A MEETING BETWEEN representatives of I-League clubs (first division) and All India Football Federation turned into a heated debate over whether the football governing body is doing its best to promote the premier football league in India. Almost unanimously, clubs accused AIFF, and their commercial partners IMG-Reliance, of treating the I-League with a step-motherly attitue, being largely passive when it came to promoting and marketing the league.
Given a chance to voice their grievances after a long time, the clubs raised the issues that many of them have spoken about to media before. They alleged that most of their major demands, including giving the clubs a share of I-League's sponsorship and TV revenue, and making the league a seperate legal entity, have been falling on deaf ears for years now. This meeting, say people those who attended it, was hardly any different.
After AIFF president welcomed the club representatives, especially Robert Royte from new entrants Aizawl FC, I-League CEO told them about the invite he received at Singapore, for all I-League clubs to visit England and see the infrastructures and facilities EPL clubs have in place. But as the clubs raised their questions the AIFF representatives fell silent.
The positive outcome from the meeting was the clubs coming together to form a technical committee as well as a marketing committee for the I-League. Consisting of people chosen by the clubs' consensus, the technical committee will be the closest thing to self-governance the I-League has had so far. As for the marketing committee, it will be paid for by the clubs themselves, in charge of hiring a PR agency and proactively planning for the promotion of the I-League brand.
The AIFF released a statement saying they fully support these steps taken by the clubs. But the question that arises from this is why should the clubs have to pay for marketing the league when they get no share of the TV revenue? It should be up to IMG-Reliance to run ads and promotional campaigns, but they have done next to nothing, driving the league to the brink of anonimity. It is mostly up to initiatives taken by clubs like Bengaluru FC and the large fan bases of the Kolkata and Shillong clubs that the I-League has survived, and even seen a revival in terms of matchday crowds and television viewership. But most of its clubs are still struggling to turn a profit.
Mandated to possess their own academies, practice grounds, training facilities and junior teams (unlike ISL franchises), the I-League clubs can only push on so long on their own. Lack of return on investment saw prominent clubs like Mahindra United and JCT to fold. Substantial investments are risky because one relegation can ruin it all. That's why Chirag Tanna of Pune FC proposed a temporary suspension of relegation so that clubs can better attract sponsors and investors in infrastructre. Having no relegation would also help the league grow, adding newly promoted clubs each year from 2nd division. But AIFF declined to accept it, because it would put pressure on the exclusive window ISL enjoys on the Indian football calendar.
But in the end, the clubs' initiative to oversee the promote the I-League by themselves is a welcome change from the existing monotony. It is also significant, because it takes some of the league's control away from IMG-Reliance. As I-League continues to grow in viewership, its stakeholders are sure to soon want more; a longer league, and a better spot on the calendar. That will bring it in direct conflict with the ISL. That will be the next big crossroad for Indian football; where it will have to be decided if the two-league system can be viably sustained in the long run.