Non-cricket sports find a lifeline in professional leagues (2015 in retrospect)

New Delhi, Dec 27 (IANS) Once upon a time, parents used to discourage their children from taking sports too seriously since education was seen as the only option to build a career. But with more and more sports coming up with their own professional leagues in India, future generations of youngsters may no longer have to go through the agony of sacrificing their sporting ambitions.

While hockey, cricket, kabaddi, badminton, football, boxing and tennis already have their own leagues, the year 2015 saw wrestling also join the bandwagon.

The inaugural edition was quite successful with crowds thronging the venues and world class action on the mat. The six wrestling teams in the fray – Haryana Hammers, Punjab Royals, Dilli Veer, Uttar Pradesh Warriors, Mumbai Garudas and Bengaluru Yodhas – boasted several World and Olympic medallists in their line-ups.

The Indians gave a good account of themselves against top international opposition. Upcoming Indian youngster Rajneesh Dalal of Punjab Royals created one of the biggest upsets in the tournament by defeating Dilli Veer’s 2015 World Championship silver medalist Navruzov Ikhtiyor of Uzbekistan in the men’s 65 kg division.

Budding Indian wrestlers like Bajrang Punia, Amit Dahiya, Rahul Aware, Amit Dhankar and Rajneesh also grabbed the limelight alongside more established stars like Yogeshwar Dutt.

Mumbai Garudas stamped their domination all over the tournament, winning all their matches on the way to the final. Haryana Hammers also did well, reaching the semi-finals, as did the Punjab Royals.

Since wrestling is perceived to be more popular in the northern part of the country, the PWL organisers preferred to host most of the matches in the region. Even Mumbai’s home matches were shifted to Delhi.

Bengaluru was the only city outside north India to host matches while Delhi along with Ludhiana, Gurgaon and Noida virtually hosted the entire tournament. The public support was excellent, with the stands being packed to the rafters on most days.

With wrestling being the most successful sport for India at the international level, and Indian grapplers successfully challenging the best in the world, the PWL has a strong chance of being a long-term success story.

One of the most successful has been the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) which saw as much popularity in its second edition as in its first. Although most Indians have played kabaddi at least once during their growing up years, the sport was in a very poor shape due to absence of sponsors and spectators. The lack of money forced many kabaddi players to become security guards or bouncers in order to support their families.

But the scenario has taken a complete U-turn with the arrival of the PKL. Not only has the PKL brought in the sponsors and the crowds, it has also created stars — an essential element needed to popularise a sport, especially among children. Names like Manjit Chillar (Bengaluru Bulls), Sandeep Narwal (Patna Pirates), Anup Kumar (U Mumba) Ajay Thakur and Manjeet Chhilar (both Puneri Paltan) have become well known among the schoolgoing section of the population.

The combination of supreme athletic ability, speed, strength and teamwork has proven to be a heady mix.

With the first two seasons proving to be an unconditional success, the organisers are studying the prospect of holding two seasons a year — in January and July — from the third edition of the PKL in 2016.

Tennis fans were also in for a treat as greats Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played out their legendary rivalry in capital’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium in front of packed stands.

The Nadal-Federer clash happened on the last day of the IPTL’s Delhi leg and saw a full stadium. More than 14,000 people were in attendance as the two legends battled it out on the court.

Ticket sale revenues have reportedly seen an increase of 25 percent for the IPTL’s India franchise Indian Aces.

But the Delhi leg of the IPTL also highlighted the fact that tennis still has a long way to go before becoming a mass sport in India. There was very little crowd on the other days as the players slugged it out in front of near-empty stands. The contrast with the loud, raucous atmosphere at the PWL matches happenning next door was stark.

The Indian Super League (ISL), launched amidst much pomp and fanfare last year, also staged its second edition in 2015. But the league, which was touted as the vehicle that will transport Indian football out of abject mediocrity, has not exactly lived up to its billing.

The star-studded tournament is already proving to be a somewhat negative influence on domestic football. With clubs allowed to field as many as six foreigners in their playing XI, it is difficult for too many Indian players to make their mark.

But to their credit, several Indian players did do well, with Sandesh Jhingan, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Subhasish Roychoudhary, Mehrajuddin Wadoo and India captain Sunil Chhetri being some of the names that spring to mind.

The number of goals scored in the second year of ISL was 186 compared to 129 in the first year. Of these, 48 were scored by Indians as against 27 last year.

The second edition of the ISL also saw a new team being crowned champions as Chennaiyin FC dethroned last year’s winners Atletico de Kolkata.

But away from the field, the flight of sponsors to the ISL franchises has affected some of the I-League clubs. So-called professionally managed clubs like Pune FC and Bharat FC closed down, leaving the city of Pune without a representative in the country’s primary football tournament.

With former powerhouse Mahindra United and 1996 National League champions JCT Phagwara having downed shutters earlier, it leaves the I-League with just eight clubs, down from the earlier number of 12.

Advertisers are more attracted by the glamour of the ISL, which has seen 22 central sponsors in its second edition compared to 13 in the first year. But this also means that I-League clubs are finding it harder to attract sponsors, which does not augur well for its long-term health.

The Federation Cup, the premier tournament in the country along with the I-League, has fallen a victim to the ISL. In a bid to accommodate the ISL in the domestic football calendar, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has decided to do away with the Federation Cup. This is just the latest in a host of domestic tournaments which have closed down or lost much of their earlier sheen.

As a result, a lot of Indian players are finding it hard to get employment as several I-League clubs are now reluctant to put up with the expenses of maintaining full strength squads round the year.

But glitches apart, what these leagues have done is to have brought sports other than cricket into the limelight.

Through the eighties and nineties and for most of the last decade, cricket was the most followed sport in India, sometimes to the detriment of athletes in other disciplines. While the most trivial issues and achievements concerning the gentleman’s game was blown up and publicised by a hyper-active media, achievements in other sports were often ignored. This is no longer the case.

Although India may take some more time to stop being obsessed with cricket, the ever burgeoning plethora of professional leagues have ensured that Indians have other sports to go crazy over.

(This is a part of a series of articles from IANS that look back at the year that was for a variety of subjects, running up to the New Year. Ajeyo Basu can be contacted at ajeyo.b@ians.in <mailto:ajeyo.b@ians.in>)

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