Before 1996, football tournaments in India comprised the IFA Shield, Santosh Trophy, Federation Cup and some others. There was no scope for any AFC titles. So in case of financial losses, clubs and their players were not paid salaries for years.
To tackle this issue, the I-League was formed in 2007 to bring professionalism into Indian Football. The I-League started with high ambitions. Big corporates like the Essel group fielded Mumbai FC and Piramals sponsored Pune FC. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were already there, but the I-League lacked financial stability despite being recognised by FIFA. I-League teams had to depend heavily on sponsors’ fee as merchandising and ticket sales were almost negligible and all the broadcasting revenue went to the All India Football Federation (AIFF), instead of the clubs.
In 2012-13 IMG-Reliance lent its commercial arm to the AIFF to bolster the brand value of the I-League. Due to this merger, there was substantial increase in ticket sales and viewership, but still questions remained unanswered. Ten Action was roped in to telecast the matches, but weekly matches hampered the growth of the I-League. So to bring more brand value into Indian football, IMG-Reliance conceived the Indian Super League (ISL) in 2013.
FIFA also recognises the ISL, but not as an official league. The IMG-Reliance knew what was to be done to grab the attention of the viewers. They brought in top cricketers like Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and even Bollywood stars to buy teams even though they had not invested a single rupee out of their pockets.
IMG-RELIANCE knew the huge market that EPL and La-Liga held in India, and hence they decided to bring ex-players of such globally-recognised tournaments and pack the stadiums with audiences. Most of the Indian players in the ISL are either taken on loan from I-League clubs or are on a contract for a year.
The winner of the I-League becomes the Champion Club of India and the winner of the ISL becomes the Champion Club of the ISL only. Yet, players like Arnab Mondol, Romeo Fernandez, Sandesh Jhingan and others who played in the I-League, shot to fame through the ISL. The ISL has allowed the Indian players to share the ground with experienced foreign players which did a lot of good to Indian football. The average attendance for ISL is 24,357, which is only less than Bundesliga, EPL and La liga making the ISL the fourth most viewed football tournament.
The ISL has come out of the clamour as India’s Premier Football League, however many I-League teams despise the AIFF for acknowledging the ISL as the country’s Premier football league. I-League’s teams’ hatred were due to sentiments as they argued that the I-League was the traditional form of football in India.
To defend this argument, AIFF president Praful Patel made it clear that soccer was not all about sentiments, it was a game of serious investment. Therefore he had a valid reason to prove the ISL as the country’s premier football league. As reported by the Times of India, the ISL has managed to recapture the imagination of football fans which has resulted in a dramatic turnaround. Football had largely become a sofa sport in India, fans sitting at home watching football and debating about European league didn’t have the interest to go out to watch Indian players. But after the arrival of the ISL, these football fans turned into stadium goers.
So, it’s proven that the ISL’s glamour overshadowed the I-League’s popularity. The AIFF Executive Committee is looking at options to merge the ISL with the I-League so that the latter doesn’t lose its brand value. Yet, let’s leave it to time, as it will only decide how the I-League saves its image after the merger, if at all it happens.