The I-League clubs, who are fighting for a level-playing field and better treatment from the All India Football Federation, last week proposed a grand plan for a 20-team unified league with an estimated net revenue of Rs 325 crore after deducting cost of production and other expenses.

The proposal, which wants the unified league to run for 9 months with promotion and relegation, has based the calculations of net revenue on the central revenue figures the 10 Indian Super League teams are supposed to get for the current season.

According to the I-League Private Clubs Association, ISL owners Football Sports Development Limited raised Rs 150 crore this year for 95 games. With the new proposed league – comprising 10 ISL and 10 I-league teams, hosting a total of 380 matches the revenue should also increase exponentially, they claimed.

The proposal, which claims that the new unified league would also help AIFF earn Rs 50 crore annually, looks good on paper but one needs to understand that market forces do not work on theoretical arithmetic.

And this is where the real challenge to the proposed unified league lies because all plans come to a nought without money.

As things stand now, the ISL title sponsor pays between Rs 15-20 crore for the entire season with the remaining amount coming for other sponsors and the money paid by Star Sports as co-owners of the league.

Even if one inflates the value of the unified league, no title sponsor is going four to five times of the current amount and given the fact that no broadcaster has been inclined to bid for television rights of Indian football, Star Sports definitely won’t be willing to pay a higher cost for showing all the 380 matches from the first year itself.

Even Minverva Punjab owner Ranjit Bajaj admitted that on the sidelines of the I-League trophy presentation ceremony in Chennai recently. “The revenue might not be possible in the first year itself but we will definitely cut down the losses,” he was quoted as saying by The Times of India.

Losses have been the one common factor between ISL and the I-League and the clubs in the new entity have been bleeding a lot more money than their counterparts.

Even Bengaluru FC CEO Parth Jindal in a recent interview with espn.in spoke about the difference in expenditure and losses in the two leagues. “ISL teams are losing far more money than I-League teams. We were in the I-League two years ago. We know the numbers in I-League, and we now know the numbers in ISL,” he was quoted as saying.

The IPCA has proposed that the franchisee fee be brought down to Rs 2 crore per year in the unified league so that the cost of ISL teams can be reduced substantially.

However, the ISL clubs who have been paying through their noses for the last few years feel that it was like allowing I-League clubs for free.

And it was this issue that got Delhi Dynamos owner worked up during a twitter exchange with I-League fans and even Minerva owner Heena Bajaj where he questioned why I-League teams should be allowed entry in the ISL for free.

A series of tweets by Delhi Dynamos owner Rohan Sharma
A series of tweets by Delhi Dynamos owner Rohan Sharma

But the bigger question is how many I-League clubs can afford to lose more money than what they are already losing to sustain in the proposed unified league till the league becomes commercial viable for a broadcaster to media rights and sponsors to pour in the kind of money the clubs are expecting.

While the average budget of the I-League teams currently hovers around Rs 5 crore annually, the average franchise fee for the ISL teams is around Rs 15 crore with players salary ranging from Rs 9.5 crore to Rs 16 crore.

Even if one hypothetically accepts the proposal for bringing the franchisee fee down to Rs 2 crore, how many I-League teams are in a position to put in Rs 9-10 crore in players’s salaries, another 10% into youth development and also have the budgets for marketing and infrastructure development.

It is a fact that I-League clubs’ reluctance for promotions and infrastructure development has been a major problem area in Indian football and one is not sure how these clubs would be able to raise money to sustain the additional activities.

And if they fail to do so, then the new initiative will soon suffer the same fate of the I-League, which was the primary reason behind FSDL launching a separate league to attract sponsors and broadcasters.

AIFF is equally at fault

Those who have followed Indian football over the last few decades would point out that the petty politics of AIFF have been equally responsible for the problems in I-League as they could never enforce basic systems that the Asian Football Confederation had been asking for.

So much so, many I-League clubs still do not fulfill all the AFC Licencing criteria and the AIFF has remained a mute spectator and let politics take precedence over good practices and systems required to improve Indian football.

Even as the impasse between ISL and I-League clubs continues, the AIFF has done nothing to finalise a roadmap that AFC and FIFA had suggested over two years ago which would have seen the former becomes the top league with no relegation by 2020.

For now, AIFF secretary general Kushal Das has already ruled out the possibility of a unified league citing the 10-year contractual obligation with FSDL and it is pretty clear that the federation’s marketing partners would only think of such an option if it is commercially viable.

It seems, the AIFF’s immediate game plan depends on FSDL’s ability to rope in Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the ISL to end any kind of resistance from Indian Football Association, the state association in West Bengal.

FSDL sources have confirmed to Scroll.in that the tender for new teams is likely to be only for Kolkata unless a current franchise, which is already under tremendous financial strain, pulls out. The powers running Indian football are hoping that East Bengal would be the new franchise while Bagan and ATK would join hands to run the existing team.

The only catch here is the unpredictability of the two Kolkata clubs. A similar attempt was made two years ago when Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC joined ISL from I-League but internal politics within the two clubs meant that the deals never went through.

There is no guarantee that the plans to rope in the two Kolkata clubs in next year’s ISL will materialise even now. If that does not happen, AIFF will once again be left fighting a political battle within its ranks and it is more likely that both leagues will co-exist for another year.

In any case, those associated in the decision-making process have already been mentioning that the roadmap AFC proposed was just a guideline and not a mandatory requirement.

But speak to the ISL or I-League clubs or anyone associated with Indian football, and all of them would insist that an unified league was the ultimate dream. But the implementation of the idea remains a huge question mark; a question mark that hangs not only over Indian football with an unsettling silence.