A Tale of Two Premier Leagues

Many of the best players in the world are auctioned off to the highest bidder for a 44-day tournament worth an astonishing $1.026 billion in television money over ten years, before a ball has ever been struck in it. The money will go to the newly created teams — franchises, as they call them — with names like DareDevils and Super Kings. Auctioning off the franchises themselves had raised $723.59 million.

The auction prices for the players don’t seem quite right, somehow. One of the world’s best goes for $400,000, whilst less established talents secure over double that. It seems that marketing appeal in the giant sub-continent television market is determining value as much as sporting talent.

Traditional talent isn’t that important, anyway. They won’t be playing the old-fashioned full-length version of the sport, but rather a crash bang version optimised for television. The world’s governing body is concerned the tournament could become a haven for corruption and gambling, as one player can more easily throw a game in this abbreviated and barely regulated set-up. But they allow it anyway, afraid to alienate the huge and growing market.

Old-timers complain that this is all just isn’t cricket, so to speak. After all I am, of course, discussing cricket: it might surprise readers outside the British Commonwealth, but it’s now a billion-dollar sport thanks to the above tournament, the Indian Premier League launched this year.

The tournament’s breathtaking greed and commercialism makes the English Premier League look restrained in contrast. But I bring it up on a football blog for two reasons.

Cricket in New Delhi

Firstly, many people complain that the rampant commercialisation of football since the 1990s has killed off its traditional basis in local clubs and subordinated the game to the needs of television, with Friday night kick-offs and proposals for the 39th game, and so on. Domestic football — or more precisely, the dominant few European leagues — increasingly set the agenda to the detriment of the international game.

Thanks to the Indian Premier League in cricket, we can see the endpoint if one country’s league’s commercial power becomes so great the international governing body cannot ignore the power of the domestic dollar. Twenty20 is an abbreviated version of cricket lasting a few hours that is about as similar to the traditional five-day version of international Test match cricket as beach soccer is to the beautiful game. The Test match format is severely threatened by the growth of Twenty20, its appeal now largely restricted to English and Australian audiences, tiny numbers swamped by the wild enthusiasm and growing purchasing power of India’s cricket-mad, billion strong nation.

Will Test match international cricket die out in the face of the value of domestic Indian cricket, or be converted entirely to a more televisually friendly format of Twenty20?

The second relevant point is where the IPL’s commercial power leaves football as a growing sport in India, whose recently launched I-League does not seem to have been a raging success. Two contrasting articles in the Guardian recently appeared on the inaugural I-League season. Dileep Preachandran, after attending an I-League match between Viva Kerala and East Bengal, believes the league cannot compete with the global television appeal of the English Premier League on television.

The stands were a vast sea of heated concrete, the pitch as pockmarked as Bill Murray’s face. The worst feature though was the crowd. With public transport off the roads in protest against a hike in petroleum prices, only a couple of hundred diehards turned up, a far cry from the enthusiasm and chaos of my youth.

One of the regulars explained that the poor turnout also had much to do with the home side, Viva Kerala, being rubbish. Initial games had attracted crowds of close to 10,000 but as the newly-promoted side struggled against the established names of Indian football, enthusiasm waned. Viva are India’s answer to Derby County, only they don’t even have a Kenny Miller. Instead of Laudrup, Mikhailichenko and others, the foreign contingent on view included stragglers from Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil and Kenya, men whose dreams of emulating Didier Drogba or Kaka in Europe’s marquee leagues will never be realised.

Viva’s opponents were East Bengal, traditionally one of India’s [and Kolkata's] big two, a famous club fallen on hard times. As with most scraps for survival, this didn’t make for pretty viewing. There wasn’t the skill you associate with La Liga or the frenetic pace of the English game, and crowds now exposed to better thanks to the miracle of satellite TV soon grew restive while watching football that seemed a throwback to the days of bell-bottomed trousers.

On the other hand, Jamie Jackson quotes an exuberant executive who thinks football’s I-League can follow the lead of the Indian Premier League in cricket and “may have signalled a revolution in football in India, which could have implications for the sport throughout Asia and, eventually, the world.”

Jackson says that “officials from the India Football Association [AIFF] I spoke with today claimed their sport is now more popular than cricket in schools and among the younger generation.” Now, I’ve no way to verify this one way or another, but that sees slightly far-fetched to me. The very fact of cricket’s IPL’s raging commercial value hardly suggests a billion-dollar football league is about to be launched as well, especially if India’s affluent football fans are more interested in EPL replica shirts than the I-League.

It seems more to me that just as football’s financial power has forced out other sports in the countries it dominates (with cricket’s summer season ever more encroached on in England by football, for example) the power of cricket will leave little investment for football in India.

The more television dominates, the less breathing room there is for minority sports. Or will football’s global hegemony eventually smash cricket’s hold on the Indian subcontinent? And if it did, what would that huge commercial potential mean for football? Pato auctioned off to the Delhi DareDevils, by 2018?

All this, though, is just another curious episode in the breathless globalisation of sport that we can only seem to glimpse the future of in a frighteningly translucent manner.

Photo credits: rong1;Tampen

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