The I-League struggles after the success of the first-ever Indian Super League
The Indian Super League has changed the perceptions and reality of Indian football forever. And forever for good, but for the new I-League season which kicked-off this weekend across India, it is a difficult situation to sustain and push it to become bigger and better with a better and bigger product like the ISL in the background.
I had been recently in Goa to watch the semifinals and final of the 36th Federation Cup and then on Saturday watched the I-League opener between Salgaocar FC and Pune FC, but sadly I watched the matches at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Margao as if the craze of the Indian Super League had never ever hit the coastal state of Goa. Crowds between 1,500 to 3,000 was seen as a success by the organisers for these matches at a venue which was bursting from all sides towards the end of FC Goa ISL’s campaign with capacity crowds of 19,800 spectators recorded multiple times, people desperate to get hold of tickets and willing to stand in line for hours.
Can ISL craze be transferred to I-League?
Even now you will see people of all ages, children – boys and girls, to old men wearing blue FC Goa t-shirts and jerseys. The ISL has already left a lasting impression, which has been embraced by football fans and enthusiasts across the country, which I experienced firsthand in my ISL work with mumbai City FC in Mumbai and elsewhere.
Can it be transferred to the I-League? Honestly I fear that is difficult to impossible. The main reason often being mentioned is the marketing power and spend that the Indian Super League had had through IMG-Reliance and Star Sports besides all the franchisees.
But I believe that is only a part of the full reality. Surely the amount spend has never ever been done in an Indian football context, but also there is a special connect which short-term leagues like the ISL have been able to create in India, take the Indian Premier League in cricket, the Hockey India League, the leagues in Kabaddi, Badminton, etc.
India’s top-tier league for two decades
The I-League or the National Football League has been around since December 1996 running between five to eight months. It is now in its 19th season, has historic clubs like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal of Kolkata; successful Goan sides like Dempo, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa; new kids on the block Mumbai FC, Pune FC, Bengaluru FC and Kalyani Bharat FC; besides Northeastern representation like Shillong Lajong FC and Royal Wahingdoh FC to name the 11 participating clubs.
The spread across India has never been better for the I-League, the quality of football has improved over the years but it simply has not caught the imagination of a mass audience and is struggling at most places across the country.
The clubs are trying their best, e.g. the three Goan clubs – Dempo SC, Salgaocar FC, Sporting Clube de Goa – have launched a joint marketing initiative in the state of Goa to attract more fans to come to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Margao. If one goes by the sheer number of fans at the ground on the opening weekend, then that plan has a long, long way to go. But due to that the clubs just can’t give up as there are issue like the marketing of the I-League, television production and general visibility which will lead to the success of a product like the I-League.
All issues won’t be solved and sorted in the short-term, but then there need to be steps taken to strengthen the I-League or it will disappear as India's top tier league in the years to come.