The Hero Indian Super League, more commonly known as the Indian Super League (ISL), is a men's professional football league in India. Founded in 2013, the goal for the league was to elevate football into one of the top sports in the India, and to create a system which could better organically increase India's participation on the football scene worldwide.
Building on the success that the Indian Premier League (IPL) -- the professional Twenty20 cricket league in India -- enjoyed, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) envisioned a football version of said league. In 2010, the AIFF signed a 15–year, 700–crore deal with Reliance Industries and the International Management Group of the United States, giving the tandem the exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, franchising, and overall creation of such a football league.
Between the combination of the grassroots effort to grow the sport within the second most populous nation in the world, and the potential business returns that could be had if the league were to achieve a similar level of success as the IPL, the bidding process for the eight franchises that would be formed at the onset of the league drew significant interest from major corporations, Bollywood stars, IPL teams themselves, and other various consortiums of potential owners. When the first eight cities/states -- Bangalore, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Pune -- were announced as having been awarded franchises, the list of individuals who won the bidding for these franchises was a veritable "who's who" of Indian star power. Indian cricket superstars Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and Bollywood superstars like Salman Khan, John Abraham, and Ranbir Kapoor were among the league's initial franchise owners.
Official statistics for the cost of each of the league's eight franchises are hard to come by, but according to recent estimates, each team has paid as much as Rs. 55 to 60 crore to cover operating costs including license fees, player acquisition, training and management, and promotions. These costs are in total for the entire franchise, meaning those teams owned by a multitude of individuals would split said costs between them. Further, like any major football or sporting league around the world, the league has also signed a bevy of sponsorship deals, and relies heavily on the revenue generated from these deals. The revenue earned from said franchising deals is believed to offset some of these operating costs that owners would otherwise have to solely bear. Hero Motocorp was the league's first title sponsor, and three-year deal signed by the company is said to have paid somewhere in the neighborhood of Rs 20 crore per year.
When the league officially began play in 2014, it was received with tremendous excitement, fanfare, and pomp and circumstance. The inaugural match took place in Kolkata, often referred to as "India's Mecca of Football." That match packed in over 65,000 fans into Salt Lake Stadium, and set a precedent for an incredible first year of league play. The initial match, and subsequent matches, generated tremendous buzz on the web, with search engine hits skyrocketing and league chatter on social media chatter dominating many of the usual sites. In the first week alone, the league generated a viewership rating of just under 171 million people, trailing only the IPL nationwide.
Only a few weeks into its inaugural season, the ISL was reported to be the fourth most popular football league in the world, leapfrogging Italy’s Serie A in terms of average attendance. The average attendance was reportedly more than 24,000 fans per match, which put the league just behind that of Germany’s Bundesliga, the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. With the league off to such a fast start, then-FIFA chief Sepp Blatter was said to have called India "the sleeping giant of football."
But after completing three seasons of play, there appears to be a mixed outlook on the future viability of the league. Three years after that raucous crowd of 65,000+ packed Salt Lake Stadium to watch Atlético de Kolkata defeat Mumbai City, Kolkata now fails to fill their new 15,000-seat Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, where they currently play. Some of the premier rivalry matches used to draw crowds over of over 25,000 fans; many of those same matches now draw as little as half that number.
Along with the backing of big-name owners, the Super League banked on the idea that luring well-known football stars, including Nicolas Anelka, David Trezeguet, Robert Pires, Luis Garcia, Roberto Carlos, Lucio, Helder Postiga, and Florent Malouda in the first two seasons alone. However, the appeal of the Indian population being drawn to watch these stars up close has not gone as planned. Anecdotally, Indian football fans look at these acquisitions more as "has-been" players looking into cashing in their final paychecks. Those same football fans are still captivated by the stars who play in the European Premier League, or other top football leagues. Indian football purists complain that the level of play in the Indian Super League doesn't possess nearly the same style, flair, and grace of the other top leagues. They view the Indian league as being too slow, methodical, and error-prone.
Still, there remains a great deal of optimism around the potential of the league. India's booming economy and rapidly-progressing quality of life should continue to be able to potentially draw stars from other countries to come and play in the Super League.
ISL viewership and attendance spiked back towards positive levels in 2016, growing as much as 41% in some areas from the previous year. Analysts point to the fact that the cumulative viewing number of Indians residing in rural areas within the country as over 100 million people, touting this number as a sign of increasing interest in the league. Those same analysts believe that the league will become the country's top football league as early as 2018, overtaking the nine-team I-league formed in 2007 (who is also struggling with their own attendance and interest-level issues).
If those numbers continue to grow later this year, it could establish the Indian Super League as one of the dominant sports leagues in the world, for many years to come.