India's not-so-super football league struggles to match cricket's IPL

The Indian Super League has so far failed to revolutionise Indian football, but it is starting to develop a growing fan base

The not-so super league fails to match up with IPL
The first match between Indian teams Kerala Blasters FC and ATK Mohan Bagan of the Indian Super League 2020 tournament that kicked off on Friday. Photo: ISL website.

(ATF) Amid empty spectator stands, and contained in a bio-secure bubble with a raft of health safety measures, the Indian Super League (ISL) kicked off on Friday. Can it rival its more famous cricketing cousin, the Indian Premier League (IPL)?

Or will it at least be able to match its previous season’s success?

The seventh edition of ISL will be the biggest and also the first live sporting event to be held in India this year since the enforcement of a Covid-19 lockdown eight months ago.

Hopes are running high that the event could fill the prime-time slot vacated by its more famous cricketing counterpart, the IPL, that concluded its own blockbuster annual event in the UAE on November 10.

Despite the global pandemic, the world’s richest Twenty20 cricket league managed to showcase the robustness of its appeal.

The 13th edition of the IPL, according to data released by Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC), garnered 7 billion viewing minutes, which was 28% higher compared to the previous season that got 5.5 billion viewing minutes.

The record viewership also catapulted IPL’s business value to an all-time high of $5.7 billion, according to the latest report by independent brand valuation and strategy consultancy, Brand Finance.

In comparison ISL, which was launched in 2014 with the hope that it will awaken Indian football, is still struggling.

Industry sources say that while many of the IPL teams have made profits and the others have reached breakeven, none of the ISL teams are near breakeven.

“As per transfer, ISL’s total market value for instance, is $55 million which is a shadow compared to the IPL,” Rajesh Viswanathan, an independent sports business consultant told Asia Times Financial.

Lack of hype

According to the industry, Indian football’s biggest drawback is lack of promotion and the drive to create new demand for the game.

“Its drawbacks start with a lack of hype; there is not as much hype about ISL as IPL,” says Vishwanathan.

While there are fans in India for popular European football leagues, fans for Indian football teams are scattered and fewer, he added

The success of a league, according to experts, depends on traction of the sport, quality of players, ability to attract global talent, and the nation’s standing in the sport.

But while India has managed those for cricket, when it comes to football, a lot remains to be done.

“We are not creating international sports facilities to promote and nurture international standard football players,” Meer Waqiruddin Khaleeq, founder and managing director of Bangalore-based Sports Infrasolutions, told ATF.

Other major issues dampening the progress of football in the country have been infrastructural issues, unfavourable playing surfaces, lack of training grounds, and even lack of competent coaches and equipment.

India does not encourage football and only professional players are supported by the government, Khaleeq added, “which is why ISL’s following and viewership lags far behind IPL.”

Growing fan-following

But the good news, he said, is that the ISL witnessed impressive fan numbers in last year’s event, that could kindle hopes of a reversal of the status quo.

According to BRAC, the ISL 2019-20 season recorded a 51% growth in viewership, with some of the matches even reporting doubling of viewing.

With a cumulative reach of 168 million viewers and 261 million impressions for the 2019-20 season, ISL seemed on the brink of a revolution in Indian football. It was also broadcast on 11 channels across the India and digitally streamed globally as well, said BRAC.

“Football fans seem to have started noticing Indian football. Even if its viewership this year manages to retain the previous year’s level, then credit should be given to ISL,” said Khaleeq.

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Sports Indian Football Indian Premier League Indian Super League Indian Cricket