With a New League, a Sport’s Sleeping Giant Begins to Stir
1 December 2014
Atlético de Kolkata's goalkeeper Suvasish Roy Chowdhury celebrating his team's victory after the opening match against Mumbai City F.C. in October. CreditPiyal Adhikary/European Pressphoto Agency
Indian soccer fans still dream of an alternate reality, one where their sport, not cricket, is the national obsession.
Domestic soccer is a niche game here, largely starved of funds and facilities and forgotten by most Indians. But the creation of a new professional league — backed by huge investments, Bollywood glamour and a phalanx of fading international stars — has at least temporarily revived interest in the sport, which has long been overshadowed by cricket’s $3 billion Indian Premier League.
The Indian Super League, which opened last month, has brought money and attention to Indian soccer. It has signed aging big-name former European stars for what is the latest and most concerted effort in a perhaps quixotic quest to establish the game in the mainstream.
Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pirés, Freddie Ljungberg, Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet are among about a dozen veteran foreign players signed up for the 10-week tournament. Although the risk of relying on older talent quickly became apparent — Ljungberg sustained a hamstring injury and has played just once — it has had its benefits.
Alessandro Del Piero, left, is among a dozen veteran foreign players signed up for the 10-week tournament. CreditPiyal Adhikary/European Pressphoto Agency
Fifty-six million Indians watched the first week of the Super League, a number that compared favorably with an audience of 140 million for the I.P.L.'s opening two weeks. The Week 1 Super League audience was 15 times as big as the one for the opening games of India’s domestic soccer league, the I-League.
The Super League’s audience later fell to about 11 million in Week 5, a warning that celebrity appeal may not be enough for a soccer revolution. But the numbers are still exceptional for Indian soccer, easily surpassing those for the country’s viewership of this year’s World Cup. The league’s broadcaster says the real number of viewers could be triple that reported.
“Soccer is already bigger in India than everybody thinks,” said Arunava Chaudhuri, chief executive of Mumbai City F.C., one of the new Super League clubs. “But it needs to start somewhere. It’s not going to be a one-shot thing.”
The league is the largest private Indian sports venture since the I.P.L was introduced in 2008. Owners of its eight new teams each pay about $25 million for 10-year franchises. England’s Premier League is a partner, and most of world soccer’s major sponsors are involved.
Like the I.P.L., the Super League was designed for television, and its competition is a seasonal tournament, with a winner but does not relegate the teams that finish at the bottom of the standings. The I-League, in comparison, embraces the relegation and promotion model of European soccer.
The new league is being portrayed as a first step toward India’s becoming a soccer nation and coincides with growing investment at the amateur level. In 2017, India will hold FIFA’s Under-17 World Cup, the first time the country has hosted a global soccer tournament.
“If you want to build something, you need money,” said Robert Pirès, 41, the former Arsenal winger and World Cup winner with France who is now playing for Goa F.C. “And there is a lot of money in India.” He said he had been paid $750,000 for the three-month competition.
Six weeks in, the league is seen as a solid if not overwhelming success, with room to grow.
Nicolas Anelka, arriving in Mumbai, is among several older European stars in the Super League. CreditPunit Paranjpe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“These numbers are enough to bring the sponsors back,” said Joseph Eapen, an analyst at Repucom, which monitors advertising in Indian sports. “It is already working.”
It may seem odd now, but India did not always think of itself as a cricket nation. From the early 20th century until the 1960s, soccer was the country’s main sport, and the Indian national team once was the champion of Asia. Kolkata is still home to the world’s largest soccer derby. But a decline in investment and quality of facilities caused the sport to slip into insignificance. India’s national team is currently ranked 170th in the world.
Although the 10-team I-League has grown steadily since 2007, its stadiums are small and the level of play is below that of leagues in Europe and the United States.
But the Super League’s backers believe that India, with a growing middle class that is increasingly willing to spend money on entertainment and with millions of people already watching European soccer, can support two national sports. World soccer’s authorities have long viewed India, with its population of more than 1.2 billion, as a sleeping giant waiting to become the sport’s biggest market.
The league is part of rising investment in sports: STAR India, the broadcaster behind the soccer league, invested $3.2 billion in sports last year and has introduced major leagues in badminton and field hockey, popular sports here. India’s huge population alters the calculus for broadcasters.
“Even a niche does very well for numbers,” said Siddhanth Aney, editor of Sports Illustrated India. “You only need 1 percent of the TV audience to be successful.”
The Super League is intended to help support the I-League. The All India Football Federation, the country’s governing body for soccer, said this week that it planned for the leagues to merge within five years, and the I-League could use the help.
The I-League could use the help. While cricket players like Sachin Tendulkar are revered, I-League players are largely unknown, and their pay averages about 5 what cricketers in the I.P.L. Although the I-League has brought professionalism to the game — most players no longer have to work in hotels to support themselves — it has struggled to attract sponsors.
Sachin Tendulkar, left, the former Indian cricket captain and co-owner of the Kerala Blasters soccer team, posing with Abhishek Bachchan, a Bollywood star.CreditPiyal Adhikary/European Pressphoto Agency
In 2013, the league’s own official broadcaster decided it wasn’t interested in televising the opening games. A respected business newspaper, The Economic Times, said the league “might as well be happening on Mars.”
Publicity isn’t a problem for the new league. Bollywood actors and cricket stars, like Tendulkar, have bought stakes in teams. Kolkata’s team is called Atlético de Kolkata, in a nod to the Spanish club Atlético Madrid, which is a co-owner of the Indian club.
With television ratings already slipping, some have questioned the staying power of such manufactured appeal, but many fans are just pleased to see money flowing toward India and well-known players taking part in the game there.
“There is a lot of corporate marketing behind this Super League, but I think it is genuinely exciting,” said Kanishk Tharoor, an Indian journalist who covers soccer. “To see Robert Pirès, very slow and doddering, playing in Goa is a kind of surreal, wonderful thing.”
Soccer fans also point to India’s history as one reason the new league could succeed.
Soccer played an important role in India’s independence movement, generating a sense of national pride. A match in 1911 in which an Indian soccer team beat an English club to win an all-India tournament is still celebrated as a moment of national awakening.
“That kind of destroyed the impression of invincibility of the British,” said Kausik Bandyopadhyay, author of several books about the history of Indian soccer. “Football became a way for Indians to show their worth, as manly, as against European imagery of Bengalis as womanly.”
Quality may be the biggest threat to the new league: The level of play is still well below that of top-tier European leagues and organizers say they know it must improve to keep people watching.
The Super League has already had to scramble to keep up with its ambitions: With India short on soccer stadiums, several of the teams’ playing surfaces are cricket pitches with soccer fields hurriedly laid on top.