The Indian Super League has been making quite a buzz in the national media in recent weeks. A brainchild of IMG-Reliance, the marketing partners of the All India Football Federation, the new 'tournament' is set to kick off later this year with eight participants in its opening edition. IMG-R recently revealed the eight winning bidders from across the country, who will own the teams in the competition that will run for a period of two months every year. Not surprisingly, most of the winning bidders are well-known celebrities or business-houses. With the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Salman Khan and John Abraham set to operate 'football teams' of their own, the Indian Super League has received unprecedented media coverage in recent days.
For a country which has miserably failed to make its mark in the international arena in the past few decades, the hullabaloo surrounding the Indian Super League is understandable. Quite a few observers have gone as far as to say that the Indian Super League could be the game-changer for Indian football. However, despite the sugar-coated media coverage of this event, things are completely different from what they are made out to be. It is true that Indian football has its own set of problems. Its premier division league, the I-League, has had a rather slow growth over the years. In the last couple of years, however, things have gradually improved. Clubs like Shillong Lajong have helped expand the league's following significantly, while this season there has been a substantial increase in match-day attendances with the likes of Rangdajied United, Mohammedan Sporting and Bengaluru FC coming into the top-flight. Bengaluru FC and Pune FC, meanwhile, have shown exemplary professionalism, with the former even lifting the league title this season in their first attempt with the backing of a shrewd management. It is no secret that most of the clubs have been laid-back professionally, but with Bengaluru, Pune, Lajong and quite a few others showing the initiative to change things in the domestic game, most of the other clubs are gradually realizing the need to wake up to the changing times. What really deter most of the I-League clubs from investing more in the game is the negligible financial returns from their investments, primarily due to the absence of a revenue sharing agreement with the governing body. The money generated from AIFF events, including the I-League, goes into the pockets of IMG-R, as per their contract.
In such a scenario, it would have been ideal for IMG-R to put back the money back into Indian football, and also help empower the clubs, particularly the smaller ones, by getting into place a revenue sharing agreement for the I-League. That, however, has not been the case. I-League continues to be operated without the involvement of clubs in the key decision-making process. What is surprising is that IMG-Reliance has offered ISL teams the chance to have a significant share of the revenue generated from the 'league'. The franchises are termed as 'league partners', and the financial rewards they are being offered will surely pull other big corporate houses to the ISL in the future. IMG-R's inability to put into place a similar agreement in the I-League, however, is shocking. On one hand, you are going to bed with big corporate players in the ISL, while on the other hand, you are making the important stakeholders of the domestic game, the I-League clubs, sleep on the floor. IMG-R's actions will no doubt put off investors from gambling their money on the I-League, and will instead encourage business houses to invest in the lucrative ISL. The marketing partners' step-motherly approach towards the I-League raises some serious questions. From the looks of it, it perhaps serves IMG-R's interests best if the I-League isn't allowed to grow as a product, and the clubs are left as weak as ever.
This season, there has been a visible rise in the quality of football played in the Indian top-flight. The gulf in quality between the top and bottom sides has been significantly brought down this season, with all the clubs being highly competitive. Moreover, the league following has enjoyed a substantial rise too. Despite I-League's new dawn, the ISL will bring with it a whole new set of problems for the former. With the ISL being scheduled from September to November, the I-League will most likely have to shift to a new calendar season. The Federation Cup is highly likely to be held in December, and this may mean that the Indian top-flight will have to shift to a January-commencement, which will lead to quite a few complications for players and clubs alike. Babua Biswas, founder of FeverPitch.in, a website dedicated to Indian football, isn't convinced by the scheduling of the event. "When you are taking away September, October and November from the Indian football calendar, you are robbing the I-League of its three most productive months. It will quite possibly mean that more I-League games will have to be played during the extreme heat of April, May and June" he says. Babua also highlights the problems I-League players will face if they are made to wait until January for the start of the league. "What are the players supposed to do for these eight months? We will have international friendlies later this year. How will the international players prepare for them without any proper football action?"
Today, the general consensus among various stakeholders is that the I-League and the ISL will merge into one single division in the long-run. While that, at the moment, may seem to be the only way to help keep the I-League afloat in the future, it remains to be seen whether IMG-R accepts this idea if the ISL turns out to be a major financial success. After all, it is IMG-R that runs things in Indian football these days. The AIFF operates merely as its unofficial subsidiary body. It is a bit scary to see how powerful and influential IMG-R has become in recent times. It is frightening to note that people like Nita Ambani, with no prior involvement with Indian football and questionable knowledge about the domestic game, are being empowered to take life and death decisions on Indian football. The marketing partners of AIFF made sure last year that nobody opposed to its plans of a new 'tournament' got a have a say in the process. The umbrella organization of I-League clubs, the IPFCA, did put up some resistance initially, but with many of the club officials suffering from inflated egos themselves, their unity lasted for only a few months. That has given the IMG-R a free-hand to get the stage in order for ISL. In recent weeks, a lot has been made out in the media about how the mega-rich franchise owners in ISL are going to boost the country's footballing infrastructure and develop world class grassroots programs. Such expectations, however, seem quite unrealistic. Atletico Madrid, despite their recent success on the field, have hundreds of millions in debt. They look to have invested in ISL purely to market their brand in the lucrative Indian market, and take the money back to Spain. On the other hand, the owners of I-League clubs Dempo and Shillong Lajong, both of them functionaries of the AIFF, too will be operating teams in ISL. Lajong's involvement, in particular, raises a few eyebrows. The club operates on a low budget, and its ability to develop world-class facilities seems too far-fetched. The same is true for a few other individual investors, who seem to have come in purely for the cash ISL promises.
There is little doubt that the I-League will be hampered by the emergence of ISL. The need of the hour is to strengthen the overall league structure of the country, not start a new competing event. The 2nd Division should have been strengthened; money put into women's football, grassroots, etc., but with an inept governing body and a rogue organization calling all the shots, Indian football will continue to suffer for a few more years.