It was on the 9th of December, 2010, that AIFF signed a 15-year old deal with the joint-venture of International Management Group (IMG) and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), in short IMG-R, effectively selling off all the commercial rights of the football tournaments organized by it to the group. The deal was reportedly worth Rs. 700 crores, with the amount to be paid to the governing body in installments over the 15-year period. It was initially hailed as a new beginning by the Indian football fraternity. IMG, the sports management giants, would use all its experience in different sports industries for the betterment of Indian football in coming years. Two-and-a-half years on, things, however, look quite different from what was expected from the group in the beginning. IMG-R has, so far, failed to properly market the I-League, or gain the confidence of I-League clubs. Its subsequent insistence on starting a new IPL-style league without prior consultations with the I-League clubs, has been rightly met with severe criticism from various quarters. While the new league may be successful in attracting interest from Indians, the way IMG-R has gone ahead with its plans, speaks volumes of its arrogance, and displays a lack of respect for the real stakeholders of Indian football, the I-League clubs.
While plans are being made to start the new league from January next year, it has been widely reported by various media outlets in the past few weeks that IMG-R would try to bring in retired superstars like David Beckham and Michael Owen to help promote its league. While bringing in such stars will surely help generate a short-term interest in the game in India, the authenticity of such stories is extremely questionable. Why would a superstar like Beckham, for instance, want to play in this league? The retired English footballer, of all people, is definitely not short of lucrative offers. Why would he choose to play in a hotchpotch trophy in extremely poor infrastructure, when he can play at a more professional league, and earn more money? One can’t help but wonder if IMG-R is spreading hoax like these, just to gain the support of fans and other parties. Moreover, even if they do succeed in bringing in a few retired players, it is difficult to understand how these players would help in the development of Indian footballers. The Indian players would profit more by playing with/against the existing foreigners in the I-League than a few retired international stars.
Supporters of the IMG-R league have argued that the new league would generate tremendous interest in the country, which will help in taking the game forward in India. If IMG-R succeeds in bringing in some former stars of the game, then one has to agree that there would indeed be great support for this league within India. However, when one goes deeper, it is not difficult to see that this particular interest for the IMG-R league itself, would spell disaster for Indian football.
Firstly, India is home to millions of football fans, a vast majority of which are never bothered by the extremely ‘uncool’ and ‘medieval’ I-League. These particular set of fans religiously follow European clubs, without caring to know much about the domestic game in India. If, in case, IMG-R does pull off a few miracles and brings home a Robert Pires or a Michael Owen, for instance, the aforementioned fans would jump at the opportunity of the watching their idols play live. The IMG-R league games would, thus, attract quite a few thousands, if held in certain big cities. However, what happens once the IMG-R league season gets over? Will these fans come back to watch the rather ‘uncool’ I-League? The answer to this question is pretty much known. Secondly, if the IMG-R league grows in popularity in a few years’ time, what will become of the league system in the country? Surely, IMG-R would expand the league in a few years if they receive some positive feedback in the first few seasons. Once this happens, India’s professional league structure will be directly threatened. The IMG-R league will have the financial prowess to bring in the country’s best players. I-League clubs already spend fortunes to develop their teams, with little financial rewards. The I-League 2 clubs too, get little, or nothing, in monetary terms, when they gain promotion to the top flight. The popularity and possible expansion of IMG-R league will significantly reduce interest in the I-League. This will be the death knell for professional clubs in the country.
IMG-R’s primary motive behind starting this new league is probably to make some money out of Indian football. While they shouldn’t be criticized for their business ambitions, the path they have chosen to fulfill these ambitions stands in the way of Indian football’s future. Instead of starting this league, IMG-R could have chalked out a proper plan to market the I-League, and earn some decent profit in the long-run. Moreover, it has been rumored that the IMG-R league will have a proper revenue-sharing agreement between IMG-R and the participating franchisees. If true, the group is wise enough to understand that not many franchisees would be eager to participate in its league if they are not able to earn much financially. This raises the question as to why the IMG-R cannot install the same system in the I-League. Many issues could have been sorted out between the I-League clubs and IMG-R, had the latter been a little reasonable and listened to the clubs. It is true that most of the I-League clubs haven’t shown any saintly attitude in recent years. Many clubs have been unprofessional in their functioning and deserve a part of the blame for the stagnation of the Indian football industry. However, IMG-R’s step-motherly approach towards I-League clubs has made things much worse during the past two and half years.
In recent times IMG-R’s influence at the AIFF has increased at an alarming rate. It has reached a point where it can be believed that the official governing body can no longer make its decisions without the prior permission of its marketing partners. Even as the impasse between I-League clubs and IMG-R continues, the latter has failed to come forward to offer any explanation regarding recent events in Indian football. Instead the AIFF has been doing the talking for the organization during last few weeks. The failure of the AIFF to raise its voice for the I-League clubs in the current dispute shows that it is IMG-R which actually calls all the shots in Indian football. With AIFF set to play minimal role during IMG-R’s reign over Indian football, it is the latter which holds the duty of driving the Indian football vehicle in the next few years. With the way it is going at present, Indian football is being steered straight into its doom. One can only hope that the IPFCA continues to stand united in its stance against IMG-R’s tournament, and not be duped into any short-term compromise.