Five odd rounds into another new season of the I-League, India’s premier football competition, and the creases are already showing on the foreheads of top administrators of Indian football, the AIFF and its marketing partners IMG-Reliance. For a League and a season that promised so much, the first five rounds have dispelled all theories of India emerging from its football slumber.

Lack of Title Sponsors

For a third straight year the League hasn’t found a title sponsor. This comes at a time when TRP’s in India for European football are at an all time high, dispelling the myth that India is only a cricket crazy nation. Add to that, for the first time the I-League has attracted a player who has been part of English Premier League as well as a high profile player from Costa Rica. Big spending Prayag United poached one of the best strikers in the country, Ranty Martins, leading to another grudge rivalry other than the traditional Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry giving the media something more to chew on about Indian football. There was a brand new club in top division in the form of Bhaichung Bhutia’s United Sikkim, which meant that there was another non-Kolkata and non-Goan team in the League, giving it a more pan-India look. The Indian National team beat 90th ranked Cameroon in the recently concluded Nehru Cup that had the added impetus of it being the AIFF’s 75th Anniversary. But all this failed to attract a sponsor for India’s National League – a far cry from the first NFL held in 1996 that had packed attendances, Phillips as a title sponsor and top teams making it a title race to remember.

So what has made the League go from packed attendances, to crowds as less as 500, 16 years later? The AIFF puts the blame squarely on its marketing partners IMG-Reliance. According to their side of the story it is the duty of the marketing partners to find sponsors for the League and make the League more commercially viable to attract sponsors. On the other hand, IMG-Reliance feels that the atmosphere in Indian football is not suitable to attract sponsors.

They have barely managed to find a broadcaster for the League this year after the major fiasco that surrounded the broadcast of the Federation Cup. This is an obvious let down from last season where they had a regional broadcaster in the form of News Time Bangla and News Time Assam that reportedly fetched them about 17 crores. The improvement this year has been starting of broadcast on the internet but it is all too clear that the marketing partners and the AIFF have failed to do enough to market the League.

The argument put forth by IMG-Reliance in several meetings involving the stakeholders in Indian football is that the I-League is concentrated in only a few pockets in India. Over the past three years teams from Kerala and Punjab have disbanded, Bangalore lost its lone representative to relegation last season, while the delayed renovation of the Cooperage stadium in Mumbai meant that India’s commercial capital has missed out on football action for almost two years. This meant that football for the last two odd years has been concentrated in just few cities like Goa, Kolkata, Pune and Shillong. Mumbai based ONGC actually gave the AIFF a sigh of relief after they opted to play their home matches inDelhi thus adding another stadium to the already puny venue list of the I-League. With Chirag Kerala disbanding, HAL looking to completely revamp the squad for this season and United Sikkim and ONGC already staring down the barrel, AIFF’s plans of trying to make the I-League a pan Indian league looks like taking a beating again.

Indian Football

Will you invest on this?

A Franchisee League to bail out the 700 Crore IMG investment?

Which is why IMG-Reliance in August this year after a meeting with all the clubs proposed a franchisee based league that would be played in the mid-term break during the League along the lines of IPL. This League would be Pan-Indian with franchises consisting of city based teams. Franchises will be floated and the majority of the revenue earned would go to IMG which would enable them to recover their 700 Crore investment.

This idea though was immediately shot down by the clubs, rightly suggesting that the I-League would lose its sheen and would in coming years become redundant. Another major issue IMG-Reliance faced was the lack of infrastructure, something that has been hurting Indian football badly over the past few years. Without proper stadiums it will be impossible to get the likes of Crespo and Van Nistelrooy to play in India. Whether this new League would have caught the imagination of young India would be an altogether different debate. India’s football infrastructure is so poor that it would practically make this new League a non-starter, the very same reason that shot down the PLS in Kolkata.

Has IMG miscalculated its investment?

