Indian Super League – a tale of Improved Viewer Experience

Kaushik Saha talks about his experience of watching an Indian Super League (ISL) match live and compares it to football viewing otherwise in India

By the time I stepped inside the stadium to watch the ISL match on 18th October 2014 at DY Patil Stadium at Nerul, Navi Mumbai already all the teams had played at least one match, there have been Indian scorers, goalless draws and red cards. The tournament has picked up momentum and got people hooked on to football. People who so far had stayed away from anything to do with Indian football and never visited a stadium in India hosting a football match have come out in droves and enjoyed quality football with friends and family.

Let's Football
Let’s Football

There has also been a debate as to whether ISL will actually improve Indian football. So far the success of the tournament has swept all such debates under carpet, with footballers like Borja Fernandez, Alessandro Del Piero,  Elano Blumer and David Trezeguet mesmerizing the audience with their skills that saw them win Euro Cups and World Cups, in the process also snatching the spotlights from Bollywood stars. Some of the lesser known international players like Fikru Lemessa and some domestic players like Balwant Singh and Baljit Singh Sahni have also shone in their roles.

One of the crowds favorite : Alessandro Del Piero
One of the crowd favorites : Alessandro Del Piero

So far I have watched a significant number of football matches in stadiums – 90% of them in and around Kolkata, while a few in Goa, Guwahati, Delhi and Pune. Once Cooperage stadium in Mumbai was used to host the now defunct Rovers Cup, but with teams from Mumbai playing their I-league  matches at Pune, I have not had the opportunity to watch my favourite sport in my adopted city of Mumbai. But ISL changed all that and converted a stadium used to play cricket (IPL and Celebrity Cricket League matches besides inter-University cricket is played at the DY Patil stadium) now hosted the Maharashtra Derby – Mumbai FC vs. FC Pune on its opening night. DY Patil is in itself a wonderful stadium, built in the backdrop of a scenic hill and has facilities that cannot be imagined at the Yuva Bharati Stadium, Kolkata or even the Balewadi Sports Complex at Pune.

Now that the ISL has got in a slush of funds to upgrade the stadiums, the DY Patil stadium has been redone even better than before. The toilets are clean, the eating spaces are separated by enclosures and there are adequate leg and arm rests in the stadium. The tickets are priced low and the weather is good – maybe reasons a lot of people turned up to watch the matches with friends and family. Saying that is a big understatement, and let me explain.

So far across the country in stadiums that do not host East Bengal vs. Mohun Bagan, there has hardly been more than 10000 people watching the matches – even matches of consequence like the Federation Cup final. This trend includes the national team when it plays friendlies or even qualifiers. Exceptions are those matches which involve international stars like the Argentina vs. Venezuela match which was played at Yuva Bharati Stadium, Kolkata in 2011.

A moment from the astonishing opening ceremony at Yuva Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata
A moment from the astonishing opening ceremony at Yuva Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata

In the ISL match I saw a crowd of around 30,000 people (which is slightly less that the capacity of the stadium), and perhaps the largest gathering of women I have ever seen at a football ground. Wearing jerseys of Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney and other popular footballers as well as their favourite clubs, the predominant group of people were people in their teens and early 20s. These young men and women, fed on a steady diet of European football and desperate to watch some good football in their own backyard turned up in large number with banners, face paint and enthusiasm usually reserved for cricket matches. The sponsors and organizers seemed to indulge them as well, with contests, playing chartbusters from movies and getting a few of the popular names among the players to display their skills a few minutes before the match started.

The presence of celebrities like Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor (and his entourage),  one of the owners of Mumbai FC, seemed to have a electric effect on the crowd, who jostled over each other to catch a closer view of him. A considerable section of the ladies admitted the sole purpose of their coming to the match was to get a closer view of the matinee idol.

Leaving the distractions aside, when the football started- at a level not seen on Indian grounds in the last two decades – the people were hooked. It helped the home team was winning and winning big (they won 5-0), and the crowds went into a tizzy everytime the DJ announced the scoreline over the PA systems. Mumbai as a city is known for appreciating sports like tennis and cricket, but here it came to cheer for their football team. The team united the disparate sections of the crowd whether they were football fans or had just come for the entertainment.

