Long read: What should NSL learn from ISL?
The ISL and NSL have been strategically designed to capitalize on the burgeoning prospects of football. Significant investments have been poured into these leagues and teams, dedicated to their promotion and development
The Nepal Super League’s (NSL) second season has already commenced. The inaugural season of the NSL received acclaim from Nepali football fans, setting a new standard in Nepali sports in terms of investment and entertainment. The aim of the second season is to further elevate standards, focusing on increased fan engagement within stadiums.
Meanwhile, the Indian Super League (ISL) in our neighboring nation has initiated its 10th season. The ISL has propelled Indian football onto the global stage. Despite challenges, the journey of the ISL offers valuable lessons for Nepali football and the NSL. Given the proximity between Nepal and India, there's much to learn from the progress of the Indian ISL.
Indian and Nepali football situation
Comparing the football scenarios in India and Nepal reveals stark differences. India holds the 102nd position in FIFA rankings, while Nepal is placed at 175th. Currently, all South Asian countries rank below the 100th position. This indicates the pressing need for significant development in football across South Asia. In a recent AFC Cup playoff match, Indian club Mohun Bagan secured victory over Nepali side Machhindra, underscoring the considerable improvement required in Nepali football on both global and South Asian platforms.
The Indian football journey has been marked by challenges en route to their present standing. They are yet to reach their team’s zenith. Nepal stands to gain valuable insights from our Indian counterparts. The strategic progression of Indian football should serve as a significant lesson for Nepali football.
History of leagues
Looking at the history of leagues, the ISL started in 2015 under the aegis of the Reliance Group. Presently, the ISL stands as the driving force reshaping Indian football. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) granted Reliance the right to host the franchise-based ISL in 2014. Initially, the ISL functioned as an unofficial tournament within Indian football for five years. The AIFF struggled to establish a unified national league structure between the I-League and ISL. Eventually, the ISL assumed the premier position in Indian football only in the 2019-20 season. Additionally, provisions were made by the AIFF for promotion and relegation between I-League and ISL clubs in Indian football.
Nepal faces a similar situation with two major football leagues. The long-standing A Division league has lacked investment and failed to capture the enthusiasm of Nepali audiences. The NSL has articulated its ambitions clearly, focusing on significant investment in the game. It aims to engage fans and stakeholders alike with riveting football. The NSL is in an unspoken competition to claim the mantle of Nepal’s leading league.
In 2022, NSL encountered a critical juncture when teams from the A Division league challenged the legality of NSL operations. This led to All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) canceling the NSL season for 2022 and subsequently terminating the contract with NSL. This political entanglement raised questions about the NSL’s continuity. Swift action by NSL resulted in a new long-term contract with ANFA, allowing NSL to coexist with the A Division league in Nepal. With a negotiated calendar of just 54 days, the second season of NSL 2023-24 is shaping the football landscape in Nepal.
It’s evident that business leaders in both nations are driving football promotion. NSL needs to assert its ambitions to become Nepal’s premier football league and rally ANFA’s support on this journey.
How league economy works
The ISL and NSL have been strategically designed to capitalize on the burgeoning prospects of football. Significant investments have been poured into these leagues and teams, dedicated to their promotion and development.
Within the ISL framework, each club receives a share from the central league revenue pool, generated through sponsorship and broadcasting deals. The 9th edition of the league raked in approximately 400 crores in revenue. However, this substantial figure is often overshadowed by the expenses incurred by the league and clubs to maintain high footballing standards. Presently, most ISL teams report losses of around InRs 300m per season, culminating in a staggering cumulative loss of over InRs 2bn by the upcoming 23-24 season. The financial situation poses a significant challenge for ISL clubs, many of whom heavily rely on owners for financial sustenance as the league itself is not self-sustaining.
Despite these financial struggles, the ISL has ascended to become the world’s fourth-largest football league. Yet, this achievement is underlined by the extensive investments made by both leagues and clubs to tap into the vast Indian football market. As the league progresses, it holds the potential to elevate the Indian football scene to an international standard in the years to come.