Times are getting tougher for Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and IMG Worldwide. Their joint investment in India hasn’t reaped even a fraction of the investment made each year so far. As per the present deal, IMG-Reliance pays AIFF Rs. 34 crore a year for the next five years and then a 30 per cent rise for every following year till the investment reaches a total of 700 Cr, which means that unless they annul the contract, IMG-Reliance will have to pay the AIFF crores of rupees for the next 12-14 years.

And to rub more salt in the wounds of IMG-Reliance and AIFF, the contracts of Coca-Cola (sponsors U-16 Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy), Nike (sponsors of the kit for all Indian teams) and Panasonic (sponsors of five national team friendlies) expires at the end of the season.

The Federation Cup too hasn’t found a sponsor for over three years leading to a severe drain on the finances of the AIFF. Currently, the AIFF needs around 17-18 crores to conduct the I-League every season. Another 2-3 crores goes into holding the Federation Cup. In total, approximately 21-22 crores is needed every season, just to conduct these two premier tournaments in Indian football. But the revenue earned for AIFF as well as IMG is a pittance. Last season, IMG sold the I-League rights to a regional broadcaster News Time Bangla for reported Rs. 17 crores. That helped them recover some of the amount spent on the League and the Federation Cup, but they still suffered a loss. This year they reportedly haven’t managed to gain much from the deal with Ten Action. There is no major regional broadcaster too this time round, leaving IMG Reliance to ponder on their renewed association with Indian football.

American Major League Soccer is a franchise based league

The real test though would come next season when three sponsorships of Indian football expire. Failure to rope in new sponsors could mean that IMG-Reliance would have to pool in more money from their side to plug the deficit.

Their trumpcard Franchisee League too looks a difficult prospect looking at the infrastructure issues plaguing Indian football, leaving them with a mountain to climb to reap the benefits of their massive investment.

A major overhauling of the I-League is required if it has to be marketed well and able to attract sponsors. Something that IMG-Reliance are not willing to take a risk on. Instead they probably believe that having a “two month tamasha” as Salgaocar Fotball Club President Mr. Shivanand Salgaocar put it, would give them quick returns. However experts in the football business across Asia opine that India would have to run a well-structured League over 9 months across more cities for at least five more years before they could think of attracting sizeable sponsors, something that IMG-Reliance certainly will not be willing to take the risk. For AIFF though even contemplating such an idea is not possible thanks to their already drained coffers. Right, now the financial prospects of the current sponsorship deal, which created such a stir in start, doesn’t look too good.

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  • Rahul S

    The amount of money Reliance has invested in football is nothing compared to what the whole company earns in its diverse businesses. Last Quarter alone they earned Rs 5376 Crores. Their investment in IMG-Reliance is just “play-money” for them.

  • Jonathan

    Rahul S… Yes i agree with you, but knowng the Ambani’s i’m sure they would want to get returns on their investment else they will not invest on it gain.. The issue also here is that they have failed to calculae the infrastructural needs of Indian football.. They have to start working at the bottom of the pyramid also..

    • Rahul S

      Jonathan, You may be right, and I have heard of Ambani’s reputation on this regard. However to be fair, I believe Reliance has been funding other sports activities (such as sending a youth soccer team to US for a year) too where there is no chance of any real returns. Anyhow on a interesting note it seems that there is now a trend of corporate money to flow in India football at the lower-levels..e.g. tournaments/leagues in NE (such as the new leagues in Mizoram, Nagaland etc) and the WIFA 100 cr deal at the grass roots level is even more interesting. I am encouraged by this trend of money flowing into the grass roots. Perhaps at this smaller level its more easy to control the variable and reduce investment risk. If these models of investing in smaller, leagues, tournaments etc turn out to be viable it will be very good for Indian football. We will know in a year or so if this trend will get stronger. Making the top league i.e. I-league finacially viable seems to be the last part of the puzzle for Indian-football ecosystem which is yet to be solved.