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#TFGtake -- IMG-Reliance puts I-League big 3 on the spot with well-timed invitation of bids for new ISL teams

THE ISL ORGANIZERS IMG-Reliance have pushed the merger-ball back to the I-League clubs' court today with the issuing of an Invitation to Bid (ITB) for adding new franchises to the tournament.

In a release from Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), it was said that ISL will up to 3 new teams in its 2017-18 season and it has invited bids from 10 cities including  Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Cuttack, Durgapur, Hyderabad, Jamshedpur, Kolkata, Ranchi, Siliguri and Thiruvananthapuram. The bids are to be submitted by 25th May 2017.

While it was clear that a bid for new franchises might be forthcoming from ISL organizers, the submission date of 25th May is quite significant, and it reveals one more move in the three-dimensional chess being played by all stakeholders in the question of merging ISL and I-League and turning ISL into the new top division league of Indian football.

On 6th May, in a meeting with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan representatives in Mumbai, AIFF President Praful Patel revealed to them a new roadmap for ISL and I-League. He proposed that the two competitions should run side by side. This would let ISL to add more franchises and have a longer season while I-League would keep its status as the top division league in Indian football. The plan was obviously devised by IMG-Reliance with the aim of doing two things at once; appease I-League champions Aizawl FC who were threatening to hold protests and hunger strikes if the club was forcefully relegated from top division, and at the same time put pressure on East Bengal and Mohun Bagan who were opposing some terms for their proposed inclusion in the (post-merger) ISL, including its high franchise fee and the demand that EB and MB should play their home match from some city other than Kolkata which has been their home for more than a century.

IMG-Reliance were only considering 3 I-League clubs - EB, MB and BFC - for inclusion in the post-merger ISL because these were the only 3 clubs who could potentially pay the high franchise fee for the competition. Aizawl FC winning the league put their plan in jeopardy, as the Kolkata clubs attempted to use Aizawl FC to get a sweeter deal for themselves. They had assumed that IMG-Reliance would be forced to take Aizawl FC in with relaxed terms and a low franchise fee, opening the door for EB and MB to get a franchise fee waiver and the freedom to work with a lesser budget, which in turn would free them from the requirement of handing over the clubs' reigns to IMG-Reliance appointed sponsors. So, to defuse all that and protect IMG-R's interest in keeping ISL's franchise fee-based revenue model intact, AIFF proposed a hold on the merger, with a twist.

Saying that ISL would add teams and run in parallel to I-League was a tacit threat to the I-League clubs in question. It implied that ISL franchises would outspend them and sign the best players, and they would be left with second rate players to take on I-League and AFC Cup (if they qualify), which threatens to lower the league's attraction to spectators and sponsors despite its top division status.

Although I-League's vieweship has grown in the last few years (despite, it must be noted, the poor television coverage and lack of advertising to attract eyeballs due to IMG-Reliance heavily promoting ISL while leaving the I-League with a meagre promotional budget), if ISL and I-League run in parallel it may commercially weaken the league to an extent that allows AIFF and IMG-Reliance to argue that the existing top division's open system with promotion-relegation does not work, and the new top division after merger should have a closed system with hefty franchise fees like ISL. Some of the existing I-League clubs may also fold or leave the league, as has been the case with the likes of Royal Wahingdoh, Pune FC, Rangdajied United, Dempo SC, Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa. Killing enough clubs and weakening others will leave the big 3 I-League clubs with no choice but to join the ISL, possibly on a much more harsh contract than they are being offered now. 

Further pressure was put on the clubs by spreading the rumour that the coveted spot in AFC Champions League Qualifiers, which is reserved for the champions of the country's top division league, may be shifted to the winner of a Super Cup tournament which will feature the top 4 teams from ISL and I-League. 

Giving the ACL spot to a Cup tournament, of course, is actually impossible, since ISL teams do not play enough official matches per season (the ACL now requires clubs to play 22 official games in order to be eligible to participate, and ISL, being a private tournament, does not get its matches counted as official). But an AFC Cup spot may be given to such a Super Cup and it was implied that Praful Patel would actively lobby for that to be approved by AFC.

