thinking was that if an iconic platform such as a league is created at the top, youngsters would foresee a future in the sport as a viable career option. And this commercialization of the sport would in turn fuel the development of the sports ecosystem, over time, through a trickle-down effect. Essentially, growing demand would automatically take care of the supply side. Unfortunately, this was wishful thinking. And therefore these leagues have only been partially successful in meeting their objectives.
No one can deny that the leagues have created some careers, developed the sports ecosystem, created employment, brought corporate funding into sports, popularized sports and build an audience base, the larger 'BIG BANG Impact' has been missed. Or maybe we were expecting too much from the league format. And therefore, the truth & the reality is somewhere in between.
How Does Indian Sports, Move Forward
Having now adopted the league format as a model for sports development (14 leagues incubated - some successful, some active, some defunct & new ones germinating), the only option before the gamekeepers of the sport is to ensure that vertical and horizontal interlinkages are created to strengthen the ability to deliver holistic and measurable results.
Revisit the league intent
If the 'Big Objective' is broad-basing, structured efforts have to be initiated to grow the game at the grass root level. Sports have to be integrated at the school and the local community level by spreading awareness, creating competitive interaction platforms & building engagement and stickiness with on ground audiences. For this to happen, the federation, league owners & credible grass root operators have to come together with corporate support to make this happen. In addition, Khelo India has to extend its focus to the 13 - 17 age group. Programs, schemes, and efforts need to be coordinated and streamlined to deliver specific results.
Reevaluate the league success factors
If the 'Big Reason' is to strengthen the vision for sports development, the Federation & the league owners have to work together to plot a long-term game plan. Isolated measures and silo-ed action has not delivered any credible impact on the sport. And if the 'Big Reason' is the league commercial structure, league owners have to find a way to allocate some long-term money (from one pocket to another) towards grass root development programs to build a talent pipeline. Too much money is spent on buying international athletes and rationalizing this, maybe one option. Most importantly, investors in leagues need to appreciate that the primary purpose of investing in sports in the short term was sports development. And of course, returns on investment will drive long-term motives. But for this to happen, patience is key.
Build and strengthen missing links
If the 'Big Factor' is developing a talent pipeline and building a robust feeder system, institutional reform within sports has to be planned. While we need coaching factories to a broad base, we also need personalized & specialized coaching efforts to create performance excellence. Access to sports facilities for the passionate has to be cost-effective. Our policies need to encourage participation. Emerging athletes across sports have to be encouraged by the federations, provided financial security and actively adopted by corporates and brands.
Vertical and horizontal integration
Vertical alignment between the various levels of play (league, international, national, regional, community & grass root) and horizontal integration of services (playing access, equipment, coaching & performance centers) have to be created. All round visibility creation for the sport and its ecosystem has to be activated in order for sports to become mainstream. Unless this happens, athletes will continue to slip through the cracks. And our efforts and outcomes will be sub-optimal.
While the leagues were never meant to broad base the sport, drive social and community impact and create vertical & horizontal linkages, such is the reality. At this point in time, rather than fight it, and blame one another, the prudent way forward is to now make it work in India's benefit.