I-League broadcaster Star Sports isn't “contractually obligated” to telecast all the games. The All India Football Federation does not have the final say in the telecast of matches and the Football Sports Development Limited, which controls the promotion and marketing operations of the I-League, maintains silence.
This is what has played out since Star Sports announced it would broadcast only 80 of the 110 I-League games this season.
The AIFF says it had a vote but maintains that the final decision regarding the telecast was taken by Star Sports and FSDL. Despite multiple attempts via calls, texts, and emails, FSDL declined to comment on the issue.
Star Sports too declined an official comment. However, a Star Sports insider privy to the broadcaster's decision-making process says, “We have no contractual obligation to broadcast all 110 games. We had initially planned to show only 50 matches, but increased the number to 80. There was no written agreement with the AIFF, the I-League, and FSDL, only a verbal agreement."
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The person, who does not want to be named, concedes "scheduling issues" could have also played a part. This means the I-League lost out on TV time in jostling for space with Star Sports' schedule, which includes the Ranji Trophy, Tata Maharashtra Open, the Premier League and Bundesliga matches, to name a few.
Star Sports will also air the AFC Asian Cup 2019 and the Khelo India Games.
After receiving flak for not televising all I-League games, the AIFF has decided to give the clubs some relief. It has agreed to live stream matches that won't be on Star Sports.
These live streams will be on Hotstar and Jio TV. The AIFF and the FSDL will bear the cost. However, this appears to be a short-term solution and not a sustainable option because matches of the same league cannot be shown across multiple broadcasting platforms.
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I-League falls drastically short when it comes to TV viewership. The matches have attracted fans to the grounds, but the TV viewership hasn't brought much joy.
For instance, reigning I-League champion Minerva Punjab FC has had an average of 6,000 fans for each of its five home games so far, all of which have been held at 2 pm. Minerva will be the worst-hit by the selective broadcast, as only one of its next nine matches will be on television.
Gokulam Kerala FC, which will have only four of its games shown live, registered an even higher average attendance of 22,477 over its six home games so far. These spectator numbers for the I-League clubs come at a time when Indian Super League sides have struggled to attract even 5,000 fans to the grounds on match days.
The I-League is no match for the ISL in TV viewership. The I-League attracted 17.4 million viewers for the first 46 matches, while the ISL viewership was more than seven times higher at 127.7 million across 59 matches, according to data shared by the Broadcast Audience Research Council India (BARC) with Sportstar .
ISL 2018-19: 127.7 mn tune-ins across 59 games
(TG: All India 2+/ live matches only)
Joy Bhattacharjya, former India head of production at ESPN Star Sports, says there is more to the two leagues than just numbers. "The ISL timings and broadcast quality are better and they're spending more money. However, what the I-League has done really well is that it has increased the football footprint in India — we have teams from Kashmir, North East, and from the south.
"That's been the real story of the I-League and it has done a fantastic job. With the numbers alone, you really cannot compare the two leagues. Both are doing good work and one doesn't necessarily need to slag off one for the sake of the other," says Bhattacharjya.
I-League 2018-19: 17.4 mn tune-ins across 46 games
(TG: All India 2+/ live matches only)
"The timing of matches is also an issue because you cannot play a match at 2 pm, as the audiences in the afternoon are very small. Another factor is that the I-League is covered with seven or eight cameras, while the ISL is covered with 14 to 15 cameras. Regardless, the I-League throws a new story ever year and that's fantastic."
I-League clubs in the dark
I-League CEO Sunando Dhar says the clubs were told before the season about the possible reduction in broadcast of matches. “It was specified to all the teams that if their matches did not attract crowds or if the condition of the ground did not look good on TV, the matches would be dropped.”
When asked about some ISL clubs failing to attract spectators, but still getting all their matches broadcast, Dhar responds, "There are contractual obligations, so that plays a role."
However, the I-League clubs maintain they have received no explanation why their games have been dropped.
Minerva Punjab’s owner Ranjit Bajaj doesn't mince words. "This could be seen as a move to kill the I-League because it is in direct competition with the ISL. Despite giving us the worst timings, marketing, and coverage, the I-League is growing in popularity year after year. We don't even need to have this fan banna padega (ISL) campaign, yahan pe already fans hain (we already have fans here),” says Bajaj.
“I have talked to all the other club owners and we are on the same page. They all know that this is a death blow and if we don't act now, this is probably going to spell the end of I-League very soon. If there is no telecast, then there will be no sponsors, and if there are no sponsors, I don't think anybody will be able to continue doing this.”
A body by the name of “I-League (Private) Clubs Association” comprising seven of the 11 teams in the league had written to the AIFF requesting it to ensure all the matches were telecast live.
“We urge the AIFF to put your foot down and demand that Star Sports give preference to the national league over the ISL if necessary,” the letter stated.
“We had a verbal agreement (with AIFF) and we didn’t take it in writing from them. They’re our parent body and we believed them. We had telecasts for the last two years and hence didn't ask for any assurances from them,” says Bajaj.
Incidentally, Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal weren't a part of this association. Both the clubs are the least affected by Star Sports' decision. Mohun Bagan will have all its 20 games shown live, while 17 of East Bengal's matches will also be telecast.
Promotion not in our hands, says AIFF
AIFF vice-president Subrata Dutta too talks of the money in play. “The investment in ISL is much more, possibly 10 times more than I-League. Since the investment is less, the promotion scale is lower and it reflects in the packaging and presentation of the league,” says Dutta.
When asked if better promotion of the I-League was the need of the hour, he put the onus on FSDL. “It depends on our marketing and commercial partners (FSDL), and how they would like to promote the I-League. It depends on what kind of treatment FSDL gives to I-League as far as visibility is concerned.”
Chennai City FC owner Rohit Ramesh points to the ISL break till February and says the broadcaster could have used this time to further promote the I-League. “When the ISL isn’t happening, it’s the right time for the broadcaster to promote I-League in a better fashion. They have nothing to lose,” he says.
Restructuring Indian football
Dutta says a restructuring of Indian football is imperative. “We need to have one strong league with proper visibility and promotion. The league structure of Indian football needs to be restructured, which will be done in 2019. All the leagues should be seen as one league and no league should be taken in isolation,” he says.
That the I-League, which on paper is still the top-tier of Indian football, is feeling hard done by is evident.
The I-League was voted as the second-best “Developing Football League of the Year” in Asia in 2018.