In response to this, Mohun Bagan tried to push back on AIFF and IMG-Reliance by releasing a letter which said Praful Patel had, in the meeting with I-League clubs, explicitly said that the ACL qualifier spot would remain with the I-League champions, and made no mention of a Super Cup. It also revealed that EB and MB were pushing for a 4 month window each for ISL and I-League instead of the two running side by side. In short, the I-League clubs were concerend by this move from IMG-Reliance to further sideline I-League from its position as the prime focus of the domestic season. 

Right after that Praful Patel went to AFC Congress. His discussion with AFC officials regarding this new roadmap has not been made public, but a report in Bengali newspaper Pratidin quoting some AIFF officials suggested that the AFC has asked AIFF to submit the whole plan by a certain date and they will give their final opinion on it by - wait for it - 25th May. 

And that's why IMG-Reliance sprang to action now, rather than a couple of weeks later when the Federation Cup will be over and all stakeholders will be free to fully focus on deliberating on the new roadmap, which will ultimately be shaped based on what AFC thinks of ISL and I-League running side by side and the Super Cup issue.

As long as AFC have not given their final thoughts on this proposed new roadmap, uncertainty will hang on the future of I-League clubs. And that is something IMG-Reliance want to use in making one last effort to push through their original merger plan of making ISL the new top division league with I-League clubs East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC joining its fold. None of these clubs want to play in ISL unless it becomes the undisputed top division league, and ISL cannot gain legitimacy as the top division league unless it features these prominent clubs with long history, international repute and huge marketing potential.

That's why the ITB lists Durgapur and Siliguri among the cities it will consider bids from. There is no one interested in establishing new football franchises out of those cities; they are alternate home venues that ISL proposed to East Bengal and Mohun Bagan for the next couple of seasons because Atletico de Kolkata have a 50 kilometer radius exclusivity clause which makes it impossible for ISL to allow another team to play out of Kolkata. That's why the ITB explicitly states,

"In case of the city of Kolkata being awarded to the winning bidder, the respective team shall hold its home games outside Kolkata for the next two consecutive Indian Super League Seasons (2017/2018 and 2018/2019)."

The message is loud and clear: they are assuring EB and MB that this home venue problem is just temporary.

The case is the same with Bengaluru. JSW is a powerful corporate group and they will not allow any new franchise to steal their thunder; they are the reason ISL scrapped Bengaluru Titans and included Chennaiyin FC. Listing Bengaluru among the 10 cities is an invitation for them.

Jamshedpur and Ranchi are there to allow the Tata Group to get in. They are interested in having a franchise in ISL, but that's part of a Plan B; IMG-Reliance would much rather have established clubs like EB, MB and BFC because that's a safer and a better bet.

Hyderabad, Cuttack and Thiruvantanthapuram are mere placeholders. Cuttack has time and again been considered as an alternate venue for Kolkata Derby (it doesn't have much of a local football fanbase as one can see in the ongoing Federation Cup). Hyderabad has seen the rise of Fateh Hyderabad AFC but it's hard to see someone splash big money on that city at this stage since the football fanbase is not big enough over there yet; they will end up like FC Pune City. Thiruvananthapuram has the Greenfield Stadium which held the SAFF Championship and the owners are despearate to host matches over there; but it's unclear if there's been any concrete interest to start a new team from there.

In the end, IMG-Reliance are hoping to sway the I-League big three before the AFC statement on the new roadmap comes out. After all, the fact that they are moving into this right after AFC's initial talks with AIFF officials projects that they are confident that ISL will have no problem expanding and running in parallel to I-League. 

This poses an existential question to EB, MB and BFC; do they move now and make a bid, which they know will give ISL enough legitimacy to be sanctioned as the new top division league throwing Aizawl FC and other I-League clubs under the bus? EB and MB must weigh whether they would want to avoid paying a high franchise fee or play in a league that would be further choked by a parallel tournament greased up by the money and muscle of IMG-Reliance, which holds the control over both ISL and I-League. BFC must consider whether they want to remain a legitimate club playing a top division league or risk throwing their weight behind a tournament that may or may not become the new top division league now, but will definitely be the new top division a few years later.

What IMG-Reliance have issued is an ultimatum to every club existing independently of their proposed framework for Indian football; either join their bandwagon now, or risk being left out as the new order of money and power takes over Indian football.

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