Tendulkar Buys Team as Cricket-Mad India Tests Soccer League

Cricket-crazed Indians face a fresh attempt to spur their interest in soccer with a new football league that seeks to tap the potential audience provided by a nation of 1.2 billion people.

Sachin Tendulkar, India’s record setting cricketer, and Spanish club Atletico Madrid were among the successful bidders for the rights to eight soccer teams in the Indian Super League, whose three-month season begins in September. The competition is owned equally by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd., broadcaster Star India Pvt. Ltd., a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s New York-based 21st Century Fox Inc., and sports agency IMG Worldwide Inc.

Investors are betting India’s growing middle class will flock to matches and buy merchandise as the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga whet the subcontinent’s appetite for football. The challenge is cricket’s dominance: cricket’s Indian Premier League is worth about $3.67 billion, according to London-based Brand Finance Plc, compared with the $200 million paid for the eight soccer franchises.

The winning bidders paid about $25 million for a 10-year contract for each of the eight soccer teams, IMG said in a statement. Additional teams could boost the value of the league to as much as $1 billion, IMG said.

The soccer league’s aim is to help India, currently 145th in FIFA’s world rankings, qualify for the 2026 World Cup, the organizers said in October.

‘Cricket’s Popularity’

“Any additional money coming into football can only benefit the game in India, as it can’t get worse than the state it’s in now,” Chuni Goswami, who captained India’s soccer team from 1962 to 1966, said by telephone from Kolkata. “Whether it will challenge the popularity of cricket is another question. The organizers could still struggle to fill the stadiums.”

The model is similar to the cricket competition, which began in 2008 and lured the world’s best players to compete in a twenty overs a side tournament. They can earn about $125,000 for a single three-hour match, according to Forbes magazine.

Atletico Madrid, the Spanish soccer club currently leading the country’s domestic league, won the franchise based out of Kolkata along with former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly, according to a statement from the organizers.

Bollywood Stars

Sun Group, which controls SpiceJet Ltd. and Sun TV Network Ltd., bought rights to the team from Bengaluru, formerly known as Bangalore. Venugopal Dhoot, chairman of Videocon Industries Ltd., and two partners bought the Goa team.

“With our expertise in marketing and production of sports content, our task is cut out to etch football in the sports culture of India,” Uday Shankar, chief executive officer of Star India, said in the statement. “The nation has been awaiting its second sport for far too long.”

Bollywood stars Ranbir Kapoor, Salman Khan and John Abraham were also among the winners, according to the statement. Each of the eight teams will have a marquee player, with a roster made up of talent from India and other countries. The competition was initially scheduled to begin Jan. 18 and run through March.

The new league remains dwarfed by those in Europe. Spain’s Real Madrid paid more to buy three players this season -- Gareth Bale, Asier Illarramendi and Isco -- than the Indian Super League is currently worth, based on BBC reports of the transfer fees.

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