Falling Indian attendances cause for concern, not panic

John Duerden John Duerden

Smaller crowds are a warning sign for the Indian Super League, according to John Duerden.

Go back a few years in Indian football and tell fans that there would be concerns as the attendance in the country’s main football league slipped below 16,000 then they would not have believed such a thing was possible. Such attendances looked as easy to achieve as a first-time visitor working out how to buy a train ticket on Indian Railways.

And let’s be honest, the Indian Super League is the de facto main league in India these days over the older I-League and that relationship is going to become official in the next year or two. There is going to be a merger between the ISL and the I-League and the former is going to be anointed as the biggest show in town.

Not all fans like to hear that and they are right to have concerns and are right to wonder what will become of the I-League and some of the historic teams that are in the traditional top tier of Indian football. Yet, they have to face reality and that reality is that a healthy ISL can help take Indian football forward.

This is a big season for the tournament. In 2014 it started out as an eight-team ten week affair. An interesting complement to the I-League. The success that it had pushed it from the sidelines right into the middle of the national football scene and debate. So this year it has expanded to ten teams and 16 weeks, not that far off a traditional league season (and this week’s announcement of the Indian Super Cup featuring teams from the ISL and the I-League adds to this with it starting in April). For the first time, the two leagues are running concurrently, another sign that they are becoming aligned.

Yet there are issues. The drop in attendances from 26,000 in 2014 to 16,000 this year should not be overstated but it also should not be dismissed. The drop was always going to happen to a certain extent. The novelty factor has worn off. The first edition was born amid huge publicity, excitement and star power. The owners of the new franchises were a headline-friendly mix of big business, European clubs, Bollywood actors and cricketing legends. This was something else and the whole world was watching.

Each of the eight teams had famous, if aging, foreign stars. There were World Cup winners in Robert Pires, David Trezeguet, Alessandro Del Piero and Marco Materazzi. There were many more with well-known coaches on the sidelines ensuring a media profile that any other Asian league could only dream of.

So successful that the I-league could not compete. Now though, some of the early ISL glamour has faded. Dimitar Berbatov and Robbie Keane are the two big names. The lack of foreign stardust is not in itself a problem as the league is looking to promote more Indian talent but it does suggest that there is a reduction of the money available.

Clubs are losing money but expected to be doing so in the fourth season, with years seven to ten seen as the time to start breaking even. The expansion of the league makes it tough, initially at least. They were losing money when it was ten weeks. Now it is 16, then there are going to be obvious challenges. Not only that but according to locals, the kick-off switch from seven to eight pm has not gone well with many fans finding it tough to get home after the later start and therefore not going at all. This was at the behest of the league’s broadcaster though it is expected that the time will revert back from next season.

There is little revenue from broadcasting. Star Sports is a stakeholder in the league and so does not pay directly to broadcast the games. This is an issue that needs to be sorted. There have been rumours that this will be looked at but that remains to be seen. Sooner, rather than later, there has to be money coming in from this field, at the very least to give individual owners confidence that there is a way forward financially.

If a way around the broadcasting situation can be found and there is money coming in from the media along with a broadcaster keen to maximise returns and get as many eyeballs on the game as possible, this will increase the size of the market and the interest of the corporate sector. More revenue is needed for clubs to invest more in playing staff and youth development. It also improves facilities and wages, encouraging more youngsters to take up the game.

Sounds easy, however, it is anything but. There is no need to panic just yet as 16,000 attendances are still pretty good, but the ISL’s brand depends on being new, energetic, glamorous and popular. It needs to stay that way.