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Event managers, corporate entities and broadcasters are queuing up to back lesser disciplines in a one-sport nation. Are Indians really game for more IPL-style sports jamborees? Saibal chatterjee reports
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: August 2, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Sports in India | Indian Badminton League | IPL | Hockey India League | Aparna Popat | World Series Hockey | BCCI | Prakash Padukone |
 

A day ahead of India’s 67th Independence Day, the sport of badminton will enter an exciting new phase in this country. On August 14, the inaugural Indian Badminton League (IBL), a 17-day event, is set to kick off with a contest between Delhi Smashers and Pune Pistons. Smashers and Pistons: what on earth are they? For those that have come in late, the two 11-player outfits are among six city-based IPL-style franchises that will be vying for the winner’s title in a tournament that promises to usher in more money, glitz and visibility for the racquet sport than ever before.

Badminton isn’t the only sport that is seeking to follow in the footsteps of cricket. Several other similar leagues are either already on stream or are in the pipeline. The principal idea, it seems, is to break the stranglehold of cricket on the hearts and pockets of Indians. The one-month-long second edition of the Hockey India League (HIL) is scheduled for early next year. Plans are also afoot to launch a full-fledged professional Indian premier soccer league on the lines of cricket’s IPL. That apart, boxing and motorsports are waiting in the wings with their own grand strategies for pulling big spenders into their corner, despite the fact that both disciplines have encountered embarrassing false starts in the recent past.

The obvious question to ask is, do these leagues have the potential to replicate the success of the controversial but money-spinning Indian Premier League? The inaugural Hockey India League earlier this year was a resounding success. IBL, too, has attracted some exciting talent from around the world. So, hope floats.

Says Germany’s Marc Zwiebler, Europe’s reigning champion shuttler who has signed up for the Sunil Gavaskar co-owned Mumbai Masters: “I am truly excited to be a part of IBL. The event will give the players a chance to promote badminton in one of the largest countries in the world.”

Former India number one women’s singles player Aparna Popat, who has been recruited as the coach of Mumbai Masters, is similarly enthused over the upcoming league. She has said: “There are a few top ten players turning out in the IBL. Giving our players a chance to play with and against them in a span of three weeks is bound to be very fruitful.”              

Another question: does badminton have the mass appeal of hockey and soccer, let alone cricket? This year’s Hockey India League, which was aired in Hindi on Star Sports and in English on Star Cricket, had half a dozen sponsors – Tata Teleservices, Amul, Micromax, LIC, Dabur India, and VU Technologies.

According to available TAM figures, the Hockey India League reached 41.1 million television viewers. According to Nimbus Communications Ltd, World Series Hockey (February-April 2012) managed a reach of 32 million. In contrast, the world’s most high-profile badminton event, the All England, held in March 2013 and broadcast on Neo Sports, attracted viewership of only 1.4 million.

Observers believe that the biggest challenge before the upcoming IBL would be convincing sponsors that it is going to be a sporting property worth gambling on. IBL can never be another IPL, but it might offer a viable alternative to sponsors who baulk at the increasing cost of endorsing cricket. The market does indeed have many corporate players who are looking for opportunities to get into sport without having to shell out the kind of money that cricket demands.

On the other hand, sources point out that the problem with all these non-cricket events is pretty much similar. They are seeking to reap an IPL-like bonanza without taking into consideration the obvious fact that one cannot compete with cricket in this country. A league will click only when a sport is developed at the grassroots. The Board of Control for Cricket in India presides over a game that has a strong base, an array of widely admired stars, and attracts instant fan support.

There can be no denying that badminton, too, enjoys a connect with Indian sports followers, with players of the calibre of Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand having captured the imagination of the nation by winning the All-England in the past. Currently, Saina Nehwal, world number three, has a strong fan following. Add to that the fact that several top players of the world (barring those from China and Korea) will be participating in the IBL and there would be reason to believe that the event will have no dearth of sponsors, especially now that Star Sports has been roped in as the broadcast partner.

