Murder, they cried.

Over the past few years, they said a few of their brethren have been hunted and killed. Bharat FC, Pune FC, Mumbai FC, Royal Wahingdoh, Sporting Goa, Salgaocar, DSK Shivajians, Dempo, Rangdajied United, all fallen comrades, lying by the wayside.

The I-League club, an endangered species, has had just about enough of pushing and shoving. This is a league that has seen two exciting finishes in the recent past, keeping fans gripped till the very end.

Aizawl’s triumph in 2016-’17 was one that made you sit up and wipe a tear off your cheek, when they shocked the footballing world. Yes, I use “world” for a story that reverberated far beyond these shores on a day when any of three clubs could have won the title.

The following season, Minerva Punjab continued the fairytale theme by fending off three contenders on the final day. North India did a double when Real Kashmir became the first team from the valley to ensure a place in the top flight. It might not have the silver screen’s heart-throbs backing it, but the I-League has more than enough romance to sustain itself.

This is the I-League, the league of the people. Despite apathy from all corridors, it stands firm, churning out unpredictability.

Recently, Star Sports bore the brunt of social media’s ire when it was announced that the broadcaster would show only 30 of the remaining I-League matches, bringing the total number of matches broadcasted to 80 out of a possible 110.

Praveen VC, president of Gokulam Kerala, put the blame squarely on the AIFF, saying the Indian federation “should not abide blindly by what their commercial and marketing partners tell them to do. It is their responsibility to ensure the league runs smoothly.”

The clubs claimed it had been verbally agreed that all I-League games would be broadcast this season. I-League CEO Sunando Dhar, however, said no number had been specified Star Sports’ contract as to how many matches would be broadcast.

Sandeep Chattoo, co-owner of Real Kashmir, told PTI, “I hope that all matches will be telecast live as was decided earlier. The organisers, AIFF, have been playing a wonderful role in encouraging all teams of I-League. For us at RKFC, our fans back at home have been following the matches on television sets and Internet and I hope their enthusiasm will not be dampened by this decision.”

‘Death sentence’

Ranjit Bajaj, owner of Minerva Punjab, and Praveen spoke about the fact that sponsorship agreements had been made keeping in mind that all games would be telecast live. Nitu Sarkar, East Bengal official, called it a “death sentence” for the I-League, stating that AIFF was trying to “kill” its own league.

“The Indian Super League is failing,” Sarkar said. “It can’t match up in popularity with the I-League. Otherwise, why would they only try and promote one league when both are supposed to be their own.”

Subrata Datta, chairman of the league committee, stated that Star had initially agreed to broadcast 50 games, which had later been increased to 80. A Star insider also stated that they had shown more games than “any other national football league/I-League broadcaster in history”.

In 2018, it’s a different ball-game. As the Indian Super League continues to be decided by a final between two teams, the I-League title could have been won by any of three teams in 2016-’17 and four in 2017-’18.

Aizawl, Neroca, Minerva Punjab, Chennai City, Shillong Lajong and now Real Kashmir had enthralled or, at the very least, elicited curiosity from corners they didn’t belong to. Scenic stadiums, at times, had to be watched with squinted or strained eyes due to the quality of the broadcast.

This season, Chennai City lead the table but the top eight are separated by five points at the half-way mark of the season. East Bengal in fourth can go top if they win their next match by two goals.

The final round of the I-League, if indeed is the fate of the 12-year-old league, is once again jam-packed and headed for a tight finish. The best part is the spontaneity it throws up – you never know which corner of the country the trophy is headed to.

Despite the obvious positives, two glaring questions remain.

One: did the I-League, after two exciting finishes, deserve such an open-ended broadcast contract?

Two: clubs complaining of step-motherly treatment had a point. To anyone who’s watched the Indian Super League and the I-League this season, the different in broadcast quality is clear.

Why is this the case when the teams of both leagues had gone toe-to-toe in last season’s Super Cup? Why is this the case when the I-League, which on paper remains the country’s official top-tier league? Why in 2018, 22 years after the first ball was kicked in a national league, does India still have two concurrently-operating top-tier leagues?

