India cannot evolve into a sporting nation through watching television alone; people’s interests as both viewers and potential players need to be taken into account and respected by sports leagues for such a transformation to occur.
Professional sports leagues have made a rather belated entry in India – 135 years, to be precise, after the first-ever professional sports league started in the United States of America.
The Premier Hockey League (2005-2008) was the first-ever major sports league in the country conceived by the now-defunct Indian Hockey Federation. The league lasted for three years, wrapping up in 2008 after the federation faced corruption allegations and was subsequently suspended by the Indian Olympic Association.
With a wide fanbase, cricket is more than just a sport in India; it is a religion. So, when the Indian Premier League (IPL) followed soon after the suspension of the PHL, it kept on going with every passing year.
At present, there are seven active sports leagues in India: some are at their infancy stage and others like the Indian Premier League (having just concluded its 14th edition) are sitting at the top of the pyramid.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the major sports leagues in India and how they’ve grown since their inception.
Indian Premier League (IPL)
Founded by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in 2007, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the most-attended and the most-watched cricket league in the world. With an explosive first season in 2008, the IPL caught the imagination of the Indian sports/cricket lovers like nothing before and has since gone from strength to strength with every passing year.
In 2010, the IPL became the first sporting event in the world to be broadcast live on YouTube. According to Duff & Phelps, the brand valuation of the IPL reached US$6.3 billion in 2019. In 2020, the IPL set a new viewership record with a massive 31.57 million average impressions.
However, despite its rise and popularity, the IPL has had its fair share of drama and controversies, with the expansion and termination of several franchises along the way.
2010 saw two new franchises joining the fray in Pune Warriors India and Kochi Tuskers Kerala, but a year later, in November 2011, the Kochi franchise was terminated following a breach in the BCCI’s rules and conditions, while the following year, the 2009 IPL-winning franchise, Hyderabad Deccan Chargers, was terminated after the team failed to find new owners on its own accord, but an auction saw Sun TV Network win the bidding for the Hyderabad franchise, which was thusly renamed as Sunrisers Hyderabad.
In 2013, Pune Warriors India withdrew from the IPL over financial differences with the BCCI. The franchise was finally terminated by BCCI, on 26 October 2013 on account of the franchise failing to provide the necessary bank guarantee.
Finally, 2015 saw the unravelling of one of the biggest sporting scandals in the country.
On 14 June 2015, it was announced that the champion of the 2010 and 2011 seasons of the IPL, Chennai Super Kings, and the winner of its inaugural edition, Rajasthan Royals, would be suspended for two seasons following their respective roles in a spot-fixing and betting scandal. Thus, following an auction, it was revealed that Pune and Rajkot would replace Chennai and Rajasthan for two seasons. Gujarat Lions and Rising Pune Supergiant were the two subsequent teams.
In August 2021, the BCCI announced that the marquee tournament would be expanded to accommodate two more franchises joining the league at the start of the 2022 season. The BCCI shortlisted six cities — Ahmedabad, Cuttack, Guwahati, Lucknow, Dharamshala and Ranchi — and eventually, Ahmedabad and Lucknow emerged as the homes for the two new teams.
Moreover, based on the growing financial pull of the league, it certainly makes sense to expand it. Let’s take the title sponsorship revenue, for instance, DLF, IPL’s first title sponsor, paid US$27 million for a five-year deal. Now, during the 2020 season, after Vivo pulled out of the title sponsorship deal due to the then-military stand-off between India and China at LoC, Dream11 bagged the title sponsorship for an amount of INR 220 crore ≈ US$29.5 million (at the time). Such is the aura and financial clout of the Indian Premier League.
Indian Super League (ISL)
Before discussing the Indian Super League (ISL) at length, we must look at the factors that led to the creation of this league. Despite India’s early history in the game, the country’s first nationwide football league did not begin until the mid-90s. In 1996, the semi-professional National Football League commenced.
In 2006, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body for football in India, reformatted the league as the I-League in an attempt to professionalise the game in India. Moreover, on 22 December 2006, the AIFF signed a ten-year television and media deal with Zee Sports. However, just four years down the line, in October 2010, the deal between the AIFF and Zee Sports was terminated early after differences between both parties emerged related to payment and how to grow the game in India.
In December 2010, it was announced that the AIFF had signed a new fifteen-year, INR 700 crore deal with Reliance Industries and the International Management Group (IMG). This association between the AIFF, Reliance and IMG paved the way for the creation of the ISL in 2013.
After a rigourous bidding process for the eight ISL teams, where it was also revealed around that time that not only would the bidders need to comply with a financial requirement, but they would also need to promote ‘grassroots’ development plans for football within their area, the bidders were announced. The eight selected states/cities were Bangalore, Delhi, Goa, Kolkata, Guwahati, Mumbai, Kochi and Pune. However, three months before the start of its first season, the Bangalore Titans franchise dropped out. After Bangalore’s owners pulled out, it was announced that Chennai would be given a franchise instead. The team was named Chennaiyin FC.
