The India Super League has been hit by falling attendance in its fourth season, but it is still viewed as the future of soccer in the cricket-mad country.
The competition kicked off in 2014, a short, sweet and glamorous complement to the existing I-League, the traditional top tier of Indian soccer. The ISL has been successful enough however that it is expected to become the primary soccer league in the country.
A step towards that end was taken ahead of the 2017-18 season with the tournament started to take on the feel of a traditional soccer league. Eight teams became 10 and the season, which kicked off in November, expanded from 11 to 17 weeks.
It is a season of transition, says Bobby Mimms, a former goalkeeper with top English Premier League clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, and now coaching at Jamshedpur, one of the expansion teams.
“The standard is good,” Mimms told The Associated Press. “There are less foreign players this season with only five allowed to play. The rest must be Indian and this is good for the long-term future of Indian football, as opposed to having many old veterans looking for a last payday.”
The reduction in the big-name foreign players may have an impact on average attendance, however, which has fallen from 26,000 across the league in 2014, the highest in Asia, to 16,000 so far this season.
In 2014, each of the eight teams fielded big-name marquee players that included World Cup winners such as Alessandro Del Piero, Robert Pires, David Trezeguet and Marco Materazzi. This season has a relative lack of star power: Robbie Keane and Dimitar Berbatov, with respective English experience at Liverpool and Manchester United, are the best-known players.
“Attendances are good as are the atmospheres,” said Mimms. “Some teams are, however, having individual issues this season.”
Even with Berbatov at Kerala, the southern team’s average attendance has fallen from 50,000 last season to just over 30,000, although the 2016-17 runner-up has struggled on the field.
Delhi Dynamos have also seen their attendance halved. The team has not retained a single player from last season and is sitting in last place.
Arunava Chaudhuri, an Indian soccer consultant, said that changing the kickoff time from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. has also had an impact.
“It is too late for people to get back home after a match. It was a request from (TV) Star Sports, who wanted to test the 8 p.m. kick off for all the franchise sports leagues in India.”
With the popular cricket tournament the Indian Premier League considering a switch back, the ISL is expected to follow suit.
There are other factors, according to Chaudhuri: “The novelty factor is also off. The marketing spend has gone down as clubs are struggling financially as year four is still in the building phase in the league.”
While the ISL is still in its infancy, the long-term question that dominates Indian soccer is its future relationship with the I-League.
The I-League has struggled to compete with the other competition in terms of media profile and attendance. The All India Football Federation held talks in 2017 to find a way to merge the two competitions, but no agreement has been reached.
AIFF officials predict that the two leagues will come together in two or three years, and most expect that any deal will put the ISL at the top.
“The merger will come. It is a question of when,” said Chaudhuri. “The ISL will be the top tier and the I-League will become tier two.”