Indian Premier League: Reflections on Indian Sport in the IPL Season

What lifts our spirits in sport? At its best, it reflects human striving in a relatively pure form, largely unaffected by the ambiguities of life. Whoever is faster than others in a 100 meter dash on a given day wins. It offers a clear result.

Watching the participants before a sporting event, whether at the Olympics or at a local athletics club, you can feel the emotions coursing through their veins. At the end of the event you can see how the participants let their emotions run free. They might otherwise be physical specimens of humanity with glittering bodies and rippling muscles. But the moment they end their event, artificial borders and barriers dissolve. In that moment, when you think you’ve done the best thing you could have done, you’re the best version of yourself. As spectators, we feel the magic of the sport in that moment.

That magic was collectively felt across the nation in 2021 when Neeraj Chopra won a breakthrough javelin gold in Tokyo, again when our women’s and men’s ice hockey teams made it to the semifinals, and again when many of our athletes pushed their limits with memorable performances. This magic inspires us to strive to make our lives better.

What has worked and what hasn’t worked in Indian sport
Wherever we have had one or more role models, a whole generation of athletes follow in this sport. Cricket, chess, hockey, shooting, badminton and, to a lesser extent, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting and archery are testament to this. Of course we now have an athletics star in one of the most elite Olympic sports. Interest in javelin throwing has been reported to have surged across the country since Tokyo – javelin throwing facilities are in high demand, including from enthusiastic parents who want javelin throwing lessons for their children. But do we have the infrastructure and the trainers to meet this need?

Most of our role models have come into being through the support they have received – be it from family members, some of whom may have had an unfulfilling sports career themselves, access to sports infrastructure, the right inspiration or coach at the right time or many times one combination of such factors.

Many government organizations and state-owned companies have helped. Sports infrastructure has emerged over the years, but it is far from adequate to cater for a large and young population. The creation of infrastructure was triggered by national and international competitions rather than the creation of basic infrastructure. With a few exceptions, the performance of our sports federations has been downright overwhelming. The entire sports federation structure needs an overhaul.

The private sector has gotten involved and has begun to make significant contributions, but typically more when sporting talent is ‘discovered’ and less in the early stages of development. Private academies run by former athletes have thrived, but more than islands of excellence. The Armed Forces in particular, subject to their own limitations, have played an important role in the development of Indian sport on an all-India level.

A left suggestion
In our sporting history, there is undeniably only one sport that has so far penetrated the national consciousness. This has often been seen as a weakness and a sign of Indian sport’s one-sided development, but perhaps it’s time to use it to our advantage? The question is, can we use cricket’s popularity to boost other sports and sports infrastructure?

Over the past fifteen years, the IPL has been an important factor in the development of Indian cricket. While there has been its share of critics, there is no denying that the IPL leapfrogged traditional domestic cricket selection systems which have not been entirely transparent. With a more professional lineup, it has spotted talent in remote corners of India and has been quick to pursue talented cricketers, giving them opportunities like never before. It has afforded the Indian men’s national team the luxury of a deep bench strength in both white ball and red ball cricket, which other cricket nations have found difficult to emulate and envious of.

Similar leagues have been attempted for other sports but with limited success, with the exception of the soccer and Kabbadi leagues. Then why not continue to build on the IPL? It might be a bit of a radical proposition, but any IPL team owner could consider supporting and promoting at least one sport alongside cricket. The sport chosen could have a geographic connection – for example the Punjab Kings could be looking to give hockey a boost, the Chennai Super Kings could be considering chess, the Hyderabad Sunrisers could be thinking about badminton and football could be a good fit for KKR.

Involvement in more than one sport (with cricket at its core) offers IPL franchises synergies that will potentially benefit them in a variety of ways. In addition to financial backing, the IPL franchises could use their well-oiled promotions and marketing teams to promote their chosen sport. They could hire talent scouts similar to those they have for cricket to spot talent in the chosen sport. Stories of such athletes could be presented at the annual IPL events. The annual IPL extravaganza could then evolve into a broader celebration of the sport over a two-month period each year.

The focus of the IPL must undoubtedly be cricket and IPL competition would still be limited to cricket but other sports, in fact all involved, have much to gain.

It could be argued that we would place an undue burden on IPL franchisees by expecting them to devote their time and energy to promoting sports other than cricket. The authors are not advocating that support for other sports should be mandated in any way – on the contrary, this might be something for franchisees themselves to consider as part of their development.

Given the way IPL and the franchisees’ brands have evolved since 2008, there is a unique opportunity for them to expand beyond cricket into other sports. They have the opportunity to become brands that reflect the dynamism and vitality of the talent in Indian sport, which, much like cricket, is just waiting to be harnessed and showcased on the international stage.

The authors are in-house counsel with S&R Associates. The views expressed in this article are personal.

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