For the first three seasons of the ISL, the competition operated without official recognition from the governing body of football in Asia, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and FIFA, the world governing body. In 2014, then-FIFA General Secretary Jérôme Valcke stated that the world governing body only recognised the ISL as a tournament, not a league. The official league for football in India remained the I-League. Thus, with no recognition from the AFC, teams from the competition were unable to participate in Asian club competitions.
However, in 2017, when the ISL organisers announced the expansion of the league with two new teams, Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC, it meant that the season would expand to five months instead of three, fulfilling the AFC’s and FIFA’s criteria for recognition. Thus, it was announced that the AFC, along with FIFA, would recognise the Indian Super League and allow its clubs to participate in the AFC Cup starting in 2019.
Chennaiyin FC became the first ISL side to qualify for the AFC Cup after winning the 2018 ISL in March 2018. In 2019, the AFC approved the proposed roadmap from the AIFF, which included allowing the ISL champion to qualify for the AFC Champions League Qualifiers. In December 2019, it was officially announced by the AFC that the Champions League format would change from a 32-team tournament to a 40-team tournament, with the ISL League Stage winner getting direct Group Stage qualification to the AFC Champions League from 2021 onwards.
Although still at a nascent stage, the ISL is rapidly growing in India, and it won’t be long before India and Indian clubs, at least, start dominating continental football. The 2020-21 season saw the league getting broadcast in over 80 countries all around the globe. Moreover, the Indian Super League has approved the 3+1 rule to help local players actively participate in the league. The rule will be a part of ISL guidelines, with the new rule allowing 7 Indian players to be a part of the starting XI from 2021-22 season onwards.
Pro Kabaddi League (PKL)
Launched in 2014, the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) had seven successful seasons before its 2020 edition was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Influenced by the love and popularity Kabaddi received in India after the 2006 Asian Games and the rise and success of franchise sports in the country as evident with the likes of the IPL and the ISL, the PKL was launched in 2014 with eight teams, each of which paid up to US$250,000 as participation fee upfront.
Initially, the organisers and many others had doubts over whether the Pro Kabaddi League would be successful, because, unlike cricket, there were relatively fewer well-known Kabaddi players. However, one key aspect that eventually went their way was Kabaddi’s widespread popularity in the grassroots community settings, thus attracting a variety of rural and metropolitan viewers for advertisers to target.
The inaugural edition of the PKL was seen by 43.2 crore viewers, second to only the IPL’s 55.2 crore viewers. By its third edition, the online viewership had also increased from a mere 7 lakh unique viewers during the 2015 season to 1.3 crore viewers during the 2019 season – a 18.5x increase.
With the increasing popularity, from the 2017 season onwards, the PKL added four new teams and changed the format to split the teams into two divisions known as “Zones”. However, with the 2019 season, the league returned to its regular double round-robin format.
In its initial seven years, the PKL saw five different teams lift the coveted trophy at the end of the season. Jaipur Pink Panthers won the inaugural edition after beating U Mumba, and the runner-up from the first edition came back to lift the trophy in its second time of asking. Seasons 3-5 oversaw a period of dominance as the Patna Pirates franchise won three titles on the bounce while also becoming the only champion to have defended its title twice. 2018 saw the Bengaluru Bulls emerge as the fourth different champion after beating Gujarat Fortune Giants (38-33), while the Bengal Warriors franchise is the reigning champion from the 2019 edition as the teams and owners wait for the 2021 PKL season.
Pro Volleyball League (PVL)
The Pro Volleyball League is a new professional men’s volleyball league in India. An initiative between the Volleyball Federation of India, Head Digital Works Pvt. Ltd. and Baseline Ventures, the inaugural season was held during February 2019. Sony Pictures Networks India was the official broadcaster of the league, RuPay was the title sponsor and MyTeam11 was the official fantasy partner for the first season of the league.
All teams had to file tenders with Baseline Ventures, listing the two cities they would be interested in bidding for. And after a month-long process, the six cities were finalised with Ahmedabad, Calicut, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi and Mumbai; the teams were Ahmedabad Defenders, Calicut Heroes, Chennai Spartans, Black Hawks Hyderabad, Kochi Blue Spikers and U Mumba Volley respectively.
Moreover, the PVL followed in the footsteps of the IPL and other franchise leagues around the world. Each team has 12 players with the provision of 2 reserve players, while each team also has a salary purse of INR 75 lakh using which it can pick players via an auction or a player draft. Players are divided into five categories — International Icons, Indian Icons, Sr. Indian internationals, Nationals and U21 players — where the international players are selected through the draft system while the Indian players go under the hammer.
