Indian football league off to a winning start

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Many observers were sceptical about football’s glitzy new Indian Super League, with its bold talk of taking on cricket in its largest and most lucrative market. But Richard Scudamore, chief executive of England’s Premier League, could hardly have been more enthusiastic, describing the Indian tournament’s first season as a “fantastic success” in the run-up to Saturday’s grand finale.

Mr Scudamore is not a disinterested observer: his own league has been advising the upstart ISL, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Star Television, Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, and sports management group IMG. Many of India’s 100m or more football fans tune in to watch English matches too, helping to boost the EPL’s revenue.

More than that, however, India’s just-completed three-month competition could offer a growth market for elite clubs such as Manchester City and Chelsea, Mr Scudamore claims, as they look to build their followings in Asia. “It is inevitable,” he says. “If the Indian league keeps doing well, then a number of top English clubs are going to strike strategic partnerships with teams here, and perhaps even take ownership stakes.”

The results of one such foreign tie-up was on display in Saturday’s championship decider, in which Atlético de Kolkata edged out the Kerala Blasters 1-0 win in front of a sold-out 36,000 crowd in Mumbai. Kolkata’s successful first season was helped along by technical and financial support from Atletico Madrid of Spain, who had bought a minority stake in the club in what they described as their “first international franchise” — hence Kolkata’s distinctly European team name.

Once described as football’s great “sleeping giant”, India’s vast population and rapidly growing economy make it one of the beautiful game’s greatest untapped markets. And talk of possible further investment from top-tier English teams is likely further to hearten the ISL’s backers, as they express quiet satisfaction with their first season, which kicked off in October.

Tickets priced as low as Rs150 ($2.37) helped to draw in fans, as did a clutch of older foreign stars, including former Italian world cup winner Alessandro Del Piero, who played for the Delhi Dynamos. Average crowds of about 26,000 compare favourably to attendance levels in the early days of other newly launched leagues, such as America’s Major League Soccer.

Delhi Dynamos' Alessandro Del Piero (right) with Baljit Saini of Atletico de Kolkata during an Indian Super League match

TV figures were broadly positive too, with Star claiming more than 400m viewers, even though audience numbers dropped as the tournament progressed. And while a handful of prominent players, including former Liverpool goalkeeper David James, complained about poor infrastructure and training facilities, the event’s management went fairly smoothly, too. “Given all the things that could have gone wrong, we’re pretty chuffed with how it turned out,” says Andy Knee of IMG.

This early popularity owes a good deal to the ISL’s willingness to adapt to local tastes, including everything from pitchside fireworks to clubs backed by Bollywood film stars. In India’s media, for instance, Saturday’s final was widely portrayed as a face-off between Sachin Tendulkar and Saurav Ganguly, two celebrated cricketers, who fortuitously happened to be co-owners of the Kerala and Kolkata teams.

Financially, however, the league faces a less certain future. Its eight clubs are mostly backed by minor Indian industrialists, who paid about $20m for 10-year franchises. This is a tiny sum compared with about $3bn earned by teams in England’s elite league last season, but nonetheless a sizeable investment for an unproven product in a virgin market.

Given the cost of building their franchises from scratch, the ISL’s clubs will take years to break even. For the league’s owners, the calculation is equally stark. “In the first year we lost a lot of money,” says Sanjay Gupta, chief operating officer of Star TV, referring to the ISL as a whole. “And I don’t expect this to change for four or five years, even though in time this will be very profitable.”

Former England goalkeeper David James of the Kerala Blasters

Sponsorship has proved a particular challenge. A handful of big-name brands did sign up, including Indian carmaker Maruti Suzuki and South Korean electronics group Samsung. But many more will be needed next season, when sustaining supporter interest may also prove tough. “The next two years are going to be absolutely critical, especially now the novelty has worn off,” Mr Gupta says.

Even so, the ISL’s debut outing has at least shown that a good quality league is possible in India, says Jayaditya Gupta, a sports writer and football fan, who attended a match in Kolkata earlier in the tournament.

“It was a nil-nil draw, but it was still lots of fun,” he recalls. “It’s true, a lot of us do watch the English league or La Liga in Spain here, and obviously the ISL is miles from that standard. But there is a young and growing audience here, and I’ll watch it again next season for sure.”

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