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Is India Ready for the ‘Big Time’ in World Sports?

Fikru Tefera of Atletico De Kolkata somersault is goal to beat Mumbai City Fc defender during the Indian Super League (ISL) tournament at Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Stadium in Salt Lake City, Kolkata, India. Image by Reporter#7585286. Kolkata, India. Copyright (12/10/2014)

Fikru Tefera of Atletico De Kolkata somersault is goal to beat Mumbai City Fc defender during the Indian Super League (ISL) tournament at Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Stadium in Salt Lake City, Kolkata, India. Image by Reporter#7585286. Kolkata, India. Copyright (12/10/2014)

Growing up in India was for the longest time synonymous with hearing “What a beautiful straight drive from Sachin Tendulkar”, but this is quickly changing. Kids today are more familiar with “What a wonderful dipping free kick from Elano” or “What an exquisite volley from Roger Federer”. Something is happening to this cricket-crazy nation, where all sports once seemed to boil down to cricket. Suddenly, the Indian Super League (ISL) is the most-attended football league in Asia and the fifth most attended in the world—a staggering statistic considering that it is the league's first season. Indian tennis is also booming is ways never before seen.

So, what's changed? Is cricket losing its grip on Indian sports? Or are cricket's competitors merely enjoying a temporary spike in popularity?

When it comes to football, India has been considered a “sleeping giant”, ever since placing fourth at the 1956 Olympic games and later winning two Asian Games gold medals. Since those successes, however, football has remained largely dormant in India. This, of course, is what the ISL wants to change. With old stars like Robert Pires, Luis Garcia, David Trezeguet, Nicholas Anelka, David James, and Joan Capdevilla, the league features some former heavyweight players. Internet users have certainly registered their excitement.

This is exactly how the MLS in North America, the J-League in Japan, and the A-League in Australia managed to take off. The idea is simple—get international starts to play with home-grown players and pass on the attitude, skills, and knowledge of the game. This has certainly helped the MLS and company, who year after year perform capably on the international stage and at the World Cup. In fact, the ISL presents Indian players like TP Rehenesh, Arnab Mondal and Subash Singh with the opportunity to show their talents and test themselves against the very best.

As the ISL's attendance rises and its competitiveness improves, it's hard not to be optimistic about the future of Indian football.

Tennis is another sport where India seems to be unlocking some of its potential. This year, massive crowds attended the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) matches. In Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, India has two all-time best double players with 12 Grand Slam titles between them. For some reason, however, India hasn't produced big time singles players. 

To improve matters, India has introduced a franchise system similar to what's found in other countries. With Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Tomas Berdych, the IPTL had the biggest names in tennis playing in India this year in front of sellout audiences.  

Many dismissed the IPTL's games as glorified exhibition matches (including ATP Tour’s executive chairman, Chris Kermode), but the IPTL is all about bringing tennis to countries that are starved for the biggest names in the game.

Traveling through Manila, New Delhi, Singapore, and Dubai, the tournament saw Indian aces win several victories. Perhaps more surprisingly, the competition drew good attendance and scored decent ratings on television. For a tournament designed merely to maintain India's interest in tennis, while the nation retools and restores its tennis infrastructure, the results were an unqualified success.

And it doesn’t stop here: India will be hosting the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and the 2014 Hockey Champions Trophy, which just wrapped up in Bhubaneshwar.

As a venue of global sports, India is particularly exciting as a “sleeping giant.” The recent surge in the popularity of sports like football and tennis raise all kinds of hopes and expectations for the Indian athletes of the future.

  • Samir

    Nice Article …..way to go …we need many more leagues …more for other Olympic sports also ..even athletics,swimming also should be included !

    • Samir

      Indians love sports and want to play sports but what they lack is the platform to showcase their talent ..these leagues are providing platform to young Indians ..look at Indian Badminton league…we never heard an Indian men’s player beating a Chinese great like ..what Kidambi Srikanth did by beating Lin Dan…first time we heard that India won both men and women’s badminton series in China beating Chinese opponents ..thanks to all these league but we still need to widen the scope and improve grassroots so that more players can come forward !

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