I-League LIVE: Broadcast snub next after losing premier league status?

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There seems no end of disappointments for I-League clubs. After having lost the status of India’s premier club football league, I-League clubs are in for another jolt. There might not just be any broadcast for the I-League games from this year. Or at the most, only select few games at the later stage “if there is no other broadcast understanding in place”.

Insidesport.co has learnt that the “dyeing” I-League will be told to find its own broadcast partner.

The I-League had failed to find any support from the All India Football Federation even last year when its production and broadcast partners had decided to broadcast only select games last year.

Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), promoter of the now elite division Indian Super League, holds is the production partner for both the ISL and the I-League, while Stat Sports is the production partner. “Costs of production and broadcast exceed the revenues,” revealed the source. “There has been little commercial interest in the I-League broadcast except for the commercial obligation. You have seen even last year, only select games were televised.”

However, experts see bigger damage for the I-League. A league without broadcast will struggle for survival for all practical purposes, say market experts. “This sure is the last nail in the coffin.  A non-broadcast means a complete death of viewership. I think the I-League must do everything to make this broadcast happen,” says brand guru Harish Bijoor, Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults.

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“Which brand is going to put in its money if there is no visibility,” questioned a leading media buyer on condition of anonymity.

After having resigned to their fate, I-League franchisees are a dejected lot. “We have so far not been informed of any such move. Do we have an option if we are told that this (broadcast) is not happening? What did we do last year? It’s important that we focus on our club and aim to top the table,” said an I-League club owner.

The Asian-Football-Confederation and All-India-Football-Federation in a meeting with the  I-League clubs in Kuala Lumpur on Monday had ratified that 11 I-League clubs would be relegated to the second division of Indian football and the Indian Super League, which began in 2014, would become the primary football league of the country. The development will eventually lead to only one football club competition in India – and that is ISL.

From the 2022-23 season, the winner of the I-League will be allowed to participate in the ISL without having to pay any franchise fee but consequently will not be a part of the central revenue sharing system. Finally, the ISL will become a tournament based on relegation and promotion from the 2024-25 season onwards.

So, who is interested in the I-League. Except for the clubs, which too will be pursuing individual goals to find a place in the ISL when it becomes a league with the promotion-relegation system.

AFC General Secretary ‘Dato’ Windsor John yesterday said, “Every point of this package has been thought out extremely carefully and it is aimed simply at providing the best chance to develop Indian club football. We have informed AIFF that 10-12 teams are not enough for the top League — it must be bigger.”

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Present at the meeting yesterday to ratify the decision were multiple owners of I-League clubs. Minerva Punjab, winners of the league in the 2017-18 season were represented through owner Ranjit Bajaj – who later spoke to Mirror about his mixed feelings on the decisions made yesterday.

Bajaj said, “They’ve relegated an entire league – which has never happened in the history of football before – for no fault of its own.”

He then added, “They had a ready-made situation. All they had to do was put these 16-18 clubs together make sure that the relegation goes to I-League clubs and even if ISL clubs finish last, they don’t get relegated just yet. That and I-League clubs not getting any central revenue was a very workable solution.” No central revenue was acceptable for initial years for Bajaj as long as the franchise fee was forgone.

The biggest issue in the coming years for these I-League clubs won’t be about relegation or promotion but to survive in the second division se I-League clubs – where there is an assumption that sponsorship and TV time will likely fall. The silver lining for this situation would be that most I-League clubs are used to running their teams on a tight budget and still compete ably with ISL teams.

Chennai City owner Rohit Ramesh had earlier lamented about the lack of information that was thrust onto most I-League clubs to PTI and said, “I think this decision should have come officially once the ISL and I-League season of 18/19 was over. We could have planned it in a much better fashion keeping in mind the financial constraints considering we are second division now.”

Bajaj on the other hand believes that sponsorships would now flow in for smaller I-League teams because if they would be a part of the ISL, sponsors would go to these clubs for a lesser fee than what they would have to pay established clubs since all teams will be sharing equal screen time, once they are a part of the ISL.

But the ‘once they are a part of the ISL’ narrative is where the crux of this decision truly lies. “My fear is that by the time those years arrive – four or five years – most of these clubs will die. Because the moment Mohun Bagan and East Bengal go to the ISL there’ll be no coverage here. There’ll be nothing left. If there is nothing left, no broadcast, no coverage – then the league will die itself,” said Bajaj.

Speaking of the only two real giants in Indian football, it is widely expected that Mohun Bagan and East Bengal might be the two clubs that will make the splash to the ISL in the 2020-21 season. But considering both clubs have balked at the franchise fee until now, it seems unlikely that they will pony up, something with Bajaj noted when he said, “I don’t know which clubs will want to go to the league when I know in two years I can win the league and go to the ISL for free rather than pay 45 crores for the next three years.”

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