Alan Rownan, senior consultant, sports and entertainment at Euromonitor International, a strategic market research and global insights company, has been closely studying the Indian Super League (ISL), the football tournament jointly promoted by Reliance Industries Ltd, global event management firm IMG and broadcaster Star India. He says that the key findings of the research which have been collated in a study titled Indian Super League: Sporting Development and Future Opportunities look at the strengths and shortcomings of the league as well as its future potential.

The fourth edition of the league will kick off on 17 November.

One of the key findings of the study is that the convergence of media, celebrities and business has been responsible for the success of ISL so far. Essentially, the league is supported by broadcaster Star which telecasts the matches on several of its channels. The ISL franchisees who provide the glamour quotient are miscellaneous film celebrities (such as Abhishek Bachchan) and sportsmen like Sachin Tendulkar and M.S. Dhoni. Besides, the league is backed by Reliance Industries which has committed significant investments to the game and is a key source of initial funding. Compared to the officially sanctioned I-League, the administration of ISL is more commercially driven.

There are other factors that work in favour of the league, the report suggests. One of them is that ISL has introduced the game to one of the fastest growing markets in the world. The report says that the fundamental attraction of India as a growth market is that it boasts of a relatively young population with a median age of less than 30 years and it is forecast to surpass China as the world’s most populous country in 2028, with 1.48 billion people in 2030. So the demographics are favourable for the game.

Other developments are likely to benefit the league too. For a start, the league duration has gone up from three months to five months with the addition of two new teams (Jamshedpur and Bengaluru) to the existing eight this year.

Besides, the official recognition by the regional and national governing bodies of the sport means that ISL teams are now allowed to compete in regional club competitions alongside other Asian teams.

The Euromonitor report says that initially ISL largely by-passed the governance of the Fifa-accredited All India Football Federation (AIFF), which runs the professional structure with the I-League as its leading division. Earlier the biggest drawback for ISL clubs was that they could not qualify for regional competitions. But ISL’s success in its first three seasons has reinforced perceptions that AIFF has repeatedly missed an opportunity to develop the game in India on a larger scale. AIFF is now playing catch-up from a weakened position, which was made clear when current I-League champion, Bengaluru FC, won a franchise to join the ISL, the report adds.

In June, an agreement was reached with the regional Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to officially recognize the ISL, thus enabling the ISL winner to participate in the regional AFC Cup.

Yet, challenges remain. First and foremost, football must find a way to surpass (or at least successfully coexist with) the national passion for cricket. Cricket shows no sign of being displaced anytime soon given the continued popularity of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the most attended professional club cricket league in the world.

Even on television, IPL viewership has soared. According to data from Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc) India, the audience measurement agency, IPL (2017) games (59 matches) got a total of 1.24 billion impressions. ISL (2016), meanwhile, saw 237.64 million impressions for 61 matches. Impressions refer to the number of individuals in thousands of a target audience that viewed an event, averaged across minutes.

The other challenges for ISL right now are ticket prices as well as sell-out ratios. Rownan says that the average ticket price for ISL is Rs400 compared to Rs1,600 for IPL. Also, ISL sell-out ratio is 60.22%, while some global leagues like American National Football League, and English Premier League football have sell-out ratios of 96.39% and 95.10%, respectively. Sell-out ratio refers to total attendance as a percentage of total capacity of the stadium.

“IPL and ISL are at very different stages right now. IPL is an established property whereas ISL is still evolving. ISL clubs need to do the basics right for now, which include getting people into stadia, before they can start thinking of significant gate revenue," says Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer at Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions.

But ISL is here to stay. While its organizers will not allow it to fail, the recent developments further reinforce a growing sense of permanence for the league. The overall franchise is growing with two new teams and a longer-running competition for the 2017-18 season. There are now structures in place enabling teams to participate in regional club competitions. From 2019, Indian Super League winners are to play in AFC Cup qualifiers alongside I-League teams. There is a growing sense of collaboration with AIFF.

But investors and partners must be prepared to play a long game as the league is still a long way off from turning profitable. Ticket sales are small, clubs do not own their stadiums and foreign players and managers remain expensive routes to success and credibility. Initial estimates that investors could reap a return on investment within the competition’s first five years are proving to be ludicrously optimistic, the report adds.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com.

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