'There is no shortcut' - Lessons from the U.S. and China for a unified league in India

BFC Media

As the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has recommended granting the prestigious AFC Champions League spot to the Indian Super League (ISL) at the expense of the I-League, the discussion around the possibility of a 'unified' football league is bound to resurface.

This led to a question -- could India take league lessons from the United States and China? These are the only two major football nations in the world with scale and size comparable to India's, making travel and logistics cumbersome. The U.S. shares another challenge with India -- football is not the most popular sport in the country. We spoke to ESPN's resident experts Jeff Carlisle (ESPN's American soccer columnist) and John Duerden (ESPN FC's Asia correspondent) to understand how things work in the two countries.

We explored Indian football's problems and what it has in common with the two leagues and what an Indian unified league could hope to borrow from them.


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League format

MLS - The MLS, set up in 1996, has 24 teams, including three from Canada, with the season running from March to October. They are grouped in two divisions: the Western and Eastern Conferences. After October, the playoffs involve all teams competing in the MLS Cup, with the final game of the season determining the champion. There is no relegation/promotion.

CSL - Regular league system with 16 teams playing each other home and away. There are no conferences or playoffs, or a one-off final. Relegation/promotion exists.

Anything in common? - The I-league follows the CSL format, while the ISL is similar to the MLS (without conferences)

Lessons: Carlisle is not sure a conference system would work for India. "Conferences are used to save on travel, but also to foster regional rivalries. MLS has made some headway in terms of mindshare by marketing these rivalries. Conferences are a very American thing too. All of the other major sports have them. Would conferences work [in India]? It depends on if there are rivalries between cities in other sports? Or if there are intra-city rivalries that could be stoked."


Financial model and profitability

MLS - Very centralized. The league owns all the player contracts, and the owners are called "investor/operators" who run a team. Carlisle believes that this franchise model, unpopular in traditional footballing nations, has worked in the U.S. through committed owners, and very strategic planning, right down to the choice of cities they expand to. MLS also has a salary cap (around $4 million) with complex roster rules, which, Carlisle says, 'provides stability and growth'.

The league however, Carlisle said, had "nearly died" in its first five years around 2001 and says that some teams are still not making money. "(But) it's really about how you account for various things. I do think teams like Seattle, LA Galaxy, LAFC and Atlanta are profitable. Portland too, I suspect. The valuations for the teams have gone up for certain."

CSL - The Chinese government invests heavily in football and coupled with increase in attendance over the years, the CSL makes money from its media rights and its official partners and suppliers as sponsors. "There is a definite desire at the government level to make China a world power in football. And being China, this feeds to all the different levels of businesses getting involved, investing a lot of money and also from state and regional governments," says Duerden.

The sponsor value from CSL's official partners and suppliers has reportedly reached 600 million Yuan (INR 616 crores/ $ 90 million) in the 2017 season.The CSL and China Sports Media (CSM) -- current media rights owner -- reached an agreement to extend the original five-year contract to 10-years (2016-2025) and raise the price from 8 billion yuan (around INR 8000 crores/ $ 1.1 billion) to 11 billion yuan (about INR 11,000 crores/$ 1.6 billion) in January 2018.

Anything in common? - The single most common factor between the MLS and the ISL, Carlisle points out, is the relationship between the league and the country's federation. "Starting in 2002, MLS got into the commercial soccer rights business through a subsidiary called Soccer United Marketing (SUM). SUM basically handles the commercial rights for the US Soccer Federation, Mexico's games that are staged in the US, and it has also handled some stuff for CONCACAF. But it's a black box. No one really knows how much they make. Yet you've got some smart business people buying into MLS. SUM is viewed as a big reason why. Not everyone likes this relationship between SUM/MLS and the Federation, stating that it's a conflict of interest for a league to be so in bed with a governing body. I'd have to say they have a point."

Lessons: : Carlisle says the MLS model could be replicated, but you need a dedicated group of owners in for the long haul, willing to absorb losses. "MLS would likely not be around today if it weren't for Phil Anschutz, who at one point owned six of the then 10 teams (around 2004 or so). The ownership groups are much more diversified now, but he basically kept the league afloat. Not sure what the financial picture of the ISL is, but you can't have people with a short-term mentality."

Due to the massive financial support China receives from the government, it's hard to draw parallels with the CSL and India. But India could try out its own version of SUM - handling of the commercial rights. Despite the criticism against SUM, reports suggest it has given nearly $150 million surplus to the federation. While the Indian federation sold its commercial and marketing rights to a partner in 2010 for a sum of INR 700 crores (approx. $155 million, according to the prevalent exchange rate), there are no public records yet of profits made by the federation in the nine years since, and one of the club owners revealed earlier this year that virtually every club is running up massive losses, while batting for a unified league.


Popularity

MLS - The total attendance figures of the MLS were the highest in 2018, primarily due to Los Angeles FC joining the league adding 17 more matches to the programme. The average attendance saw a 1.1% decrease since 2017 though, but Atlanta United created a record for drawing its seventh 70,000-plus crowd of the season, finishing with an average of 53,002 over the season - the highest for a single team iin MLS history. The MLS has slowly grown in popularity over the years, but issues like promotion/relegation continue to divide fans. "There is a loud minority that thinks it will cure all ills. I'm not convinced. Others don't care and are happy to have a league to follow. MLS is now in its 24th season," Carlisle says.

What about broadcasters? Carlisle says the TV ratings are "not great", broadcasters pushing to bring in more star players.

CSL - Football is the No.1 sport in China, and CSL, 15 years in the mix, have set up the foundation for the league to grow. Coupled with the influx of big names like Javier Mascherano, Oscar, Paulinho, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Ramires, Yannick Carrasco and most recently Fabio Cannavaro (head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande), the total attendance figures and the average attendance has seen a significant rise since 2014

Even before the CSL pumped in its big money, Duerden believes that the CSL was "doing okay" "It is still relative in Asian terms. It was one of the better Asian leagues if not on par with the best ones: Japan and one or two of the west Asian leagues. But it was still reasonably good for Asia. There has always been a reasonable amount of money, facilities have been pretty good, stadiums pretty good. A lot of interest in local football, so there is a lot of media surrounding it. So, I think all the ingredients were there." There don't seem to be parallels between China and India ("different football cultures") because of the mass popularity of the sport in China.

Anything in common? - While football has to compete against cricket in India, the MLS has competition from basketball, American football, baseball, and ice hockey. In China, it's the lack of travelling away fans that India can identify with. "The distances are huge. And the government is also not a big fan of having large number of people gather together. It's a potential security threat. So, you just don't get many away fans," Duerden says

Lessons: Take the best of both worlds. Try and foster regional rivalries like the MLS. Since India has grown up watching European football, promotion and relegation would be something that fans would welcome. Identifying big names and trying to bring them to the league is a difficult option, but it's something for the long term.

Duerden sums it up well: "I think you have to realise that there is no shortcut to becoming good at football. I think now China are starting to realise this and are staring to look more towards the Japanese model of development, which takes time, organization and a lot of hard work. The money can help the league's profile and the standard in the short term, but you need to have a basic level in the long term."