India is known for being cricket mad, but with a population of 1.3 billion, and a growing affluent middle class, it has the potential to be one of football’s biggest markets.
That is why the teams that comprise the Indian Super League (ISL) are so important to the future of the world’s most popular sport in its second-most populous country.
What is the ISL?
Founded in October 2013, the ISL was originally known as the Hero Indian Super League as the Hero Motocorp company signed a three-year title sponsorship agreement. Originally featuring eight teams, it now has 10 professional franchises in nine different states, and their season runs for five months, from November to March.
Each squad in the ISL includes one foreign ‘marquee’ star, seven other overseas players, 14 domestic and four local players. Teams play each other home and away, with the top four then playing off across two legs for a spot in the final.
As the ISL is seeking to grow the profile of football in India, there is currently no promotion or relegation. But as in North American sports, it will allow expansion teams to join the league as and when the conditions are right.
Can it ever compete with cricket?
Founded in 2007, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the world’s richest and pre-eminent Twenty20 competition, and its success offers a template for other sports in India to follow.
With the Kabaddi Pro League already extremely successful, many in India feel there is room for more sports to grab their share of their limelight – and the massive revenues that can be amassed from broadcast rights, ticketing and merchandising.
Much as Indians love their cricket, there is a belief that it has (particularly in the T20 format) eclipsed other sports such as hockey, football,tennis and many others to an unhealthy degree.
India has plenty of talented young footballers, but currently lacks the infrastructure for them to develop their careers. This its what the ISL is seeking to address.
And can it compete with the English Premier League?
The ISL currently attracts average crowds of around 22,000 per game, but the league is still new, and many football fans in India already have allegiances to clubs in the English Premier League.
The EPL has been marketed very successfully around the globe, but particularly in countries like India which have strong ties with the UK.
So without a professional league of their own, many Indians who like football are part of the worldwide fanbases of clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Of course, the other issue is that the standard of play in the EPL is much higher than in the ISL, as the English top flight fixtures regularly televised in India attest.
But it’s still very early days for the ISL, and its cause is not helped by India’s lack of progress at international level.
The Indian national team have never qualified for a World Cup tournament, nor is its record in the AFC Asian Cup likely to excite fans, with just one appearance in the final – in 1964.
Despite this, it would foolish to bet against football taking off, certainly at the domestic level, in India.
With its massive population and growing economy, if the ISL manages to divert just a fraction of the interest of Indian sports fans away cricket, it will surely achieve great things.
And the more established it becomes, with more teams added to the league, the more opportunities will be available to young kids who want to pursue a career in football.
The ISL’s cause is already being aided by plenty of celebrity involvement. Hindi film superstar Ranveer Singh helps to represent the EPL in India, adding to football’s cachet, and other actors such as Ranbir Kapoor own the football clubs like Mumbai city FC.
Given time, more teams, further investment and a growth in media coverage, football’s potential in India is enormous.