Indian football at a tipping point

THE FUTURE OF the Indian Super League (ISL) and I-League looks a little uncertain as the country’s governing bodies grapple with creating the optimal structure for the game in Asia’s third biggest economy.

While the Indian Super League continues to form new business partnerships and starts to develop young players, spectator appetite seems to be on the decline. Last season, average attendances dropped to 13,000 from a high of 27,000 in 2015. Gates have been steadily falling in the past couple of years and the latest drop means they have halved in just three years.

This aside, India has to solve the problem of two leagues running almost in competition with each other. The differential between the ISL and I-League in terms of crowds is now very small – less than 3,000. Consider that just a few seasons back, the ISL had a 20,000 advantage over the I-League, which clearly suffered from the introduction and financial clout of the new competition.

What’s happened? The ISL has stopped attracting star names and the novelty factor has worn off. Many of the big names disappointed when they did arrive in India and franchise costs started to become a little unwieldy.

For all the media attention, ISL clubs do not benefit from the broadcasting of their matches. The income from TV goes to Star India, the co-owner of the league. The financial model of many clubs is unsustainable, with wages and running costs outstripping revenues by a significant margin. The average annual wage of an ISL player is around £ 82,000 in a country where the average daily wage is the equivalent of just £ 3.

Clubs have tried to bring down expenses and the league now has a limit on foreign players in a bid to encourage the development of young talent. That hasn’t prevented foreigners from being hired – of the ISL’s 10 clubs, five are managed by Spanish coaches, two by Brits (John Gregory and Phil Brown) and one apiece from Portugal, Croatia and the Netherlands.

The attendances should arguably be higher than the current level, given the size of the population in some cities. Mumbai, for example, has a population of more than 12 million, yet struggles to attract crowds above 5,000. Conversely, Jamshedpur is a city of 1.3 million but was the best supported team last season with an average of 20,000.

Despite strong investment, Indian Super League clubs have laboured in building fanbases. Commercially, big companies in Asia Pacific have shown their enthusiasm for the project – as well as Indian corporates such as Tata, Apollo and CESC, South Korea’s Kia and Qatar’s Aspire are among the league’s sponsors.

Pune City, for example, announced they were in financial difficulty earlier this year and there was talk of a merger with Mumbai. Delhi Dynamos also have major issues. It has been reported that almost every club in Indian football has financial problems.

The General Secretary of the All India Football Federation (AIFA), Kushal Das, admitted there were both financial and organisational hurdles to overcome. “We need money to save Indian football. We need investors who can help sustain the financial aspect of conducting the game,” he said.

Equally concerning for Indian football is the lack of clarity about the shape of the forthcoming season. The AIFA has revealed that it wants to make the ISL the top division in India with the I-League lower down the structure. Understandably, the I-League clubs are not terribly enamoured with the idea.

At present, the I-League is the officially-recognised top division in the eyes of the Asian confederation and the league’s winners enter the Asian Champions League. The ISL, in order to protect the investments of franchise owners is a “closed league” with no relegation, whereas the I-League has conventional promotion and relegation. The ISL’s model was similar to cricket’s Indian Premier League, but it hasn’t captured the imagination of the public.

Most people accept that running two leagues is not a system that can be sustained and there is strong momentum behind merging the ISL and I-League. The Asian Football Confederation is keen for this consolidation to take place as soon as possible. Everyone is currently talking about “roadmaps” with a number of I-League clubs proposing a 20-team unified league drawn from both competitions.

Some are still optimistic – the City Football Group, Manchester City’s parent organisation, is interested in buying an Indian club in 2019 to broaden its global footprint, while there are hopes that India’s promising under-17 players will start to emerge in the ISL.

With conflict between leagues, friction with marketing and broadcasting companies and a multitude of agendas, along with the dwindling crowds, Indian football continues to be at odds with itself. The next few weeks could be vital for the future of the game in India, but it seems certain a unified approach may be the only way ahead for a country of 1.4 billion people that doesn’t just have a passion for cricket.

Photo: PA