As the fourth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket T20 competition starts on 8 April, the financial success of its format continues to inspire other sports in India.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) has now announced its own Indian Wrestling League (IWL), to be held at the end of the year. While the details are still being discussed and negotiated, a statement from WFI says the league will be held in seven weight categories each for men and women. In the first year, there will be six city-based teams, which will compete on a home-and-away basis. Each team will be allowed two foreign wrestlers in each style. The competition, to be telecast live, will be held at five venues over five-six weekends, the statement adds.
Top draw: Sushil Kumar would be a leading attraction if he participates in the wrestling league.
WFI president G.S. Mander says the league will help create awareness, popularize the game and be an incentive for youngsters to take to the sport. The WFI is not the only sports body to think of a league—the IPL set the standard four years ago—but they face a discomfiting precedent.
In December, plans for a World Series Hockey (WSH) were made public—it is supposed to be held from November/December 2011 to February 2012. This joint venture between the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) and Nimbus Sport (a subsidiary of Nimbus Communications Ltd) uses a similar model, with 10 city-based teams playing on a home-and-away basis. It will include Indian and international players.
Last April, the All India Tennis Association (Aita) announced that it would hold the Indian Tennis League (ITL) later in the year, with five city-based teams and international names, such as former champions Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, thrown in.
The ITL was never held and World Series Hockey ran into trouble with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) soon after the announcement.
Aita officials say international events such as the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and National Games did not allow them enough time to prepare for the ITL. “We have not been pursuing it diligently,” says Bharat Oza, Aita joint secretary. “The sponsorship deals, etc, have still to be worked out, so I am not sure if it will happen,” he adds, not ruling out the possibility of pursuing the project at some point in the future.
The hockey league faced a more serious obstacle. The FIH, in a letter on 25 January, said it did not recognize the WSH, and any player wishing to participate in it may become ineligible to play in a FIH tournament. In another letter on 9 March, the FIH stated that it did not recognize the IHF, leaving the league in a state of flux.
Nimbus Sport, however, maintains that the league will go on as planned, with over 165 players already signed on. Yannick Colaco, chief operating officer, Nimbus Sport, says a local league has nothing to do with the FIH, though it would help if it becomes part of the international calendar so more players can participate in it.
Colaco adds that they have already decided on stadiums and discussions are on with at least four of the proposed 10 franchisees. “The FIH has officially withdrawn the ban; they have written to players saying so. So the league is on. We will start marketing telecast rights in May.”
FIH CEO Kelly Fairweather declined to comment on the issue and referred to the existing statements on the FIH website, which do not indicate a change in position.
The success of the IPL—valued last year at $4.13 billion (Rs18,585 crore) by brand valuation consultancy firm Brand Finance—makes proposed leagues like these attractive to both sportsmen and sports federations. While the IPL made millionaires overnight of already well-paid cricketers (Kolkata Knight Riders got Gautam Gambhir for $2.4 million for the upcoming season), other sportsmen in India have traditionally lagged behind financially. At the announcement of the WSH in December, some of the Indian players in attendance said they stood to make approximately Rs30 lakh from three months of the event. Under the Nimbus-IHF deal, the sports marketing company committed to underwrite the cost of the league and give the IHF an annual development fee of Rs30 crore.
But not everyone buys into this formula of easy money.
“It’s important for sports bodies and others not to latch on to the ‘me too’ syndrome, as in the beginning there may be some smidgen of success, but it’s imperative for league creators to have a long-term vision,” says Shailendra Singh, joint managing director of Percept India, a sports management company, in an email.
“Sports leagues have to be carefully thought through on all fronts—talent, business planning, stakeholders, but most crucially, have to be supple and adaptable to changing consumer needs. The IPL does provide a great example of how you can make a product that keeps adding some new element to it every year. But each sport has its own sets of consumers with different levels of interest and passion,” adds Singh, whose company organized Fight Night—Lagaan Cup, a boxing event with international participants, in September.
At this point, the wrestling league has more in common with the ITL—both announcements came from their respective sports administrative bodies. The hockey league’s problems stem from the dispute over legitimacy between the IHF and Hockey India, the FIH-recognized body. If, in retrospect, Aita’s announcement proved to be premature, the IWL appears to be on the right track.
“The IPL has proved city-based affiliations exist,” says Colaco. “Combined with having multiple stakeholders, this home-and-away system to develop a fan base and healthy competition from multiple ownership—that’s the global formula of a successful league.”
Leisure Sports Management Pvt. Ltd, which is working with the WFI on the project, is confident the league will take place. Soumen Sinha Roy, the executive director of the Kolkata-based company, says the franchises have been identified; negotiations are on with sponsors and at least two broadcasters. “We are going to do it,” says Roy. “If there is wide media support, it will be a success. During the PHL (Premier Hockey League) in Chandigarh, it used to be like a festival.” Leisure Sports and the IHF organized the PHL—a two-tier domestic league with some international players—for four years from 2005 before disbanding it.
If done well, sports management professionals say, competitive leagues have great potential. As Singh points out about Fight Night, “We have invested a lot of time, effort and money but yet we haven’t lost any money on it, which tells you the potential it already has at such a nascent stage.”
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