The last question has possibly been raised, re-raised and raised some more over the last five years. Instead of a pyramid system rewarding those rising from the base a moment to shine at the top, parallel stumps run amok, create viewer confusion and burnout within a short span of time. This also keeps I-League clubs in the dark about the future.

Broadcast deal

Now, coming to the matter at hand, the case of the broadcast and the issues with quality management. Dhar clearly explains, “Broadcasting deals don’t fall under the AIFF’s purview. It is our commercial and marketing partner’s responsibility to negotiate the deal.”

A Star source states the same: “We negotiate the broadcast deals with Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL). We held all our discussions with all stakeholders and it was amicably agreed upon.” FSDL, a subsidiary of IMG-Reliance, operates the ISL.

Secondly, the Minerva Punjab versus Chennai City match was on a significant day because the Kolkata Derby would also be held later. While the broadcast quality of the earlier match was compared to that of a mobile phone’s video, the latter wasn’t much better, this writer can confirm, having seen the derby live and on a screen in the media tribune. The honest answer? The broadcast feed didn’t do justice to Indian football’s biggest game.

Naturally, the tendency would be to blame Star, as the end product that is consumed is the channel and its offerings. Star does not hold the production rights to the league, as it receives its feed from FSDL.

The broadcaster does make a distinction between the Indian Super League, shown on High-Definition (HD) channels and Star Sports 1 and 2, while I-League is shown on Star Sports 3 and Star Sports First, which are only Standard Definition (SD). The matches from both leagues were shown on Star’s digital streaming platform Hotstar.

The seven-member strong I-League (Private) Clubs Association – Chennai City, Minerva, Neroca, Aizawl, Real Kashmir, Gokulam Kerala and Shillong Lajong – had specifically requested this to change.

The I-League (Private) Clubs Association requests
The I-League (Private) Clubs Association requests

The marketing of the I-League, as discussed in a mail by the seven-strong association to Praful Patel, is also not held by the AIFF but by FSDL, who are the marketing partners of the national federation.

While Dhar did confirm that the league committee does churn out the fixtures before cross-checking with the teams, neither the broadcasting nor the marketing deals are made by the AIFF.

FSDL, in turn, has a considerable interest in the Indian Super League as well, being the tournament’s organisers and its marketing partners since its inception in 2013. The Joint Venture features directors from both Star Sports and the Reliance Foundation for Youth Sports.

(Officials from FSDL were reached out for comment via phone and email. This piece will be updated as and when they respond to Scroll.in’s queries.)

A 2017 report stated that the AIFF’s commercial partners have the rights to re-constitute or re-organise the top league as part of a 15-year-deal signed between the two parties in 2010.

“…the league which the Company (sic) intends to establish as the most senior and prestigious football league in India (in consultation with the AIFF as contemplated under this Agreement) whether by way of reorganising or reconstituting any existing Competition (sic) (such as the I-League) or the establishment of an entirely new league….,” reads the report in the Hindustan Times.

In such a case if the intention was to further the I-League, it might benefit from the league having a degree of autonomy in realising its commercial and marketing potential.

Apathy towards the I-League has also manifested in other forms, namely scheduling, where a more venue-by-venue approach should be taken, considering the length and breadth of the country that the league’s clubs cover.

While the Indian Super League releases its fixtures three months before its first game, the I-League has given its clubs as few as 21 and 11 days in the recent past. This, clubs say, is a deterrent to finding sponsors and finalising travel plans or acquiring travel partners, given the brief period of advance notice.

“This year, we weren’t sure about Churchill’s inclusion,” said Dhar. “We didn’t know if the Indian Arrows would play in Bhubaneswar and we were sweating on Real Kashmir’s TRC Stadium in Srinagar as well. This is not an excuse but these factors must be kept in mind.”

Currently, the embattled I-league faces a case of ‘Whose Apathy Is It Anyway’. Among a slew of pass-the-buck parties between various stakeholders, it is the clubs that must keep fighting for sustenance, not just on the pitch, but also off it.