In contrast, NSL teams operate independently in managing and running the tournament. The short two-month window poses a formidable challenge for both teams and leagues. As the second season approaches, clarity on the calendar system and revenue distribution remains uncertain. Teams receive approximately Rs 10m as prize money, while they claim to incur expenses of around Rs 20m for the 23-24 season. This translates to a collective expenditure of nearly Rs 200m for two months of footballing entertainment, illustrating a significant investment from private partners in the football landscape. The league must assure these private partners of potential returns on their investment. Such a substantial financial commitment necessitates the need for assurance to enable long-term decisions in the league. NSL requires adept negotiations with authorities, stakeholders, and the audience to navigate these challenges successfully.
Training and resources
The ISL has been lauded by established players for the improvements in infrastructure and exposure it has provided, facilitating advancements in their football careers. Since its inception in 2014, each ISL season has attracted high-quality foreign players to competing teams. However, beyond star players, the emphasis on cultivating skilled coaches is paramount for sustainable talent development. The focus on talent development programs remains crucial for long-term football progress. Notably, the ISL has consistently contributed to nurturing Indian talents, a pivotal step in transforming the national talent pool. Exposure to foreign coaches and players is instrumental in raising football standards.
Similarly, the NSL has featured international players in its lineups, notably African and European talents in its inaugural season. The NSL successfully scouted talents such as Manish Dangi, Ayush Ghalan, Bishal Sunar, among others. While Nepal possesses numerous local talents in football, platforms like the NSL are crucial for their empowerment. NSL clubs frequently engage Indian and some European coaches as well. Integrating Nepalese talents with foreign play styles is expected to refine gameplay significantly. It is imperative to introduce prominent Asian football talents into the tournament.
Nepal’s development of training facilities and stadiums is also a pressing need. The absence of international-standard training facilities dedicated to sports training is a notable gap. The fact that NSL will exclusively utilize the Kathmandu-based Dashrath Stadium for the entire tournament highlights the inadequacies in stadiums and training facilities across the nation. Substantial resources need to be allocated to establish international-standard gameplay facilities. NSL has the potential to elevate game standards and the tournament in the forthcoming years by implementing enhanced training plans and facilities for players.
Engaging local fanbase and football culture
The aspirations of Nepali sports fans are immense and deeply rooted. They celebrate sporting events like the World Cup as grand festivals, yet their appetite for football primarily leans towards European leagues. However, this doesn’t diminish the fervent support of Nepali football fans for their national scene. Presently, there’s a considerable void in Nepali football, and the Nepal Super League holds immense promise to fill this void. While matching the level of European leagues may not be feasible, there’s substantial potential for growth as the league matures and talents evolve, offering a significant scope for Nepali football.
In the expansive market of India, the ISL has swiftly risen to become the world’s fourth-largest football league within just a decade. With a relatively short history, Indian football is poised for substantial expansion. As the industry matures, Indian football will likely make notable strides on the international stage. The 2022-23 season recorded an average attendance of 12,000 per match, although certain stadiums witnessed meager attendance, with less than 20 percent capacity filled. There remains considerable untapped potential for the growth of Indian football. ISL has invigorated Indian football fans, enabling regular match attendance and fostering a vibrant matchday atmosphere beneficial for both spectators and players.
NSL has begun the journey of promoting teams across Nepal. The official A Division has struggled to engage regional football from various parts of the country. However, NSL lacks in local fan engagement. In the inaugural NSL season, teams failed to establish a close connection with the city names they represented. Limited activation events and engagement activities were observed, failing to attract local support. The integration of a home-and-away format in the second season remains unfulfilled, despite the potential for every city to host matches in football stadiums. Significant investments, around Rs 2m, are required to prepare these grounds for games.
Perhaps NSL is not ready to commit to such investments, or it might not be commercially viable at this stage. Each city team needs to demonstrate their commitment to playing in their home city, a considerable investment in terms of operations and management. City authorities and local audiences must display interest in hosting these games, which could enhance fan morale and boost local businesses. This presents a substantial opportunity to engage football fans across Nepal’s regions. Engaging with fans and communities at the grassroots level is pivotal in cultivating a robust fan culture.
Sponsorship and media engagement
Securing sponsorships is crucial for the long-term sustainability of these tournaments. Such events necessitate substantial financial investments to ensure the viability of football entertainment. Football commands a massive audience both in stadiums and on TV screens, yet the tournaments must demonstrate financial viability to sustain themselves.