When the match ended, the crowd stood up in one disciplined lot and cheered the victor home team as they disappeared into the tunnel. It was a sight worth seeing – the entire spectacle of long lines, over crowded eateries and pubs near the stadium, well dressed young men and women cheering on for a football match in India – the entire scene was reminiscent of big shot football matches in European countries when crowds gather in public squares and celebrate the team’s victory or weep at their loss

And then I realized the effect the Indian Super League had on the Indian masses. It has bridged the gap that exists between the people who love Indian football and people who love watching European leagues and FIFA / UEFA tournaments on TV. And the improved facilities coupled with affordable viewing means the two worlds can meet, and celebrate together. The league is here to stay and one can definitely put up a hand to say the viewer experience has undergone a sea change.


Image Courtesy : Debopam Roy and Subhashis Biswas

Indian Super League – The Road-map for Indian Football?

The franchise based football league, Indian Super League has been able to create a lot of buzz among the football fanatics in India and abroad. Sachin Panda takes a look at it with GOALden Times.

The recently concluded FIFA World Cup generated an estimated television viewership of 100 million in India – a steep increase from the 62 million figures in 2010. [Source: Times of India]

To put things into perspective the last edition of ICC T20 Cricket World cup could gather 120 million television audiences. The FIFA World Cup figures are even more startling because the timing of the matches –the time difference between Brazil and India meant that most of the matches, including all the knockout games, were held well past normal bedtime for the Indian audience, some even creeping into early morning hours. Cricket is traditionally the most watched sport in India but these figures show that football fever is rapidly catching up.


European club football and international football already generate huge interest. While the same was not always true for the I-League, the country’s premier domestic league, recent figures released by the AIFF show that stadium attendance figures are also steadily on the rise. New clubs like Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong have helped the domestic league reach places that have plenty of football fanaticism. Given this upsurge in interest, the logical next step for improving the state of the game in India should have been injecting more money and newer ideas into the I-league to make it more attractive for players and fans alike. Instead, there is an altogether new league coming up.

The Indian Super League, promoted by the consortium of IMG-Reliance group, is scheduled to start in the month of October later this year. The league, involving eight city based franchisees owned by business conglomerates, has generated a lot of hype among the football faithful in India. The increased involvement of corporates has resulted in significant cash injection. The franchisees have used the cash to lure out of contract veteran foreign superstars who are in the twilight of their careers or have recently retired from the game.

However, playing the devil’s advocate, one is tempted to ask what does this mean for the traditional domestic football in India? What happens to the Airtel I-league now? Is ISL the magic wand that will be a panacea for Indian football?  Will it improve the key fundamental aspects like stadiums, training facilities and football academies? Will it help in spreading football further into corners of the nation untouched by the game? And most importantly, can it increase public interest and enthusiasm in football? Let’s try to analyse some of the key aspects in order to find these answers.

Corporate ownership and sponsorships

For many years, fans and pundits have rued the lack of sponsorship and money as a major stumbling block in the development of Indian football. ISL effectively addresses the problem. It successfully marries corporate consortiums with sports franchisees. The model of corporate ownership has been proven to be extremely successful across Europe. Including corporates not only means financial might, it also means the clubs will be run with an eye on profit to maintain long term sustainability. To further increase financial stability ISL recently inked a three year deal with two wheelers manufacturer, Hero Motocorp, as part of which Hero will become the title sponsors of the league.  The league has also tied up with Star Sports for the broadcast of the tournament, which will guarantee wide television coverage.

Foreign players and International Tie Ups

One of the most significant facets of the Indian Super League is the partnership of the franchisees with elite European clubs. A host of ISL franchisees have already announced strategic partnerships with European clubs. Atletico de Kolkata, on account of being owned by them, have a strategic tie up with reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid. FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have entered into alliances with ACL Fiorentina of Italy and FC Feyenoord of The Netherlands respectively. Tie ups between clubs from different leagues opens up an array of interesting avenues for both parties. The European clubs can use their partners as feeders for young talent and send their reserve players on loan for more game time – rumours are doing rounds that a couple of academy players of FC Feyenoord, which has produced players like Robin Van Persie, could be on their way to the Delhi based franchisee. The European clubs can also provide their Indian counterparts technical support in the form of world class coaches, physios and fitness trainers. . This will potentially benefit a lot of domestic players who will be part of the franchisees.

