April 21, 2014

Indian Tamasha League: The ISL lays down structure for future Indian Basketball League

By and large, sports around the world center around the individual stars playing and dominating at the highest level, instead of the teams they represent or the intricacies of the sport itself. Sure, the serious fraternity behind any sport and serious fans of any club/country will look beyond the individual faces at the top, but mainstream attention comes most from the big names. Virat. Ronaldo. LeBron. Mayweather. Bolt. Tiger. Federer. Manning. Jeter. These are the names that draw the big crowds, the names that sell merchandise, and the names that can create or combust the popularity of their sport.

But a curious thing happened in India last week at the sale of the eight franchises which are set to become the backbone of the Indian Super League (ISL), the highest-profile attempt yet to launch a professional football league in the country. Few people were talking about the names of the stars that would actually play for these teams or the coaches that are confirmed participation. Past foreign footballing superstars like Dwight Yorke, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pirès, Louis Saha, and Hernán Crespo are all set to be 'auctioned' off to the various franchises, not to mention India's top football stars who will be entering their names into the fray, too. Peter Schmeichel, Marcel Desailly and Kenny Dalglish are rumoured to participate as the coaches masterminding some of the teams. But across the mainstream media reports of the ISL, these names were rarely mentioned.

Instead, just like everything else in India, the big newsmakers came from familiar grounds: Bollywood and Cricket. Even as the country reached closer to the launch of a potentially game-changing football league, the ironic thing was that rarely anyone was actually talking about football or footballers. Instead, the names behind the league - the owners who brought shares of the teams - stole the show. Sachin Tendulkar, Salman Khan, Sourav Ganguly, Ranbir Kapoor, and John Abraham were among the celebrities who brought stakes in some of the ISL franchises, while big business magnates in India including the Sun Group, Den Network, Videocon, and more provided the big financial backing. The closest the ISL got to a footballing relation was the involvement of Spanish Primera Liga side Atletico Madrid with the Kolkata franchise. About $200 million has been spent on the bidding of the eight teams.

The ISL is being launched by IMG Worldwide and Reliance - who together as IMG-Reliance have sponsorship stakes in several sports in India, including basketball - the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and Star India TV Network. The league is set to kick off in September this year and run for two months. The eight franchises are from Bengaluru, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune. It's format has already closely mirrored the successful T20 Cricket league IPL, and will continue to do so in the future.

Football leagues have been in India for a long time, and so why is this one special? A National Football League started in 1997, but that folded up in 2007 and it gave way to I-League. which is running (not as successfully as expected) today.

So far, the ISL has been, for the lack of a better word in my opinion, a dumbed-down version of the sport from the point of view of football purists, like the IPL has been for true aficionados of cricket. Team owners will be more popular then most players and there will be a lot of annoying tamasha on the side (ever tried listening to IPL 'experts'? Yeesh!).

But here's the truth: in the long run, even the purists will be glad when they see that the money going into the league (and thus, into the sport in general) because of hype or celebrities. Like it or not, in India, you need hype to sell anything, and established themes like Cricket and/or Bollywood can be used to bring attention to non-so-established things (which include every other sport apart from Cricket).

In certain pockets in India (Bengal, the North-East, Kerala, Goa) Football is huge and can easily rival Cricket's popularity. But it is still relatively a poor sport unknown to the mainstream audience. The unconvincing performances of India's national teams is a major reason for this. Perhaps, playing in a big-money league among established foreign coaches and stars and the chance to finally be celebrated for their talents will give a ray of hope to Indian footballers and encourage more to take up the sport. If the popularity spills beyond ISL, football could finally begin to live up to its potential in India, and eventually, India's national team performances could see a major boost.

There are critics of the ISL, of course. The CEO of Churchill Brothers (Federation Cup winners) Valanka Alemao has said that, "This league will harm Indian football. There cannot be two leagues in the country which is struggling to qualify for the World Cup... We should have been talking about building a team rather than having such a league. India should have a 10-year vision to qualify for the World Cup."

Although he makes valid points, I don't fully agree with Alemao's opinion. If a sport is struggling in India, more money and interest poured into it can never be a bad thing. Yes, the AIFF needs to have a 10-year national vision, but that vision can be eased with the performances of Indian players at the ISL. There are also scheduling conflicts to solve, as the ISL currently clashes with FIFA dates and the I-League.

But count me among the camp of those excited for the ISL. I'm a football fan who unfortunately knows much more about players from Real Madrid and Liverpool than I know about players from clubs in my own country. Hundreds of thousands of football fans in India feel exactly the same way. A well-produced league that brings the game closer to mainstream India is sure to pay huge dividends.

On the day that the eight franchises and their owners were announced, Mike Dolan, the chairman of IMG, threw a curve-ball that sparked the interest of us over here at the 'India Basketball' camp. Dolan said that while the ISL has plans to grow aggressively and add 12 new franchises in the coming years, he also said that the model would be used to launch India's first professional basketball league next year. Remember, IMG-Reliance also hold marketing rights to basketball in India because of their partnership with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI). They have been in delayed talks to launch the pro league in India for several years now, but Dolan's public announcement with a set date (2015) right after the ISL's first season seems to be the surest sign yet that the basketball league which all hoop fans in the country have dreamed about for years could finally be here.

The benefits of finally having a professional basketball league in India are many. In an earlier column that I wrote for Ekalavyas, I noted that such a league would change everything for the sport in the country. India's best players would finally have an assured, steady contract from the sport that they excel in, and many more will be encouraged to start taking basketball seriously. The league would eventually generated jobs for several others connected to the game, including coaches, referees, scouts, trainers, broadcast personnel, and more. And it might help in accelerating the rise of new, better basketball infrastructure around the country. Eventually, the rise in interest, talent, and financial support could lead to better results for India's national basketball teams at the Asian or global stage.

Of course, Basketball is far less popular in India than Cricket or Football right now, but the same model as the IPL and ISL - at a smaller financial scale - could be successful here for the proposed Indian Basketball League.

And so what if it takes a little bit of tamasha, hype, or celebrity culture? So what if cricketers, Bollywood stars, or big name billionaires are needed to get it off the ground? The NBA in India has already understood that the majority of casual fans only show interest when there is a celebrity or too involved, and recent NBA-India events (like the NBA Jam) always ensure to have glamour and lifestyle infused with basketball.

Here is a possible list of things to expect in the Indian basketball league outside of basketball: corny cheerleaders, T-shirt throws, cameras zooming into the fringe Bollywood types (whattup Dino Morea!) on the sidelines, and too much attention on fashion or what they call 'glamour'. All of this already happens in the NBA anyways, but at least the high quality of basketball makes it all tolerable. This won't necessarily be the case in India. But if that is what takes to sell basketball to mainstream Indians, then so be it.

Purists can call all of this a 'dumbing down' of the sport, but in the long run, it might end up being the smartest thing that the organizers could have possibly done.

Perhaps, just like the ISL, on the day that the basketball league franchises are launched, the celebrity names might garner more neattention than the basketball players themselves. But, hopefully in the future, the real stars of the sport on the court will begin to speak and shine for themselves.

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