Indian Super League ready for bigger kick-off

In cricket-obsessed India, a football league has been attracting the backing of heavyweights from Bollywood, industrialists, media – and even cricket itself. Now the league aims to win over the public.

Fireworks light up a ceremony before the start of the Indian Super League football match between Chennaiyin FC and Atletico-de-Kolkata in Chennai on October 3, 2015. Manjunath Kiran / AFP
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Team owners and sponsors of the Indian Super League (ISL) are hoping that the football tournament will be able to score huge success among fans over the coming weeks.

The ISL kicked off its second season yesterday evening in Chennai after launching last year, bringing Bollywood glitz to football in an otherwise cricket-mad nation where other sports have more limited popular and commercial appeal.

Actors, cricket stars and business tycoons are among those who have invested in the eight teams, which include a mix of international and Indian footballers on their rosters.

The young league has ambitions to grow, but without doubt it is a high-risk venture. Another football tournament in India, the I-League, has failed to gain much traction. This has been blamed on lack of funding and limited television coverage.

India is often referred to as football’s “sleeping giant” – it is 155th in the latest Fifa rankings – but with rising incomes and a vast young population, the potential to generate revenues from the sport could be enormous if its popularity continues to grow.

The ISL is owned by IMG Reliance – a joint venture between IMG Worldwide, a sports entertainment company headquartered in the United States, and the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries – along with the TV network Star India, part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire.

“I saw two or three games in the first ISL and thought it was amazing,” says Simao Sabrosa, who used to play for Atletico Madrid and has joined the NorthEast United ISL team this season.

Sponsorship revenues for the ISL are projected to almost double this year to 1 billion rupees (Dh56.33 million), according to estimates widely published in the Indian media. The matches are played in eight cities, with the final scheduled for December 20 in Goa.

Anil Wanvari, the founder and chief executive of, an online information service focused on the television and media industries, says that he thinks the league is “on track”. “There is some excitement building up about the property,” he says.

“It takes time for a property to build up but the kind of traction they are getting in terms of some of the good players they are attracting is an indication that it’s headed in the right direction.”

He explains that Star India and Mr Murdoch see the ISL as a long-term investment in sport in India rather than something they expect to “make money out of overnight”.

“You have to remember here you’re in a cricket-crazy country,” Mr Wanvari adds.

Star broadcasts all ISL matches in five languages – Bengali, English, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil – with syndication around the world. The league is being broadcast across the Middle East by OSN. The matches are also available in the UAE via live streaming at

Football has been gaining a larger audience in recent years in India, with European league matches becoming more popular.

But when it comes to the ISL, the money involved is far from English Premier League levels and teams have been running higher losses than expected.

Each franchise lost an estimated 350m to 400m rupees last year, double what was expected, according to the Hindustan Times, a major Indian newspaper. It reported that the ISL's business plan last year projected that 2017 would be the turnaround year for the teams.

Other figures are more encouraging. The league was watched on television by 429 million viewers in India last year, while 1.5 million in total turned up to watch the live matches.

Last year’s fans, whether in the stadium or watching on TV, were rewarded with some exciting action.

In the final last season, as Mohammed Rafique – a little known footballer from West Bengal – headed a goal home in injury time to win the championship for Atletico de Kolkata 1-0 against Kerala Blasters. Fans leapt to their feet, cheered, and whistled, waving flags and banners. Mr Rafique’s teammates leapt on top of him. The scene in Mumbai matched the passion and the pride that is frequently witnessed in football-mad European nations.

The cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar is a co-owner of the Blasters. He is one of several links to the worlds of cricket and Bollywood that are helping the football league gain currency. The actor Ranbir Kapoor is a co-owner of Mumbai City FC, while the cricket star Virat Kohli has a piece of FC Goa.

On the pitch, international names who are playing the tournament this season include the Brazilian footballer Lucio, playing for Goa, and France’s Nicolas Anelka for Mumbai City.

The competition also seems to have had more success in signing up brands.

Ritesh Nath, the general manager of Cornerstone Sport and Entertainment, an Indian sports agency, believes that the ISL is an encouraging sign for the “growth prospects of Indian sport and football in particular”.

“Advertising and sponsorship has been a great indicator as to the health and acceptance of the league by consumers,” he says.

Cornerstone works with FC Goa to raise sponsorship for the club and is involved in its marketing activities.

The Indian motorcycle brand Hero is the title sponsor of the ISL with a three-year deal. This deal involves a fee of about 200m rupees a year, according to industry estimates cited by Business Standard, an Indian financial newspaper.

Brands including Maruti, Pepsi and Amul have renewed their partnerships with the ISL this year, while companies including DHL and the Indian online retail leader Flipkart have also got on board.

The appeal of the ISL to companies include lower costs compared to cricket and the demographics that the tournament reaches.

“One of the main draws to the ISL was the 50 per cent male viewership and the balance 50 per cent was a healthy mix of female and children. These numbers are extremely attractive to brands because IPL [Indian Premier League cricket] viewership is male-dominated and the ISL gives them a chance to speak to consumers across demographics,” says Mr Nair.

Ozone Group, a Bangalore-based property company, has this year renewed its title sponsorship of Chennaiyin FC, an ISL team which is owned by the Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan and the cricketer MS Dhoni (one of India’s most successful cricket captains).

“We as an organisation believe in football and Chennai happens to be one of our largest presence and Bangalore does not have a team,” says Srinivasan Gopalan, the chief executive of Ozone Group. “Last year we had a good experience with them. I think football will continue to be the next biggest. I think cricket has over-lived its life. There’s too much exposure for cricket.”

But India still needs to develop better infrastructure, including stadiums, pitches, and training academies to boost its football industry, with more investment needed in such areas, experts argue.

Looking ahead, if there is a model the ISL might aspire to follow, it comes from America.

Major League Soccer (MLS) was launched in the US in 1996 and struggled for years, losing millions of dollars, with teams playing in near-empty American football stadiums. But after owners invested in purpose-built venues more teams came into the competition, and the league is now profitable.

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