Football Musings: Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Indian Super League (ISL)

Over the last decade, USA and India have embraced the need to expand their sporting community to Football. Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Indian Super League (ISL) have forged their timelines and identities taking a similar path. Massive investments from the businesses and ageing but superstar names from the global football fraternity to draw viewership are a couple of the commonalities between them.

An oft-forgotten fact is that football was India’s main sport dating back to the early 20th century. Somewhere along the way, funding and infrastructure challenges hindered the growth of the sport in the country. In contrast with the ISL, the MLS has been around since 1993. It was set up as part of USA’s successful bid to host the 1994 Olympics. But football in the US faces cultural challenges. The country has been brought up on the ‘Big Four’ – Baseball, American football, Basketball and Ice Hockey. Cricket in India and the ‘Big Four’ in the US bring similar challenges to the growth of football.

Football superstars way to the top

Currently, the MLS is in its 23rd season. It attracts retired world-class players who bring a lot to the game in terms of quality, brand appeal and exposure for the local players. Legendary Players like Pele, Beckenbauer and Cryuff paved the way for the current state of US Football in the latter part of the past century. This has progressed to the likes of Beckham, Henry, Kaka and Pirlo in recent years embracing big money post-retirement and a chance of giving back to the game they love.

In early 2013, International Management Group and Reliance (IMG-Reliance) teamed up with the All India Football Federation. The aim was to rejuvenate the sport in our country marginalised by its flashier cousin – cricket. They adopted the same strategy as the MLS by roping in retired superstars to play in the league. Robert Pires and Freddie Ljunberg – two legends from the 2004 Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team, are just two of the attractions. Add Roberto Carlos, Trezeguet, Luis Enrique and Malouda to the mix, and you have some serious star power. The global exposure that this vision has brought for the Indian players has helped increase their quality as footballers.

Funding and Grassroots Development for Football

There is a tremendous amount of funding available in the US being poured into football to build up interest for the sport. TV agencies like NBC and Fox have become cognizant of this rising tide too. They have invested heavily in advertising and media rights for the top European leagues. This adds to the awareness that football has managed to create over the last few years. This helps the next generation of football players approach football as a legitimate sports career. As a consequence, there has been a growing interest in developing the sport at the grassroots level. The US Soccer Development Academy has become the hub for all soccer-related activities for the youth athletes in the country.

Similar to the US, there has been a sharp uptick in investment for the sport in India. The ISL teams have managed to drum up a citywide loyalty among its fans only rivalled by the IPL. This level of financial support has also helped set up a family-friendly environment in terms of infrastructure at the stadiums, and more importantly manage the lofty salaries of these marquee players. As evidenced in the MLS, a vital addition to ISL’s growth has been its investment at the grassroots level with city-based training camps and the national ‘Reliance Foundation Young Champs’ program. This is aimed at youth development and bringing them to the next level.

Concluding thoughts

The ISL has slowly and steadily climbed up the popularity charts. It now stands as the 4th most popular football league in the world, behind England, Germany and Spain. But it’s ahead of the likes of Italy, Brazil, China and Argentina, with an average attendance of 24,000 people.

217 million people watched the ISL in 2016 which has been a steady increase of 9 million in its viewership from the last year. The initial signs are great with a proposed deal between AIFF and IMG to make ISL the premier football competition in India.


This is an edited version of the post MLS and ISL – Drawing parallels by Venkatesh Ravishanker.

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