After a summer of suspense involving the future of Indian football, the Indian Super League is officially back, the fourth season kicking off on November 17 with a virtual rerun of last year's final between Kerala Blasters and ATK in Kochi. With two new teams and a longer season in store, there is plenty on offer for fans to savour over the next five months.
So what's new this time?
There will be 10 teams for the first time in the league's history, with Bengaluru FC (BFC) and Jamshedpur FC entering the fray. Clubs will be allowed to field five foreign players, as opposed to six in previous seasons - four when the ISL champions compete in the 2019 AFC Cup - and the league will run for the longest duration of the four seasons. If 2014 was a short 70-day dash for 61 matches, the following two seasons only stretched nine days longer. This season's league phase, featuring 90 matches, stretches for 108 days, and the playoffs should take anywhere between 10-14 more days.
"On the face of it, that's a big help. But even so, we have one gap of 10 days, and then three-four games back-to-back," says Jamshedpur FC coach Steve Coppell, who took Kerala Blasters to the final in his debut season last year. Coppell has credited the ISL for the Indian team's recently improved FIFA ranking. "The longer season is better for Indian football, as is the increase of Indian players to six [per match]. There's more responsibility on them now, and that will see them improve as players."
Plenty at stake on the field alone
Former India international Henry Menezes believes the added incentive of playing in Asia will make this the most closely-fought season of all. "The teams must understand that this year onwards, it is a proper football league that they are in. There's also the incentive of getting to play in the AFC Cup in 2019," says Menezes.
"I think the 10 teams need to look at how Bengaluru have conducted themselves since their inception to understand how professional they need to be. Jamshedpur [where the Tata Football Academy has been based since the 1980s] are also going to benefit from having a natural connect with the game, but the rest of the clubs have to realise that in football you will almost never have any operating profit."
"With two more teams, the league is more exciting, but then most things remain the same," says Jamshedpur defender Andre Bikey, who played for NorthEast United in 2015 but missed all of last season after a quadricep injury during pre-season for FC Pune City. "Having more teams doesn't mean you suddenly make your sessions longer. This is something the manager has to ensure, that players' fitness is better."
The economics of a bigger season
The biggest test this season could be for team owners, with a longer season and an impending need to adhere to AFC licensing criteria. One football expert, who preferred not to be named, believes the requirement to cut the number of foreign players should see a slight drop in expenses for team owners and emphasised the need to stay patient.
"Nobody minds if there's a little hole in the pocket of the shirt you are wearing, but you don't want the entire shirt to be taken off," says the expert. "Globally, it is believed that about 45% of your earnings as a club come from broadcast deals, 15% from gate receipts and the remaining 40% is made up of sponsorships and centralised revenue.
"The ISL will soon be able to distribute the broadcast money, and the sponsorship deals will also appreciate, so the owners need to be patient. They have to understand that in running a football club, the profits don't always come into your pocket -- you have to use that same money into developing your grassroots, buying better players. Barring Bengaluru, most clubs don't have enough knowledge of the ins and outs of the football business, and perhaps that is why you have already seen some management changes in them."
Mumbai City FC CEO Indranil Das Blah tells ESPN that "chaos" in management is normal for any league that is starting out, stating that the biggest benefit for the club this season has been the longer span as well as the frequent 8 pm weekend kick-offs.
"I think it's a great opportunity financially, because across seasons one of the challenges we faced was that the activation time was only three months. Even a property as big as the IPL suffers from that," he says. ""We've passed whatever we had in the past three seasons, and this year compared to last year, the revenue from sponsorships has grown by close to 50%."
Das Blah also agrees with the expert when he says how Mumbai have been conservative with their player acquisitions this season, refusing to buy a marquee player, and hence have seen player salaries come down significantly.
A roadmap towards the future
Many believe the longer season will also be a good indicator of the ISL's viability as both a financial and a football success. BFC coach Albert Roca spoke of his preference for an even longer league, as did his compatriot and Delhi Dynamos defender Eduardo Moya. "The more the teams, the more competitive the league will be," Moya said. "Last year, it lasted for only three months. But Indian football is growing every year. The idea is to go step by step. You need time for correct organisation. Next year, I hope there's a league for nine or ten months, and that we play one game every week. India is doing everything right."
Menezes believes the onus will also be on clubs to utilise this opportunity, with more matches on weekends and evening kick-offs. "The brand of ISL is a super-hit already, and one big reason for that is that the team names have a community connect right from the start, unlike the I-League," he says. "This explains why Kerala Blasters have been received so well, and why Goa somehow didn't turn up in great numbers for the U-17 World Cup matches, but always fills up the stadium for FC Goa."
The need for community connect
The big test, Menezes believes, will come in the near future, where the depth of the fan base will be tested.
"Maybe 15 out of 100 people who come to an ISL match are genuine fans. India has always had a good spectator base, but converting that to a fan base will be the challenge for clubs," says Menezes. "It will be down to clubs and how they are able to use their community connections - why not bring youth clubs in your region and encourage them to come with all friends and family?"
A longer league, Menezes admits, might see some inconsequential games and a consequent dip in interest and attendance at some stage in the tournament. "One thing I can promise you is that because of the marketing and advertising push, you won't ever see 500 people at an ISL game," he says.
Experts believe the true extent of the longer season's success will probably only be visible in future years, where AIFF plan to introduce promotion and relegation between ISL and the I-League.
"We have seen in the I-League how a team like Mohammedan Sporting has gone down and then come up again, and this is down to the community connect and support that they have enjoyed," says the expert. "Eventually, the ISL will also see relegation and promotion, and the clubs must then understand that if you get relegated, your job as an organisation doesn't just end right there."