I-League & Indian Super League: India’s dual league conundrum

The Indian Super League is here to stay with the I-League seemingly in its final stretch but question marks remain over the domestic football structure as well as its sustainability.
Bengaluru FC defeated East Bengal to win the inaugural Super Cup in Bhubaneswar on April 20.(AIFF)
Bengaluru FC defeated East Bengal to win the inaugural Super Cup in Bhubaneswar on April 20.(AIFF)
Updated on Apr 29, 2018 09:42 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByBhargab Sarmah

Earlier this month, Bengaluru FC won the first edition of the Super Cup, which was also their fifth title in five seasons of existence. They beat East Bengal, who had a player sent off in the first half, 4-1 at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium.

The knockout tournament was a rather subdued affair despite all 20 clubs from the I-League and Indian Super League (ISL) getting the chance to play for one title for the first time.

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Held at the end of gruelling league seasons, and there being no AFC Cup slot on offer, there was little at stake for the teams.

However, despite the lack of rewards, the tournament did produce a few intriguing results. With most clubs being close to full-strength — a few foreign players from ISL clubs skipped the tournament — five of the eight quarter-finalists were I-League clubs.

There were 14 straight match-ups between I-League and ISL sides. Two of them went to penalties; Aizawl FC knocked out ISL champions Chennaiyin FC and Jamshedpur FC sent home I-League champions Minerva Punjab.

Shillong Lajong (in white) came back from 2-0 down to beat FC Pune City 3-2 in their Super Cup Round of 16 clash. (AIFF)
Shillong Lajong (in white) came back from 2-0 down to beat FC Pune City 3-2 in their Super Cup Round of 16 clash. (AIFF)

In the remaining 12 games, clubs from both leagues won six each. Four of the six games won by ISL sides were by former I-League champions Bengaluru FC. The other two were won in the qualification round; Mumbai City FC beat AIFF’s developmental side Indian Arrows, and ATK ousted Chennai City.

In the main round, ISL sides disappointed. Of the three which entered the quarters, two were this season’s debutants: Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC.

The tournament may have been low on the clubs’ list of priorities, but the results can be interpreted to mean that the gulf in quality between I-League and ISL isn’t much.

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Player exodus

In the middle of the tournament, it emerged that a two-member committee, appointed by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, had proposed a unified top-tier by 2019-20, failing which Indian clubs would be banned from AFC competitions.

A report submitted by the panel suggested a 12-team top tier in the initial season, with all 10 ISL teams being given a direct entry. One or both the other teams could be the I-League champions and the runners-up, the report has suggested.

The report also sought a review of parts of the 15-year agreement between the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and IMG-Reliance signed in 2010.

While it remains to be seen whether the recommendations are accepted as part of the unification plan, what is almost certain, going by all indications from the AIFF in recent times, is that the ISL will be the top tier with only one or two I-League clubs immediately accommodated once the ‘merger’ takes place. The status of the I-League as India’s top competition, therefore, is seemingly on its last legs.

The ISL, with its riches, is proving to be the more lucrative platform for Indian footballers.

The recently-concluded season was the first time when the leagues ran simultaneously. It saw a number of Indian players move from I-League to ISL. This trend is likely to continue in 2018-19 with Chennai City’s Michael Soosairaj and NEROCA’s Tondonba Singh among those leading the exodus.

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Absence of a stable revenue

In the absence of stable revenue streams, some I-League clubs aren’t complaining. “Clubs wanted him (Soosairaj) last year, but I made a gamble and told the player to have a go at the I-League this year. It could’ve backfired if he was injured but the gamble worked out well as the player goes for a better valuation in terms of his pay and the club gets a good valuation and transfer fee,” Chennai City owner Rohit Ramesh said in an e-mail.

Naoba Thangjam, CEO of NEROCA FC, which surprised many by finishing second in the I-League in their first season at the top-flight, said sponsorships have been hard to come by.

In such a situation, player sales, merchandise sales and gate receipts are being seen as important sources of revenue.

NEROCA FC attracted large crowds at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal in their debut I-League campaign. (AIFF)
NEROCA FC attracted large crowds at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal in their debut I-League campaign. (AIFF)

“It is difficult for a small club like NEROCA to manage its financial part. At the moment, it’s just one company that is solely sponsoring the club. In future, we have plans to make this club self-sustaining. We are not going to invest a huge amount of money every year. We are looking to produce our own players so we can develop them to play for the club or sell them to another team. We will maintain our budget. This season’s budget was Rs. 2.5 crore and next season also we won’t spend more than that,” Naoba said over the telephone from Imphal.