In the inaugural season, with six franchises battling it out for supremacy, there were 18 matches in total, with each team playing against each other in a round-robin format with the top four teams moving onto the semi-finals. In the end, it was Chennai Spartans who won the inaugural edition by beating Calicut Heroes 3-0 in the final, with Naveen Raja Jacob winning the Man of the Match award for his special performance.
Pro Wrestling League (PWL)
The Pro Wrestling League (PWL) was established in 2015 under the initiative of ProSportify and the Wrestling Federation of India. Like any other professional league in the country, the PWL, too, runs on a franchise model with six teams that represent cities throughout India and were formed via an auction.
All PWL seasons so far have had six teams, with each team consisting of nine players. All the teams face each other in the group stages, with the top teams moving onto the playoff rounds, while during the group stage, out of the nine categories, only seven category bouts are held. Moreover, the teams get to block anyone category’s bout they want, while they must play all bouts even if they win the match before the last bout. However, in the playoffs, all nine category bouts are held, and a team wins a match when it wins five bouts.
Additionally, all players participating in the Pro Wrestling League must participate in a bidding system. Players are listed in an auction, where each team owner bags a chosen player after making the highest bid. The competition has had six teams since its inception: Delhi Sultans, Haryana Hammers, Mumbai Marathi, NCR Punjab Royals, UP Dangal and MP Yodhas.
Although the 2020 edition of the PWL was cancelled due to the COVID pandemic, in its four years, the competition has been won by three different franchises; Mumbai Garuda (previous owners of Mumbai) won the 2015 edition, NCR Punjab Royals is the most successful franchise thus far with back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018, while Haryana Hammers is the defending champion from the 2019 edition.
Premier Badminton League (PBL)
The Premier Badminton League (PBL) is a team badminton league held in India. Sportz & Live Private Limited (Sportzlive) has the rights to operate and execute the PBL.
The teams play each other in a round-robin format during the league stage, where each team plays five ties in the league stage, and each tie consists of five matches. The matches played are two Men’s Singles, Women’s Singles, Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles. Each of these matches are best-of-three games. Teams earn one point for each regular match win. In addition, each team must choose a Trump match, where a win is worth two points, and a loss subtracts one point. At the end of the league stage, the top four teams qualify for the knockout stage and the winner in the final is eventually crowned PBL champion.
The player auctions are usually held at the end of each year for the subsequent season, with professional players from all around the world putting their names under the hammer. Each franchise has a purse of INR 2 crore (US$270,000). In the most recent auction (2020), the maximum a team can spend on a single player was INR 77 lakh (US$100,000).
During the 2020 auction, P.V. Sindhu and Tai Tzu-Ying were the highest-paid players, taking home a maximum amount of INR 77 lakh (US$100,000), while Indian doubles’ star Satwiksairaj Rankireddy was next on the list, who was bought for INR 62 lakh (US$82,000) by Chennai Superstarz.
In its five seasons, the competition has seen four different winners. Delhi Dashers (formerly Delhi Acers) was the inaugural season’s winning team, having beaten Mumbai Rockets 4-3 in the final. The Mumbai team endured further heartache when it lost the final again in the following season to the PV Sindhu-led Chennai Smashers. Carolina Marín-led Hyderabad Hunters won the third edition, beating Bengaluru Raptors, but the Raptors made amends for falling short at the end of Season 3 by going on to lift the PBL title in both 2019 and 2020, thus becoming the most successful franchise in the league.
Although the league started with six teams, it has had its fair share of expansions and terminations. Since its inception, three new franchises have joined the league in Ahmedabad Smash Masters, NorthEast Warriors and Pune 7 Aces. The Ahmedabad franchise came in after the first season but was dissolved at the end of the 2019 season along with the Delhi franchise that also pulled out citing monetary reasons, leaving just seven teams to compete for the title.
Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT)
The Ultimate Table Tennis is a professional-level table tennis league in India. Launched in 2017, the league is contested by six teams. It is organised by 11Sports and promoted by Niraj Bajaj and Vita Dani. Moreover, the league is held under the aegis of the Table Tennis Federation of India.
Since its inception, the league has had three seasons till 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic halted proceedings. In its first edition, Rizwan Amlani-owned Falcon TTC defeated Vivek Bhargava-owned Shazé Challengers, which was dissolved following the conclusion of the 2017 edition while Falcon TTC too dissolved in the season after.
In 2018, Dabang Delhi TTC won the title after beating defending champion Falcon TTC. Along with Falcon TTC, two more teams dissolved that year – Warriors TTC and Maharashtra United. With three teams gone, three more came in, with Chennai Lions, Puneri Paltan TT and U Mumba TT joining the league.
Eventually, it was the Aishwariya Rai, Rajinikanth and Dhanush-owned Chennai Lions franchise that won the third edition in 2019 after thrashing defending champion Dabang Delhi TTC 8-1 in the final. Moreover, the fourth edition was postponed to 2021 last year, but with just about two months remaining until 2022, it looks highly unlikely we’ll get to see our paddlers in action any time soon.