This year will be remembered for the success of two sports leagues, even as cricket, which started it all, was busy in court cases. In India’s football hotbeds, the Indian Super League (ISL) ruled. When the final whistle of the three-month-long tournament was blown a few days ago, there was euphoria in the jam-packed stands, celebration on the field and millions watched the scenes on television. Eyeballs were captured, the ISL was a success. The Lalit Modi success formula had worked for football. As it had for kabaddi a few months ago.
There is a thin line between mindlessly mining a sport for profit and making an attempt to rejuvenate those that have stagnated. The Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) and ISL got the balance right as they walked the tightrope. The PKL was a hit — both in terms of TV audience and in-stadia attendances. Packed terraces saw the transformation of one of the oldest sports while leaving the basic essence of the game untouched. The ISL, meanwhile, shattered quite a few myths about Indian football. It changed the perception that football is a sport enjoyed sitting on the couch at home. In 2014, India’s football fans moved away from their television sets and headed to the stadium to experience the real thrill. While viewership on TV waned after the initial buzz, attendance in stadiums kept rising. The organisers claim the average attendance during the three months of the tournament was 24,357, lower only than the German Bundesliga, English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga.
So does the success of the ISL translate into India excelling in football? The jury is still out. The national football team is at its nadir, ranked 171st in the world. This year, their regional dominance, too, has been on the wane. That there is interest in the game is unquestionable. Whether it will prove to be sustainable and benefit the sport is a debate for another day.