The date is December 20th, 2014. Atlético de Kolkata (ATK) has just defeated Kerala Blasters with a scoreline of 1 – 0 in the final of the inaugural Indian Super League season. Mohammed Rafique was the lone goalscorer for ATK striking at the injury time of the second half to lift the trophy in front of over a 36,000 jam-packed crowd at the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai. Fast forward a few years to March 18th, 2023, ATK (now playing under the banner of ATK Mohun Bagan) has lifted the trophy again, winning against Bengaluru FC on penalties—however, the attendance for the final – a meager 11,879.
While many arguments can be made for the low capacity crowd – the size of the stadium, the long season of the ISL, and even the tendency for folks to prefer watching Football matches on their smartphones and smart TVs – only 12,000 crowd for the final of India’s premier football competition is a slap. There is no denying that Indian Super League is on a decline – so let’s look at the reason why that is the case.
- What is Indian Super League?
- Declining attendance of Indian Super League (ISL) matches
- Reasons behind the decline
- Silver lining – increasing TV & online viewership
What is Indian Super League?
The Indian Super League (ISL) is a professional football league in India that was founded in 2013. It is one of the most popular sports leagues in the country and features some of the best football talents from around the world. The league is structured in a similar way to other major football leagues, with a regular season followed by a playoff stage to determine the champion.
ATK Mohun Bagan is the latest champion of the Indian Super League, winning the final on March 18th, 2023.
Declining attendance of Indian Super League (ISL) matches
One of the most concerning aspects of the decline of the ISL is the decline in attendance at matches. The league started off with an average attendance of over 24,000 in its inaugural season, but this number has steadily declined over the years. In the 2023 season, the average attendance figures were at an all-time low of 13,545.
The ISL’s attendance figures have been consistently higher than those of the I-League (former premier club competition in the country). However, the gap between the two leagues has been narrowing in recent years, with the I-League’s average attendance figures increasing while the ISL’s figures decline.
|Total Attendance for the Season
|Average Attendance per Match
|Kerala Blasters FC
|ATK Mohun Bagan FC
|East Bengal FC
|2022-23 ISL Season; Source: Transfermarkt
Now compare this data with the inaugural season of the Indian Super League in 2014.
|Total Attendance for the Season
|Average Attendance per Match
|Kerala Blasters FC
|Atlético de Kolkata
|NorthEast United FC
|Mumbai City FC
|Delhi Dynamos FC
|FC Pune City
|2014 ISL Season Source: Transfermarkt
There is no doubt that there is declining interest in the Indian Super League. But what are the reasons behind it; let’s look into that.
Reasons behind the decline
The launch of the ISL in 2014 was met with much excitement and anticipation. The league promised to revolutionize Indian football by attracting top talent from around the world, and many high-profile players and coaches signed up for the inaugural season. The league was also able to attract large investments from Indian businesses, which helped to build infrastructure and market the league to fans.
The early seasons of the ISL were a huge success, with high TV ratings and attendance figures. The league was able to create a buzz around football in India that had not been seen before. However, in recent years, the league has struggled to maintain this momentum. Let’s look at some of the reasons for the same.
Lack of Quality Football & League’s inability to attract better foreign talents
The ISL’s waning popularity can be attributed to the decline in the standard of play. Despite being able to attract renowned football players from different parts of the globe during its launch, the league’s foreign signings have been inconsistent in recent years. This, combined with the league’s failure to cultivate top-notch Indian players, has significantly impacted the quality of play.
For instance, teams like Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa have struggled to perform well in recent seasons due to the dearth of skilled players. As a result, the league’s overall competitiveness has taken a hit, leading to disillusionment among fans with the quality of football being exhibited.
Heavy reliance on foreign players
The Indian Super League has increasingly become dependent on foreign players to carry the league’s teams, with many clubs prioritizing expensive foreign signings over developing local talent. This has resulted in a lack of focus on nurturing young Indian players and building a strong foundation for the league’s future.
The lack of opportunities given to young Indian players has hindered their growth and development, as they are often relegated to the sidelines in favor of more experienced foreign players. This approach has limited the pool of quality Indian players available for selection and has resulted in a dearth of local talent in the league.
The over-reliance on foreign players has led to a decrease in interest among Indian fans, who are looking for a league that showcases local talent and promotes the development of Indian football. With few Indian players making their mark in the ISL, fans are losing interest in a league that is seen as being dominated by foreign stars.
Poor Management of the league
Poor Management has also played a role in the decline of the Indian Super League. Some of the decisions made by the league have been questionable, leading to negative consequences for the league’s popularity.
One such decision was the expansion of the league to ten teams in the 2020-21 season, despite concerns about the availability of quality players and venues. This decision resulted in several matches being played in sub-standard facilities, leading to a poor fan experience and negative publicity for the league.
Another issue has been the inconsistent scheduling of matches, which has caused confusion among fans and led to a drop in TV ratings. This has also made it difficult for fans to plan and attend matches, further impacting the league’s attendance figures.
Furthermore, the league’s decision to hold matches behind closed doors during the COVID-19 pandemic has also hurt the league’s popularity. Without fans in attendance, the atmosphere at matches has been lackluster, and the league has struggled to maintain viewer interest.
Competition from the other leagues
The ISL has not only faced competition from other leagues in India but also from international leagues such as the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga, both of which have a significant following in India. The availability of live matches and highlights from these leagues on Indian television and streaming platforms has made it harder for the ISL to capture the attention of football fans. Furthermore, the popularity of these leagues has led to a growing preference among Indian fans for European football over the ISL.
Silver lining – increasing TV & online viewership
The decline in attendance and popularity of the Indian Super League is a cause for concern, but there is a silver lining. Despite the decline in stadium attendance, the league has seen a significant increase in TV and online viewership in recent years.
According to data from BARC and Hotstar, the Indian Super League’s TV viewership has steadily increased since its inaugural season in 2014, going from 74.7 million to 211 million in 2021. This significant increase in TV viewership indicates a growing interest in football in India and the league’s ability to draw viewers through TV broadcasting.
Moreover, the league’s online streaming viewership has also seen a rise, with 41 million viewers in the second season and reaching a peak of 168 million viewers in 2020. Even though the streaming viewership slightly dropped to 146 million viewers in 2021, it still demonstrates the league’s success in reaching a broader audience through online streaming platforms.
While the increase in TV and online viewership is a positive sign for the league, it still remains a challenge to sustain its popularity and attract more fans to the stadiums in the future. Nevertheless, the league’s success in attracting viewership through TV and online streaming provides hope for the future of football in India.
|TV Viewership (in millions)
|Streaming Viewership (in millions)
|Source: BARC & Hotstar
The Indian Super League (ISL) has experienced a decline in attendance in recent years, with the average attendance figures dropping from over 24,000 in the inaugural season to an all-time low of 13,545 in the 2023 season. While the league promised to revolutionize Indian football by attracting top talent from around the world, the league has struggled to maintain the initial momentum in recent years.
However, the ISL still has a lot of potential to bounce back and regain its popularity by addressing these issues and working towards improving the standard of play. The league needs to focus on improving the quality of football, marketing the league better, and attracting more fans to the stadiums to watch the matches live. The success of ATK Mohun Bagan in the 2023 season, despite the low attendance figures, shows that there is still life left for the ISL to succeed in the future.
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