New teams in ISL -- Franchise expansion or promotion from I-League? An in-depth look

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IN RECENT DAYS, rumours have begun anew that the Indian Super League is thinking about adding a new team.

Part of this is fuelled by the ongoing contract signing impasse between East Bengal officials and their chief investor Hari Mohan Bangur. According to a report on Ei Samay, FSDL is looking at Punjab FC as a potential replacement for the Red and Golds this season just in case the deal falls through.

Punjab FC, who won the I-League in 2017-18, were acquired by RoundGlass last year and the new owners have long had a plan to enter the ISL. The timing favours their goal; the ISL has no team from North India since Delhi Dynamos moved their base and became Odisha FC. Regardless of whether East Bengal seal the deal with their investor, Punjab FC are on track for an ISL entry since the league is supposed to increase the number of teams over the next few years anyway.

But FSDL's potential interest in adding Punjab FC (Who finished 4th in the I-League 2020-21) via the franchise bid route is raisin one question: instead of continuing in the franchise route, why don't they go through the alternate method of expansion suggested in the AFC-FIFA roadmap i.e. promoting the best team from I-League?

In a way, this method has already been implemented once. Mohun Bagan, the champions of I-League 2019-20, entered the ISL after signing an investment deal with KGSPL, who already had a franchise slot. Granted, that's still the franchise route, but it's a promotion nonetheless and it has already resulted in a lot of increased attention and viewership for the ISL.

So far, the current I-League champions Gokulam Kerala FC have given no indication that they want to enter the ISL via the franchise route. But they can still be inducted in the ISL through a method that ISL will implement in the near future anyway.

When the AIFF Executive Committee approved the AFC-FIFA roadmap, among the decisions they took there was this provision,

"Starting with the 2022-23 and 2023-2024 season, the winner of the I-League will stand a chance to be promoted to the ISL with no participation fee, basis fulfilling sporting merit and the national club licensing criteria to be set out by the AIFF. There will be no relegation in the ISL at this time."

What's stopping ISL from doing in 2021 what they will anyway do in 2023? The ISL is expected to implement promotion-relegation from the 2024-25 season, and the AFC-FIFA delegation had suggested that the league should expand to 16 teams before full pro-rel comes into effect. That's 5 more teams in 4 seasons. At least 2 of them are to be via promotion. Why not a couple more?

The debate comes down to two contrasting economic philosophies of league football. Franchise expansion is the method closed leagues (e.g. MLS, A-League) use to increase the number of teams. Promotion is the method preferred by open leagues (e.g. Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga etc). ISL, which is a closed league in the process of becoming an open league, is in a unique position where it gets to play with both during the transition period. But which path would be best for the league and its clubs?

Of course, they are not mutually exclusive and can be implemented together (e.g. I-League allowing promotion from 2nd Division League, while also taking in corporate entries via a bid process). Gokulam Kerala and Punjab FC can both enter ISL this season, one via promotion and the other via a franchise bid, and there isn't a single downside to that. But in order to explore the debate in-depth, this article will pit expansion and promotion against each other, by elaborating on the 5 major arguments that proponents of each method make. Let's dive in.

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