Atletico de Kolkata have a strategic tie up with reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid

The other significant aspect of the ISL is the concept of marquee players. Atletico de Kolkata, the Kolkata based franchisee, were the first movers when they announced the signing of former Liverpool and Spain winger Luis Garcia. Since then it’s been a trend followed by every club. The Pune based franchisee has signed Juventus and France legend David Trezeguet. The other players rumoured to join different clubs as marquee players include superstars like Alessandro Del Piero of Juventus and Italian vintage. Signing retired foreign players who have played for clubs of international repute as marquee players has given the fans a lot to be excited about. The massive following of European leagues/clubs in India means signing players who played formerly for these clubs will vastly improve stadium attendance as well as Television viewership.

Grass-root development

While signing foreign players of international repute may get the fans excited about the prospect of watching them play live, it does little for development of domestic football players. Development of young players is a must to improve as a footballing nation. There has been no official confirmation yet from the organizers over the youth policy. This clearly is an area of improvement for the league. While they can to draw on glamorous international names piggyback on the popularity of football in the franchisee cities to generate fan following, and in turn money, but in order to make a significant impact ultimately there needs to focus on developing young players.

David Monedero - Fransisco Morea 2
Boca Junior’s academy in India

One way to do it would be provide opportunities to youngsters from academies like TFA and other existing football academies promoted by international clubs like Liverpool FC and Boca Juniors to train with the franchisees. This would provide them access to the world class players and coaches who would be part of the franchisees, and let them draw from their experiences and knowhow. TFA has already been instrumental in developing players like Surkumar singh, Deepak Mondal, Rennedy singh who have all gone on to wear the national colours. The best players of these academies can also be included in the ISL draft.

Dual leagues in India

The biggest question on the mind of enthusiasts is “what happens to the Airtel I-league now?” This is a logical and obvious question to ask. Figures released by the AIFF shows that the stadium viewership for I-league clubs have been rising steadily. But will the introduction of a glamorous league with celebrity players dampen the glow of India’s premier football league? It’s too soon to predict. Clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Shillong Lajong and Bengaluru FC have an extremely loyal supporter base. Furthermore, the schedules of both the leagues do not coincide. So, the Hero ISL is unlikely to eat into the viewership of the I-league. However, neither will it help boost interest.

A moment from a I-League match

Then there are other potential conflicts that need to be worked around. Owing to the domestic draft pool, there are players who are playing in both the I-league and ISL. In the unfortunate event of a player picking up an injury, which party will responsible for the medical expenses – the franchisee, ISL, AIFF? This remains a grey area till date.
Another problem with the dual league is that Indian players will have to play in multiple teams and various tournaments. The Federation Cup, CFL, and AFC Cup in addition to the National team duties, create a lot of strain on the players. There are two primary issues – First, chances of injury while playing in multiple leagues is pretty high. Second, different teams play under different systems and different philosophies – How to integrate them? One way to achieve this is to incorporate a similar playing philosophy and style throughout the country regardless of the league, club, and competition (similar approach has been applied by Germany and Spain with spectacular results). However this will require a lot of long term planning and must be done top down. The ISL Franchisees or I-League clubs can’t be expected take the lead here.

This is where the real dilemma is. Should there really be two leagues in a country where the state of football affairs is already pretty shabby? Shouldn’t there be a single league where all the money, focus, sponsorships and other resources can be funnelled so that the stadium attendance and TV viewership be consolidated? These are fundamental questions for which there is currently no clear answer. One has to wait and see how the situation emerges.

To Conclude

The ISL has started with a lot of fandom and a lot is expected from the league. This is the first significant development in Indian football in decades rather than years. The model of the league is similar to that of the MLS in the states where it has proven to be instrumental in generating greater interest in domestic football. The same can be expected from ISL if all goes well. The arrival of ISL has caught the attention of even the FIFA president Sepp Blatter . “… in September I can inform you that we will have a professional soccer league in India,” Blatter said in an interview in the magazine SportBusiness International.However, in order for the ISL to make a more substantial and sustained impact on the state of affairs of football in the country it will have to act on its commitment on things that actually matter. Including youth policy as a key component of the league should be a good start. In long term, the league should also benefit from merging the I-league with it and include more franchisees to increase the duration of the league. There are just months before the inaugural edition of the league starts and we will have answers to a lot of questions by then. But nonetheless, these are exciting times for football fanatics in the country.