Indian Super League:- just another business or Is it?

As I write, Athletico De Kolkata Football Club have played the finals and won the cup for the second time against Kerala Blasters Football Club in the third edition of the Indian Super League (ISL). The third edition of the ISL has reached its conclusion after 61 intense matches between eight football clubs representing different cities in India.

ABOUT ISL

The ISL is an Indian football championship competition which began in 2014 and the participants include eight franchisees belonging to the following cities: Chennai, Delhi, Goa, Guwahati, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Pune. The ISL is co-promoted by IMG-Reliance (a joint venture between IMG and Reliance Industries), Star India and supported by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The primary purpose of the ISL is to develop a platform to groom football talent in India and elevate Indian football to an international level. The vision is to make India into a global football power and qualify for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

When Iceland, a nation of approximately 3.2 lac people qualified and reached advances stages of Euro 2016, a premier European football competition, why can’t we? Surely, the intention of the ISL is noble.

But is it just another way to make money? Or is it a sincere attempt to develop the “Joga Bonito” (The beautiful game) at the grass-root level in our country. I love football, but I don’t watch a single ISL match. I prefer watching the European league matches. Most of them who like football don’t watch ISL. So I thought I should write on why I don’t watch the ISL.

Prefix-Suffix

I hate the prefixes-suffixes in the names of the ISL football clubs — like say Athletico de Kolkata (why do you need to copy that from the Spanish club, can’t we have some originality?), Kerala Blasters (nicknamed after Master Blaster — C’mon, get over cricket). I don’t know if these names appeal to the public, but they sound a little odd to me.

Now, onto the more serious reasons:

Club Ownership

Several industrialists and celebrities have invested heavily in the league’s eight franchises. One of the clubs, Delhi Dynamos Football Club is owned by Den Networks, a Delhi based cable company. Den Networks brought the club as a marketing/branding vehicle for Den’s offerings/products. They wanted to leverage on the high viewership (about 429 million TV audience) and translate it into increased revenue from their core business rather than promote the game. This sounded pretty ridiculous and selfish to me.

However, the company has been posting poor financial performance for the past one year and has reported losses from its core cable business. Delhi Dynamos churned out revenues of Rs 24 crore with an operating loss of Rs 34 crore for the year ended 31 March 2016. In the previous year, it had revenues of Rs 8 crore with loss of around Rs 46 crore. These aggravated Den’s situation and the company managed to sell 80% of its stake in the football club to Wall Street Investments, represented by promoters of GMS, a US- and Dubai-based business group with interests in the shipping industry. This really hurt me as the company had no intention to promote the game or its glory.

I learnt about the 50 + 1 rule in the German Bundesliga. This regulation requires club’s members to retain control protecting clubs from influence of external investors. It requires the parent club to own at least 50% plus one additional share of the football company, ensuring that the club’s members, i.e. the fans, still hold a majority of voting rights. There is a reasonable exception created here — In cases where a person or company has substantially funded a club for a continuous period of 20 years, it is possible for that person or company to own a controlling stake in the club. In Spain also, the two biggest clubs of Europe — Real Madrid and Barcelona are registered corporations owned by its supporters. At Real, the supporters elect the club president who governs the club and its operations. Stable ownership and right attitude to develop the game will help achieve the purpose of the ISL. We should seriously consider implementing similar regulations or at least keeping a lock-in period for the club owners to ensure the ownership is not treated as a liquid asset.

The Difference

The speed of the game is an essential factor to maintain spectator enthusiasm. I never watch an ISL game on TV — It puts me to bed. But when I am watching any match from the English Premier League (EPL), it keeps me on the edge of my seat, even if it is the worst two clubs of the league up against each other. This, as I thought is clearly evident in the passes per game of champions and runners-up of the two leagues : ISL and EPL for past two seasons :

Source: ISL and EPL official Websites

Leave alone Leicester City, the passes per game of four different ISL clubs are in the range of 360–400 passes as compared to EPL clubs where the passes per game exceed 530. Low passes per game implies lesser movement of the ball around the pitch which brings down the tempo of the game and with it, the excitement of the fans.

Now, to one positive point.

An interesting observation here is, ISL clubs have better shot accuracy, i.e, they hit the target more often than not. However, goal conversion out of shots on target is lower than EPL clubs. This means we see more chances created but less goals scored. Nonetheless, chances created, if genuine, would force a save from the keeper, thus waking up the spectator.

The ISL is in its early years, its true. But its imperative to develop the pace of the game to a level comparable to other European leagues to attract young talent to ISL clubs. In its current format, the older players who don’t have the pace to play at a competitive level in European leagues sign up for ISL, apart from the other young Indian players. This slows down the game and reduces spectator enthusiasm.

Structure of the tournament

ISL is developed on a structure very similar to that of Indian Premier League (IPL). We need to decolonize our cricketing minds.

In ISL, there are matches everyday! So there is a league and then the top four teams move to semi-finals and then the final. This is different from the European football leagues. In Europe, matches are held every weekend and last for an entire year. The league leader is declared champion at the end of the year. I appreciate and prefer this format of the game because of two reasons : Since matches are held every weekend and not everyday like ISL, the marginal utility of the fans/viewers is maintained.

Marginal utility is a concept in economics which says the more you have of a thing, the less you want more of it. Second, the European league system rewards the most consistent team. This is because, each team plays every other team twice (at home and away stadiums) and at the end of the day, the team with the most points is declared champion. However, in case of the ISL format, the outcome of the Final or the semi-final match depends on a single match performance.

Football is a funny game and results might significantly differ from popular opinion or expected result.

The league format of the game focuses more on rewarding the consistent i.e. most skillful whereas the tournament format would reward the most persevering and confident squad. That is probably the reason why we have 3–4 clubs always finishing in the top 4 positions in English, Spanish, German Leagues consistently every year, but we don’t see the same international team winning the World Cup or reaching the Finals year on year, repeatedly.

Fans

There is not much loyal fan-following of the ISL clubs yet except for North East United FC, Kerala Blasters and Goa FC. The rest of the clubs just see casual spectators attending the match for some short term (shorter than cricket I mean) entertainment.

Will ISL be able to create the fan following like the famous European Leagues?

I came across an interesting research conducted on football club fans across Europe to compare the feelings, expressions and behavior of fans associated with support of their football teams. It says fandom is not merely being a spectator — it is about being a participant. Match attendance is a given, of course, but there is also a duty to engage emotionally in the life of the team in order to impact positively on a team’s performance. Attending away games is an important ritual for fans especially because away supporters are always outnumbered and out-sung.

Whether the ISL succeeds in generating loyal fan-following will depend on whether it is able to garner interest of the youth by improving on its quality of football.

Only time will tell!

PS: Only one club stands out in terms of fans and audience; Kerala Blasters

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