The Television Conundrum That Confronts The I-League

The undying love for cricket at the expense of other sports in India still remains and if the marketing people at Star India are correct, will only continue to grow. In September, they shelled out $2.55 billion for the rights to broadcast the Indian Premier League (IPL) for the next five years in the biggest television deal in cricket history.

This led to football lovers in the country voicing concerns about how the deal might affect the coverage of games from the English Premier League (EPL) and the German Bundesliga, unless more channels are added. There will not be an immediate impact on the Indian Super League (ISL), which Star India promotes, given that the current season ends in March, before the IPL season starts. However, for all those passionate fans out there who follow the I-League and hoped that Star with its superior content would come to it’s permanent aid, and not just for this season as it seems to have, it could be the end of the road.

It was probably naive to expect that to happen anyway. In August 2001, top quality football was first introduced to an Indian audience by Star. Manu Sawhney, then Managing Director at ESPN Software and future director at Manchester United, announced at a press conference in New Delhi that ESPN Star Sports would be bringing exclusive prime time coverage of the English Premier League to Indian drawing rooms. Cheema Okorie, the Nigerian legend who had played for all three big Kolkata clubs, politely requested at the occasion that a time slot be dedicated to Indian football as well. No one paid heed to him.

Since then, Star India have introduced more channels to cater to the ever growing demand for content from the EPL and other European leagues. Indian football viewers are now exposed to games in England, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Netherlands, Brazil, Australia and even China through various sports channels that have sprung up on the EPL’s slipstream.

While the quality of broadcasts of all these leagues have been of the highest order, the same cannot be said about the coverage of Indian football. Over the past decade, Zee Sports and subsequently the Ten Network have sporadically shown I-League matches without appearing to have a concrete program schedule. Sponsorship has been a problem all these years, which is understandable, given that better quality football is available for viewing elsewhere.

The Indian Super League (ISL), which began in 2014 has had good viewership numbers. Given that they are stakeholders along with IMG Reliance, Star India has provided the platform to showcase the league. However, this has come at the expense of the I-League and a lot of Indian football’s traditional engines for growth in the form of clubs from Kolkata and Goa have been sidelined. A week after 57 million viewers watched Atletico de Kolkata beat Kerala Blasters in the inaugural ISL final, the Federation Cup, Indian football’s official season opener played to empty stadiums in Goa.

Indian football has a unique problem in that its newest product (ISL) is killing the legacy product (I-League) that has been the lifeline of Indian football for all these years. Solutions are being sought but none have been arrived at yet which benefit both the ISL and the I-League. Any resolution found should ensure that I-League teams and their matches are marketed and broadcast with the same production standards as the ISL. The AIFF had proposed at the insistence of I-League clubs that Star Sports broadcast the 2017-18 season, but details were not forthcoming right until the season began. When Minerva Punjab FC took on Mohun Bagan on 25th November in the season opener, the telecast found its place on Star Sports 2 with zero marketing behind it. Only someone flipping channels to ascertain if the game was on anywhere at all (something I-League followers are accustomed to), would have stumbled upon it. The games so far have been shown in isolation without a studio team to present them to audiences. If the I-League has been foisted upon Star India as part of a compromise, it definitely shows with the step motherly treatment.

Star cannot be blamed for prioritising its own product in the ISL. But 2 pm kickoffs, introduced in the I-League this season to ensure that games do not clash with the ISL schedule, are not sustainable. There seems to be a deal in place temporarily to accommodate the league but a continuing lack of clarity about its space in Indian television will hurt a product which is already struggling for life.

For now, fans can be happy that at least these clubs, including the revived Indian Arrows, are on show this season. On 18th October, Bengaluru FC, in their previous avatar as I-League champions, took on Tajik league champions, FC Istiklol, for a place in the final of the AFC Cup. At a time when Indian football is finally taking small steps towards increasing its footprint in Asia, this was a match that deserved an audience. The fact that it wasn’t shown on Indian television is a travesty. Indian football stakeholders must ensure that something like this never happen again.

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