September 28, 2021

New sponsors for East Bengal and a potential ISL move – What next for I-League?

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If the Kolkata giants were to join the ISL, the I-League could suffer massive dips in viewership and interest…

As the news of East Bengal‘s new sponsors filters in, speculation on whether the club will actually take part in the Indian Super League (ISL) in the upcoming season has gathered pace.

In an address on Wednesday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stated that East Bengal will play in the ISL from the upcoming season.

“The problem has now been solved. Now East Bengal will play in ISL,” she said.

If such a move does come to fruition, a glance at what it means for the I-League might not be a pretty sight. The Kolkata giants’ potential entry into ISL is a development that ends up with both the league and the club coming out as winners. However, this could mean Kolkata could end up without a club in the I-League.

Having finally roped in new investors (Shree Cement), East Bengal will naturally make an effort to play in the top-tier of professional football in India. In case Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL) now decides to open up a tender for a new club, East Bengal would be expected to pick it up. 

East Bengal officials have publicly made it clear that they want to play in the ISL from the 2020-21 season and it is something that fans of the club will now expect, having sorted their financial situation out.

While playing in the ISL will mean East Bengal are back in the top tier of Indian football, such a move will also see the viewership and interest in ISL increase manifold, thanks to the legion of East Bengal supporters.

Not to mention the possibility of staging the ‘famed’ Kolkata derby under ISL’s aegis. The Kolkata derby, the grand stage where the rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal unfolds, is without doubt the grandest fixture in the Indian football calendar.

Even though the ISL was the more glamorous league, the I-League always boasted featuring two of the biggest clubs in India in Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Understandably, the Kolkata derby used to the I-League’s crown jewel.

Now, Mohun Bagan have merged with ATK and have entered the ISL. If East Bengal follow suit, the I-League will have been dealt a bodyblow.

Within an extremely short span of time, the two biggest crowdpullers would have left I-League and have taken with them the relevance the league still had in the minds of the hardened Indian football fans.

Not only will the attendance figures for the I-League fall (if and when the spectators are let back into the stadiums), but the TV viewership will see a dramatic decline as well.

Then there is the matter of what it means for the rest of the teams in the I-League. It is no secret that with both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in the I-League stable, the voice of the I-League clubs was amplified a lot especially when it came to demand for the retention of I-League’s continental spot, better broadcast standards among other things.

Then there is also the possibility of not having any club from Kolkata in the I-League for the first time ever. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) have already brought in Delhi-based Sudeva FC after Mohun Bagan merged with ATK. Even if East Bengal leave, there might not be a direct replacement.

So, the next season, I-League will have 11 teams before Visakhapatnam-based Sreenidhi joins in the 2021-22 season.

It means, only way a Kolkata-based club can play in the I-League is if either Bhowanipore FC or Mohammedan Sporting win the 2nd Division I-League which will be concluded before the upcoming season.

Of course, all this is contingent on East Bengal’s ISL entry. However, judging by the developments, it would not be a far-fetched possibility.