Shillong Lajong profited close to Rs. 1.5 crore ahead of the last season through players’ sales but stayed afloat in the I-League after promoting academy players and making some low-key signings.

While the I-League may lose most of its stars again, clubs could take solace from the fact that players such as Sukhdev Singh and Soosairaj emerged from a similar situation last term.

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Contrasting attendance trends

NEROCA’s promotion to the I-League helped the competition get a major boost in its attendance figures. With an average home attendance of 24,494, NEROCA helped raise the average in the I-League from 6,500 in 2016/17 to 10,354 the last season. The entry of Gokulam Kerala FC too contributed as did games of Chennai City in Coimbatore, champions Minerva Punjab FC and the return of club football to the Salt Lake stadium.

This, despite two-fifths of the league’s matches being afternoon kickoffs with a vast majority of them being played on weekdays.

In contrast, the average attendance in the ISL fell to 14,750. The league phase saw an average of 14,495 fans while the semi-final and the final had an average of 19,351.

This is a steep fall from the average of 24,357 recorded in the first season and 26,376 in the second. The third season of ISL had an average attendance of 21,003.

NorthEast United, which witnessed packed stands in the first season, failed to fill even one-third of the stadium in 2017-18. On their return to the Salt Lake stadium ATK, having spectacularly imploded after severing ties with Atletico Madrid, struggled to generate interest anywhere near the first two seasons.

Two of the three highest average attendance figures in ISL were recorded at the home of the two debutants.

While Bengaluru FC have built a strong fan base over the years, it remains to be seen whether Jamshedpur FC and the other clubs are able to sustain theirs as seasons get longer.

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Questions over sustainability

A major question mark that hangs over the ISL is whether clubs will be able to sustain themselves in the long run.

Unlike in the I-League, gate receipts and other traditional sources aren’t seen as huge revenue prospects.

“We have a really small ground. You give away tickets to sponsors and others. So we are left with 4500-5000 to sell and we keep our tickets as cheap as possible, so it is not a major revenue source for us,” said Mumbai City CEO Indranil Das Blah over the phone from Mumbai.

According to Das Blah, Mumbai City, through their partnership with Bookmyshow, generated Rs.1 crore from gate receipts last season. The spend on players was around Rs. 16 crore, down from over Rs. 20 crore in the opening season, he said.

Question marks remain over the Indian Super League’s sustainability. (ISL)
Question marks remain over the Indian Super League’s sustainability. (ISL)

Bengaluru FC, who have seen life in both I-League and ISL, witnessed a substantial jump in sponsorship, said Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of club owners JSW Sports.

However, the move from I-League to ISL also saw a significant jump in expenses.

“The spending is a lot higher in the ISL as opposed to the I-League, as is the revenue. We would definitely like to reduce the gap between the two as we keep moving forward,” said Ghouse.

In contrast to I-League clubs, whose budgets are restricted to eight figures per season, ISL clubs’ spending go well into nine figures. This includes cost of recruiting players, coaches and an annual franchise fee.

In their first three seasons, Kerala Blasters suffered losses amounting to Rs. 80 crore. Other clubs haven’t had much better fortune, although stakeholders like Ghouse remain confident of cutting down on these losses every year.

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Broadcast wrangle

To top it off, ISL clubs also do not earn any TV revenue as broadcaster Star India co-owns the product.

“The way that Star Sports markets the league, the effort and muscle that they put behind it — we are in prime time television throughout the season — that is a huge advantage,” said Ghouse.

In a market of India’s size, prime time TV is a big incentive for clubs still in their infancy.

In contrast, I-League, which was also being broadcast on Star this season, rarely had games kicking off at 8 pm. The final day of the season saw four clubs in contention for the title, but all three fixtures involving these teams started at 3 pm.

Short-term benefits aside, ISL clubs could lose out in the long run in the absence of TV revenue.

“You look at any league; the biggest source of revenue for all clubs is from broadcast, so that is a hit on us. Having said that, we do get some of the ISL’s central revenue,” said Blah.

While ISL may not be as attractive a product as Australia’s A-League, which has an Australian dollar 346 million deal in place for 2017-23, the absence of broadcast revenue in the long run may not bode well for the stakeholders of a product which aspires to galvanise football in the country.

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