- Associated Press - Monday, March 11, 2013

NEW DELHI (AP) - When sports fans in India talk about a Premier League igniting their passion, they’re not referring to English soccer.

They’re talking about cricket.

The Indian Premier League dwarfs every other sports event on the sub-continent _ from attendance to TV ratings, from cash to player salaries.

The game is followed with almost religious fervor, particularly the smash-and-bash Twenty20 version, to the detriment of most other sports.

It wasn’t long ago that the administrators who ran domestic soccer needed handouts from the Board of Control for Cricket in India for survival. Where else could that happen?

But things are slowly changing. The global game is catching on. There is burgeoning interest, particularly in the major cities, although these soccer fans primarily have their eye on faraway foreign leagues.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter once described India as soccer’s “sleeping giant,” recognizing the possibilities for growth in this country of 1.2 billion.

For now, soccer players in India are considered the poor cousins of glamorous cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli, who have the marketing power to sell anything from real estate to motor bikes to cola.

The success of the IPL has only widened the divide. The top Indian cricketers easily earn more than $2 million a season from the Twenty20 league, on top of their regular contracts and match fees from the national cricket board.

The top Indian soccer players earn $100,000 to $150,000 a season from the professional I-League, although the league’s foreign players can make double that amount.

Former Tottenham midfielder Rohan Ricketts and Australian A-League player Carlos Hernandez are among the new signings, but don’t have the profile that will lure fans from watching cricket or international soccer. Most Indian soccer fans are more familiar with Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi than anyone in the local league.

Cable television has played a big part in this development, bringing world-class soccer into Indian lounges and making the domestic competition look as if it’s played in slow motion.

Morning news programs frequently offer analysis of overnight matches from Europe, albeit with home-grown commentators.

The infrequent international games featuring the Indian team or exhibitions involving popular foreign teams pull packed houses, but club games rarely attract big crowds.

The top Indian names and a host of imports have failed to generate great interest in six editions of the professional I-League. And the interest of clubs like Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea seems to be in tapping the fan base in India rather than unearthing local talent.

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