Five years ago there weren’t any major sporting leagues in India. That’s not to say that team sports aren’t popular in India; the men’s national cricket team is the most popular in the world and the men’s national field hockey team was once the dominant force in the sport. However, India’s team sport infrastructure has always been fractured for a variety of reasons, including economy, crappy administration, distance, and infrastructure. It’s not that there weren’t professional opportunities for some athletes but the competitions were scattered with many different competitions. For example, soccer was divided into several small regional/state leagues that didn’t amount to much. The cricket season was even more confusing. There were corporate teams in the Japanese tradition that held little interest for fans. A player might spend part of the year on a corporate team and then another part of the year on a regional team. Due to the mentioned restrictions, this was just the way it had to be.
Things began to change in 2005 when the Indian (Field) Hockey Federation, in partnership with ESPN, launched the Premier Hockey League, effectively the world’s first professional field hockey league of any note. Although the sport is widespread, the only time it traditionally musters much spectator support is the Summer Olympics. The PHL is changing that to some degree, with seven teams currently competing around the country.
Two years later, soccer finally organized a high-profile, national competition known as the I-League (in the Asian tradition of Japan’s J. League, Korea’s K-League, Singapore’s S. League, Vietnam’s V-League, Australia’s A-League, and Oceania’s O-League). The league has expanded to 12 teams but they’re spread around only 4 cities, based on soccer enthusiasm. Still, it’s a good start and should improve the national team.
Cricket got into the game at the same time, although “illegally”. The Indian Cricket League began play in 2007 as a rebel league. Organized outside of the official cricket structures, anyone and everyone associated with the league is an outcast, banned by their national associations. Regardless, the league was an instant success.
The following year, the Indian Premier League began play. With endorsement from all of the official cricket channels, the league has been just as successful as the ICL. The competition between the IPL and ICL is somewhat reminiscent of league wars in the United States, including National League vs American League, NFL vs AFL, NHL vs WHA, and NBA vs ABA. Each of these cases resulted in some level of merging. In spite of the hardlining of cricket officials, the ICL seems destined to be accepted at some point unless it kills itself off.
All of these leagues have massive potential for growth. For now, the PHL, I-League, ICL, and IPL will continue to fight for attention in the faltering economy and quickly cluttering Indian. If things go well, India could have the largest systme of pro leagues outside of the USA and Britain.