Two superpowers in their own right – USA and India. Over the last decade, both of them have embraced the need to expand their sporting community to Football – the most watched sport globally. Major League Soccer and the Indian Super League have forged their own timelines and identities over the last 5 years, but the path taken by both are very similar. Massive investments from the business community, aging but superstar names from the global football fraternity in order to draw viewership are just a couple of the commonalities between these initiatives.
An oft forgotten fact is that football was India’s main sport dating back to the early 20th century. India also showcases arguably the greatest rivalry in the sport across the world – Mohan Bagan vs East Bengal. Somewhere along the way, funding and infrastructure challenges hindered the growth of the sport in the country. In contrast with the ISL, the MLS has been around since 1993 and was set up as part of USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 Olympics. In spite of its reasonably longer history as compared to ISL, football in the US faces cultural challenges as the country has been brought up on the ‘Big Four’ – Baseball, American football, Basketball and Ice Hockey. Cricket in India and the ‘Big Four’ in the US bring similar challenges to the growth of football in their respective country, ISL has learnt a lesson or two from what the MLS has done to overcome them.
Superstar way to the Top
Currently, the MLS is in its 23rd season and has recently taken to the trend of attracting retired world class players who bring a lot to the game in terms of quality, brand appeal and exposure for the local players. Legendary Players like Pele, Beckenbauer and Cryuff paved the way for the current state of US Football in the latter part of the past century. This has progressed to the likes of Beckham, Henry, Kaka and Pirlo in recent years embracing big money post retirement and a chance of giving back to the game they love.
In early 2013, International Management Group and Reliance (IMG-Reliance) teamed up with the All India Football Federation with the aim of rejuvenating the sport in our country often marginalized by its flashier cousin – cricket. They have adopted the same strategy as the MLS by roping in retired superstars to play in the league. Robert Pires and Freddie Ljunberg – two legends from the 2004 Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team are just two of the attractions that have managed to deliver on IMG’s vision of reinvigorating the national football community. Add Roberto Carlos, Trezeguet, Luis Enrique and Malouda to the mix and you have some serious star power catering to the Indian football fan. The global exposure that this vision has brought for the Indian players has helped increase their quality as footballers. There is a lot to learn for the Indian footballers and rubbing shoulders with these stalwarts helps understand nuances of the game not achievable through mere training.
Funding and Grassroots Development
There is a tremendous amount of funding available in the US which is being poured into the football scene in an effort to build up interest for the sport. TV agencies like NBC and Fox have become cognizant of this rising tide and have invested heavily in advertising and media rights for the top European leagues. This adds to the awareness that football has managed to create over the last few years which helps the next generation of football players approach football as a legitimate sports career. As a consequence, there has been a growing interest in developing the sport at the grassroots level – the US Soccer Development Academy becoming the hub for all soccer related activities for the youth athletes in the country. The Academy has immense support from the MLS and US Soccer which has helped create a supply line for quality players starting from the ground up. The most important aspect of the academy is scouting and the direct involvement of the MLS in this regard is a massive shot in the arm for US football.
Similar to the US, there has been a sharp uptick in investment for the sport in India. The ISL teams have managed to drum up a city wide loyalty among its fans only rivalled by the IPL. This level of financial support has also helped set up a family friendly environment in terms of infrastructure at the stadiums, and more importantly manage the lofty salaries of these marquee players. As IMG realized very quickly, this was the quickest way to attain nation wide audience and popularity on its way to becoming a global presence. As evidenced in the MLS, a vital addition to ISL’s growth has been its investment at the grassroots level with city based training camps and the national ‘Reliance Foundation Young Champs’ program. This is aimed at youth development and bringing them to the next level. Every ISL team has invested heavily in scouting at the youth level with local schools forming the center piece of their efforts. The icing on the cake for these efforts was Thierry Henry, one of the most recognizable sporting faces in the world coming down to interact and train the RFYC kids. He agreed that the ISL has been doing good work and is on the way up – a sound testimonial from a bonafide superstar who has seen it all in football.
The ISL has slowly and steadily climbed up the popularity charts and now stands as the 4th most popular football league in the world behind only England, Germany and Spain. Again, ISL is currently 4th in the world ahead of the likes of Italy, Brazil, China and Argentina, with an average attendance of 24,000 people. 217 million people watched the ISL in 2016 – a steady increase of 9 million in its viewership from the last year. These numbers have been a result of the MSL mantra that ISL has modelled itself on – sign up marquee global superstars with massive brand appeal to intrigue the football fans in the country. Simple enough, but there was much doubt on how this strategy would aid the league over time rather than just being a flash in the pan. ISL has helped accelerate the ascent of Indian football, this needs to be sustained through focused investment and support at the grassroots level unlike the top only approach of the Chinese league. The initial signs are great and 2017 looks towards even greener pastures for Indian football with a proposed deal between AIFF and IMG to make the ISL the premier football competition in India. Football has truly arrived!