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Fear and Loathing in the I-League

Mohun Bagan secured their second title in the 13th I-League season. This will also be their last as the 130-year old club will join the Indian Super League in the 2020/21 season.

The Kolkata club is the latest team to exit the erstwhile top division club football competition in India. In the past five years alone, Pune FC ceased operations, Dempo SC and Sporting Goa announced their withdrawal to the Goan leagues, and two-time champions, Bengaluru FC, jumped ship to the Indian Super League.

History of the I-League 2007-2020
The life cycle of the clubs since the inception of the I-League in 2007.

I-League or bust

Since its inaugural edition in 2007, a total of 32 teams have participated in the I-League. While some teams have been unable to find their way back after relegation, others have disbanded or withdrawn from the ever-changing landscape of the I-League.

Here are the numbers: Six former I-League clubs are either defunct or have seen their senior team disbanded. 14 other former I-League clubs now participate in the local state or city leagues.

Before Mohun Bagan’s move to the ISL, Bengaluru FC was the only exception where a club had sustained in the top division and moved on to perform on a bigger platform. 

I-League vs AIFF & IMG-Reliance

Money has always been the issue with the I-League and the club owners have been at loggerheads with the AIFF for the past decade.

The initial conflict started after the AIFF signed a 15-year contract with IMG-Reliance in 2010. The lucrative deal provided AIFF an amount of Rs. 700 crore over the contracted period, while in return IMG-Reliance gained the exclusive commercial rights to sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, video, franchising, and rights to create a new football league.

Twelve I-League clubs refused to sign the AFC club licensing criteria in 2012. The clubs demanded that the licensing criteria should only be implemented if the federation follows the AFC guideline of having the I-League as a separate entity and demanded a share of the revenue. Meanwhile, the AIFF aimed to overhaul the I-League on the lines of Major League Soccer

In 2014, the Indian Super League kicked off – taking the focus away from the I-League. Interestingly, the ISL is also a product of the IMG-Reliance partnership.

History of the I-League 2007-2020
Far from the madding crowd: Three time I-League champions, Dempo SC, participate in the Goa’s state league, GPL. The legacy club also focuses in player development across various age groups.
Photo Courtesy: @DempoSC

2024 and the road ahead

In 2016, former champions Dempo SC and Salgaocar FC pulled out of the I-League in protest against AIFF’s proposed roadmap to restructure domestic football.

Fast forward to October 2019, a six-year roadmap effectively relegated the I-League to secondary status, behind the more high-profile ISL. The roadmap proposed that the ISL and the I-League will be merged into a single league in 2024/25.

Promotion to the ISL may not resolve the financial problems for the I-League teams. The ISL teams are facing challenges with sustainability themselves. Most clubs in the ISL have consistently reported annual losses.

The roadmap may have thrown I-League a lifeline: the teams have about three years to improve its own processes to pass the AFC licensing criteria – an issue which plagued the likes of Pune FC and Bharat FC in the past.

It’s all about the money

The current I-League teams are dependant on the owners – or at least till they are pumping in the money. While the corporate sponsors have their eyes on the ISL, the I-League is left without a significant television revenue or sponsorship. 

Television revenue is a major source of income for any football club and the I-League has had a step-motherly treatment by the broadcasters in the recent seasons.

The television coverage of the 2018-19 season was hampered when the broadcasters, Star Sports, reduced the number of broadcasts to 50 out of 110 matches in the league.

After protests from the clubs, the number was increased to 80 – most of which were to be streamed online. The matches were usually broadcast in the 2 p.m. timeslot on weekdays, while the ISL had the 8 p.m. prime time slot.

Why was this the case? Simple. Star Sports has a 35% stake in the Indian Super League. A broadcaster owns 1/3rd of a sports league.

The 2019-20 season saw an uncertainty over the coverage of the league before the AIFF roped in DSport as broadcaster two weeks before the start of the league.

The coverage was riddled with problems as the clubs had to do it all on their own – play on the pitch and promote the league.

The continual lack of television coverage will take the shine off the I-League. The switch to the ISL by the bigger clubs will see the significance of the smaller clubs fade away.

Something to cheer for: Community clubs like Real Kashmir FC provides locals an escape from the grinding reality of everyday life in the Kashmir valley.
Photo Courtesy: @RealKashmirFC

Sink or swim

To stay alive until 2024, the I-League teams may have to adopt a model to minimize costs and generate income. Player sales could be one of the options.

However, promotion to the ISL will not automatically mean big bucks. Clubs that gain promotion will be exempt from paying participation fees, but they will also be denied a share of the revenue pool. This could potentially foster a divide between the current crop of ISL teams and the promoted teams.

In the end, AIFF’s plan to abolish parallel leagues will become a reality. While the legacy clubs and community clubs across the country will continue to die a slow death.

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