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IMG-R Since 2010: The Good, The Bad & What Could Be The Future?

Wednesday, 31 May 2017|Satyaki Das
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The lingering of debate of ISL and i-League continues to hover on the Indian football horizon and the participation of the age old clubs in the ISL remains laced in uncertainty. Unfortunately, the issue is far more complex that just a sign-off. The seeds of this whole ongoing saga were planted about six years back. To understand the context, we need to look back into the December 09, 2010 report in the Times of India.
 

About six and a half years ago, AIFF signed a deal with IMG-RIL worth INR 700 Crores roping in IMG-R as “commercial partner.” The agreement with AIFF grants IMG-RIL all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. IMG-RIL would also look at scheduling, restructuring and reformatting of the domestic competitions. In addition, IMG Reliance plans to develop, operate and administer a new professional football league in the country (which we later saw as ISL in 2014).
 

Under this agreement, for the five years, IMG-RIL will give money to AIFF under the same terms and conditions that AIFF had with Zee Sports. In the next 10 years, IMG-RIL will pay AIFF an annual amount of INR 50 crore or 20% of the revenue whichever is more. IMG-RIL has also given a buyout amount of INR 70 crore to Zee Sports to exit from the agreement five years before expiry. The same report quotes IMG senior vice-president Loffhagen, “We have also signed a 30-year lease of the Ravindra Sarovar Stadium in Kolkata besides Karnataka Football Association owning a stadium in Bangalore. By next year we will be having two-three good stadiums owned by the state bodies or the AIFF.”
 

Subsequent to this, on 21st February, 2012; Mr Rajeev Piramal’s (Pune FC co-owner) interview was published in the goal.com. The interview moots several significant points. As per the interview, if the I-League rights are sold to a major broadcast player at a regional, national, continental and global level, the profit would go to IMG-Reliance while the clubs are left empty-handed. Furthermore, as per the club licensing criterion of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the I-League must be a separate legal entity and must be run by an independent body comprising of the clubs. So the AIFF has taken a decision on behalf of all the I-League clubs which basically has resulted in the clubs being in a position, where they see no money for the next 10-to-15 years.
 

Let’s summarise what we just read:

1. AIFF signs a ‘commercial partnership’ agreement with IMG-REL on December 08, 2010 for 15 years and grants all commercial rights to football in India, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights.
 

2. Neither any i-League club nor any state boards are party to this agreement. As per the club licensing criterion of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the I-League must be a separate legal entity and must be run by an independent body comprising of the clubs. However, given the clauses of the commercial agreement, even if the I-League rights are sold to a major broadcast player at a regional, national, continental and global level, the profit would go to IMG-Reliance while the clubs are left empty-handed.
 

In last few years, we saw AIFF coming down heavily on several clubs requiring them to fulfil “AFC criteria”. Several clubs like Dempo, Churchill Brothers, Salgaocar FC, Sporting Club De Goa, Rangdajied, Royal Wahingdoh, Pune FC and United SC were penalised in different ways to curtail a 14-team i-League into 9 teams in 2015-16 and 10 teams in 2016-17. Over past several decades, we saw the demise of JCT, Mahindra, Air India, ONGC etc. – but the rate of attrition multiplied in the last 3-4 years. The purpose was clear, and the steps taken were in congruence to:
 

1. Curtailing i-League calendar, to facilitate germination of ISL

2. Stifling i-League to an extent such that parties either disappear or join the ISL bandwagon

If we discount Punjab (where the popularity of the game diminished significantly after the glory days of Kuljeet Singh and Parminder Singh); there are four significant geographical pockets in India: Bengal, North East, Kerala and Goa. ISL have a clear path in Kerala where there is no i-League teams or was devoid of any significant fan following for any other local club. 

Goa was fractured, and the existing set-up has been successfully dismantled or a few club owners have reincarnated in new shape and form. North East is an issue – and even though for the rest of India, the sisters are generalised; Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam and Mizoram are separate entities. Clubs like Lajong or Aizawl have their separate fan base which will prefer to go with their own clubs rather than a "North-East United". 

Bengal causes a serious headache. This is by far the largest market, and in terms of sheer history and numbers – can make or break ISL. Unfortunately for IMG-REL, both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are much more than just two football clubs – they constitute a way of life for Bengalis. Till date, after several years of partition, the matrimonial columns in Bengal still shows the roots of the bride or the groom which has much to do with their loyalty.

Fast forward to present days. I-League clubs had received step-motherly treatment from the AIFF. They have been wronged time and again; and a new chapter of Indian football is being planned to ruins of the existing setup. This is immoral; needs attention and correction. There is no doubt that one unified league is a way forward; if there is any sense of urgency for football development; either party needs to sacrifice.

As a fan:

1. We need our 14-team unified league back, spanning over 26 weeks (plus 4-5 weeks of breaks). Initially, this can be a three year closed league with 8 ISL clubs + BFC, EB, MB, AFC, SLFC & one team from either Ranchi/ Jamshedpur (considering one city, one club rule). EB and MB should respect the one city, one club rule for next two years and play from Siliguri and Durgapur respectively. 

An exception should be made for the Derby and games against ATK – which should happen in Kolkata for commercial reason. [ATK should be given RS and not YBK – which should be used only for six games – for YBK is not in Kolkata, and really does not need a large capacity stadium. I-League club’s participation should be made at a much lesser fee (in order of INR 3-5 CR, considering the asset they bring to the league a.k.a. mass support)

2. These 3 years must be invested in structuring Tier 2 and Tier 3, from where there should be relegation and promotion between leagues

3. All these teams must fulfil the AFC licensing criteria and the tournament must be run in alignment with AFC guidelines. For first three years, irrespective of position only the clubs fulfilling AFC criteria shall be allowed to participate in the continental games (based on their relative positions).

4. After three years, if a team needs to qualify for top tier, they must have fulfilled AFC licensing criteria

5. After three years, if any team in top tier fail to fulfil AFC licensing criteria, they should be automatically relegated to the second tier

6. On a side note, fulfilling the AFC criteria; the reincarnation of ISL must be a separate legal entity and must be run by an independent body comprising of the clubs, where they get profit sharing.

We stand at a critical crossroad. Unless an amicable solution is reached, Indian football will not move a step forward. I-League will be made to disappear and ISL will see an even poorer collection by antagonising long standing fan base (which cannot be replaced by newfound fan base).