Long live ISL, Goodbye I-league

Indian football has been suffering for long but is the cash rich ISL the solution?

Ritwik Sarkar Delhi

In September 2014, Reliance India Limited and The International Management Group (IMG) launched the Indian Super League. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) signed an agreement with both parties worth over 700 cr over 15-years, making it one of the most lucrative deals in Indian sport. What was started as a means to awaken the dormant Indian passion toward the beautiful game has now come to grips with a market that hasn’t taken to the league in the numbers it once expected.

"We have entered into an agreement with IMG-RIL for 15 years for the promotion and development of football. We are excited that this will lead to wider reach of football in the country and elsewhere," AIFF President Praful Patel told a press conference after the Annual General Body Meeting of the federation.

The agreement with AIFF grants IMG-RIL all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights.

The majority shareholders of most of the ISL’s top teams follow a cookie-cutter triad of owners—comprising primarily of a Bollywood star, a cricketer or sports figure and notable financial consortiums. The base price for the purchase of each of the eight teams was 120 cr over a period of 10 years. Additionally STAR TV was given a hand in promoting the league, and was subsequently made a partner.

In order to understand the financial mechanics of a football enterprise such as the ISL, however, one must understand how ownership and investment, affect the brand of a sport that has yet to take off in a significant way. As such, teams need to strike a balance between the kind of football they want to play, with the financial investment and capital needed to sustain it.

Atletico de Kolkata

Kolkata’s franchise ISL team was expected to have the most receptive fan base, as the city itself has long been regarded as the unofficial home of Indian football. The profitability of this specific team was not lost on anyone, as prospective investors ranging from Shah Rukh Khan to Sourav Ganguly (both shareholders in major IPL teams) vied for it’s purchase.

In the end, Ganguly edged out his financial rivals, becoming the ambassador for the club and consequently, its main draw. In addition to this, Kolkata was the first city to have it’s football franchise associated with an established European Club. Spanish giants Atletico Madrid expanded their own brand by obtaining a sizeable share in the club, adding both financial and footballing legitimacy in Kolkata’s football.

In addition to the sporting caliber of Ganguly, CESC Limited’s chairman, Sanjiv Goenka owns a majority 40% share in the club, as well as being it’s co-owner. Apart from this, Goenka’s ‘New Rising’ enterprise is the titular sponsor of the IPL’s newest team—The Rising Pune Supergiants.

Ganguly’s team was able to make the most of it’s resources, winning the inaugural season of the ISL, to a packed Salt Lake Stadium with over 40,000 in attendance. This commonality between the IPL and the ISL is a recurring theme throughout the league, which isn’t strictly limited to ownership. The prospects of success are not always rosy, as Kolkata is not immune from the ISL’s inherent shortcomings. While lasting only two and a half months from mid September to mid December, the ISL fails to do enough for the sport in the off-season, with player auctions being the primary means of drumming up interest.

Chennaiyin FC

Chennai’s foray into the ISL, ties with the IPL almost inextricably. The city’s primer cricket team, The Chennai Superkings are two time IPL winners—An accolade that has aided the city’s economy and revitalized it’s sporting spirit to sights never before witnessed.

The franchise was nearly doomed from the outset, as Sunil Gavaskar, who was primed to be a principal owner, backed out due to conflict of interest with the BCCI. As a result, the team was left without a celebrity face to draw in the necessary capital. While Vita Dani of Asianpaints became a principle shareholder, the duo of Ronnie Screwala and Abhishek Bachchan were not able to win the public over after the Gavaskar PR disaster. It was only with the arrival of MS Dhoni that people began to pay a closer attention to the club.

Arguably the most important Indian sportsman in the last decade, Dhoni’s association with the team brought with it the attention of a large section of cricket fans, adding a million eyeballs to a game that was hinging on TV viewership for it’s survival. Matters started off well for the Chennai club, as they ended the first season of the league and secured a third place finish, followed by winning the next season, cementing Chennai as a force of Indian football.

Goa FC

Being the only state where football is an official sport, FC Goa was largely expected to be one of the league’s top contenders. With a pre-existing footballing pedigree and a penchant for the extravagant, FC Goa’s financial potential was quite evident before the teams sale.

Srinivas Dempo and Dattaraj Salgaocar, were the principal shareholders of the club, who brought with them decades of sporting knowledge and a business acumen suited specifically for football. With both being owners of football franchisees, FC Goa represented a truly football-centric enterprise, that didn’t depend on the star power of celebrities, but rather the spirit of the sport that ran through the state.

In addition to this, Jaydev Mody, chairman of Delta Corp limited, Venugopal Dhoot, Chairman of Videocon and Current Test Cricket captain, Virat Kohli comprised the rest of the shareholders.

 

Despite disappointing finishes in both editions of the league, they managed to create enough profitable enterprises through Videcon D2H’s dedicated channel, as well as a large variety of merchandise, and ad spots featuring Virat Kohli himself.

In theory, the ISL seems to have set the foundations, for what could become a largely profitable enterprise. However, inherent flaws within the system, as well as a nation not so perceptive to the game, have cast a shadow of doubt over the league’s eventual success.Another sticking point of the ISL’s future is its co-dependence on the IPL. With many owners and brand ambassadors serving as shareholders in franchises of both leagues, it makes financial sense for the clubs to keep them. Still in it’s initial stages of development, the ISL needs capital in order to survive, and build towards creating a profitable sporting enterprise

In order to survive however, it needs to remain affordable to different groups. In a country where corruption allegations are never far from any industry it must try to stay clean and transparent. And it must make good on its promises over grassroots campaigns.

Most importantly there will have to be the I-league conversation. The I-League is India’s older national league but has never hit the heights the ISL has, and has ever had anything like the TV or media coverage. It has gotten a lot right so far. A smaller format keeps people attentive, without losing much focus. The round robin format breaks the tedium of a select few clubs dominating. Re-furbished stadia, proper facilities keep the people wanting more of a live experience, thus ensuring the revenues remain constant and steady.

The numbers from the first season attest to both the faith put in it by large corporates, as well as the response from a vast majority of the public. With an average attendance of 24,000, a total viewership of 74.7 million and 16 million views over online viewing platforms, the ISL had met, and exceeded all conventional expectation.

With clubs signing more sponsorship deals by the season’s end, it looked like the ISL was headed on an upward trajectory that would bring Indian football to a position which the country could be proud of.

The prospect of India rising through the ranks—reaching a level which people have yearned for— will not come through the ISL. The league’s focus on bringing in foreign coaches, foreign marquee players in order to draw attention will work for the league’s initial stages, but if Indian football is to evolve, the process behind training and recruitment needs to meet the standards that league’s around the world adhere to.

Despite FIFA acknowledging the league as a step in the right direction, the ONGC I-League still remains the official recognized premier football division in India. Until both the ISL and I-League merge, the prospects of the ISL, in terms of pure football recognition, will remain hindered.

Though the exposure to foreign coaching, and standards can only benefit the Indian youth who ply their trade in the ISL, a long-term growth oriented approach will need to be employed. There is a difference between a seemingly endless passion being mined for profit by greedy executives and soulless orporations, and the attempt here to rejuvenate a dormant love for a game marginalised by its flashier cousin, using whatever means necessary to improve the experience.