All the 90 matches, including 75 league matches, 10 games in the semi-finals and five ties in the final, will be telecast live on STAR Sports 2 and ESPN channels.

But badminton is a personality-driven sport. It remains to be seen how it shapes up as a team event in which players from different backgrounds and of contrasting styles come together to play with each other. No matter how long it takes the IBL to establish itself as a television event, it is definitely worth all the trouble. With $1 million prize money, the tournament is being touted as the richest badminton tournament in the world.

The Chinese players are giving the IBL a miss because immediately after the Badminton World Championships in Guangzhou, the country’s National Games, a quadrennial event, are due. However, IBL organizers are hopeful that the Chinese stars will be available in the second edition of the league.

For a player like Juliane Schenk, the IBL has certainly come as a timely boon. The 30-year-old German star, currently ranked a spot behind Saina and one of the few players in the world to have beaten all the top Chinese women, is skipping the World Championships in Guangzhou (August 5 to 11) because she has been dismissed from the national team following her decision to turn professional.

In the IBL, Schenk will turn out for Pune Pistons, who purchased her for $90,000, making her the third highest paid player in the league after Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, the world number one in men’s singles who was bought by Mumbai Masters for $1,35,000, and Saina Nehwal (bought for $1,20,000 by Hyderabad Hotshots).             

Industry experts believe that the IBL has got its basics right. It has managed to put together a good mix of Indian and international players and an interesting home-and-away format that has the potential to get fans into the stadia. The marquee players and the rivalries that will develop as the tournament progresses will definitely get the media excited.

Each of the six teams comprises 11 players—six Indians, four foreigners, and one junior. The teams—Hyderabad Hotshots, Lucknow Warriors, Pune Pistons, Mumbai Masters, Banga Beats and Delhi Smashers—will field players in four categories: men’s singles, women’s singles, mixed doubles and men’s doubles. Teams will play each other twice on a round-robin basis, with one home and one away fixture. Each tie will have two men’s singles matches, and one match each in women’s singles, mixed doubles and men’s doubles, making it a total of five.

Moving away from badminton, if all goes well, Indian sports fans will be treated to an eight-team premier soccer league. The event will be organized between January and March next year by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in collaboration with Reliance Industries and International Management Group (IMG).
The I-League clubs are not too happy at the moment with the idea because they feel the importance of the key national football tournament will be undermined if a city-based league is allowed to take off. The clubs have threatened not to release their players for the premier league. Negotiations are currently on between the leading Indian football clubs and the organisers of the proposed premier league which is expected to attract many soccer greats from around the world. There is talk that even 38-year-old David Beckham will come out of retirement to play the Indian league.

Former England and Manchester United defender Gary Pallister, on a Delhi visit in the second week of July, welcomed the Indian league as “a great initiative”. He was quoted as saying: “I am a big cricket fan. I have watched the IPL. It's a great idea, great initiative that should be backed. Only time will tell whether it works for football. It depends on how it is received. Hopefully, it will get the backing.”

A few weeks later footballer-turned-analyst Paul Masefield ridiculed the idea to launch an IPL-styled soccer league. He warned that would adversely affect the growth of the game in India by taking the sheen off the I-League. “It makes a mockery of the I-League. This is a ridiculous idea that could have a real negative and adverse effect on Indian football and the I-League, in particular. This isn't cricket. It's football. You can't do it with football,” he said.

But it has been done with hockey and, if the first edition of the Hockey India League is anything to go by, an IPL-style experiment can be extended to other sports successfully. The second edition promises to be bigger with the Pakistani players likely to return to the fold.

Nine players from across the border were forced to return before HIL 1 got underway because of tensions between the two neighbouring countries. But Hockey India officials believe that the next HIL will feature the Pakistani players because they were signed up by the franchises for three years. Hockey India has sought no-objection certificates from all the national federations, including the sport’s governing body in Pakistan by October 31.

The stage is set for the IBL, HIL 2 is up ahead and the Indian Premier Football League is a distinct possibility. IPL is spawning many clones. Indian sport will not be the same again. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017