However, in comparison to the more popular cricketing scene, sponsors exhibit reluctance in the football domain. The ISL, after a decade-long partnership with Hero, faces its tenth year without a title sponsor. Teams primarily rely on financial support from parent business groups, major business conglomerates, and celebrities from the world of sports and Bollywood. Betting platforms have also entered ISL through surrogate sponsorships. Cricket holds a strong foothold in India, with sponsors heavily favoring events like the IPL. Yet, as football garners more excitement and attention, it is expected to attract the sponsorship it deserves in due course.
Viacom18, a Reliance subsidiary, secured the media rights for ISL from the 23-24 season in a deal worth over InRs 5.5bn for two years. Although significantly smaller than the massive InRs 40bn annual IPL rights, this deal provides Reliance with control over broadcasting and promotion, allowing them to expand the football empire according to their terms. Viacom’s JioCinemas already possesses experience in live streaming major events like the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ and the TATA IPL. This presents an opportunity for Indian football fans to experience world-class streaming for ISL matches.
In Nepal, leading corporate entities have heavily invested in teams and the league, aiming to showcase their brands to the vast football fan base across the country. However, the withdrawal of title sponsor Khukuri for this NSL season has created a significant void in attracting sponsor interest. The sponsors’ focus has shifted to the success of Nepali cricket. NSL seeks long-term partners committed to developing the foundational aspects of football in Nepal, transcending the culture of celebrating only success to securing partners supporting the core development of Nepalese football.
Sponsorship opportunities heavily rely on extensive media reach. However, Nepal has limited options for media rights. Himalaya TV will serve as the official broadcaster for the current NSL season, following AP1 HD television’s role in the inaugural edition. Established media houses in Nepal typically pay limited attention to the sports industry.
MDAC Sports secured broadcasting rights for the Martyr’s Memorial Leagues, aired on Space 4K Television and its online platforms. Kantipur HD and Action Sports are other prominent names in Nepali sports broadcasting. However, our broadcasting is still striving to meet international standards, an aspect that will likely evolve with the emergence of tournaments like NSL, catering to market demands.
Live broadcasting in Nepal presents its fair share of challenges, demanding real-time action-packed telecasting and sophisticated production. As tournaments like NSL gain traction, the production and broadcasting scene is expected to evolve to meet market demands, despite the current disparities from international standards.
Football boasts a passionate fan base in Nepal, making it an attractive sport for sponsors. As NSL gains traction and local-level activation events draw audiences and sponsors, participation from local fans will further pique sponsor interest. NSL is anticipated to solidify into a compelling football franchise in Nepal, attracting increased private and foreign investments into Nepali football and other sports. For NSL, teams, and partners, a serious initial commitment to invest and develop the Nepali football scene during the initial challenging years will be imperative.
Extend global partnerships
The ISL has forged a strategic partnership with the Premier League, receiving crucial support for the development of the Indian League and its clubs. European clubs have also made a notable impact in Indian football, exemplified by the City Football Group’s investment in Mumbai City FC—a significant milestone in Indian football. This substantial global interest signifies Indian football’s potential to garner worldwide attention and potentially evolve into a profitable enterprise at the scale of the IPL as it continues to mature.
The influence of international support has been instrumental in propelling ISL and Indian football to attain this level of global competitiveness. For Nepal’s football development journey, exploring international partnerships is crucial. Collaborations with Indian clubs, players, and leagues present a starting point. The ongoing NSL season features multiple Indian and foreign players and coaches engaged with clubs. Similar to the ISL and Premier League partnerships, establishing long-term strategic collaborations will be pivotal for the NSL’s and Nepali football community’s development.
In a historic moment marking the 132-year history of the Durand Cup, the oldest existing football tournament in Asia, the competition included three foreign South Asian teams invited from Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. Tribhuvan Army proudly represented the national flag in this prestigious tournament. Additionally, the recently concluded Birat Gold Cup saw participation from international teams from India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. Gold Cup events across Nepal and India regularly invite teams, fostering interactions and sports collaborations crucial for the growth of the footballing community.
Expanding partnerships to both professional and grassroots levels is essential to provide local talents with the necessary grooming to shine on the global stage. Such collaborations can enable the nurturing of homegrown talent and enhance the footballing landscape in Nepal, promoting its visibility and competitiveness on an international scale.
Engaging grassroots junior leagues and youth development
Grassroots development serves as the cornerstone for sports evolution, nurturing local talents from an early age. Tournaments like NSL and ISL significantly influence how young talents perceive sports, providing them with platforms to showcase their skills.
ISL deserves credit for fostering a profound love for the game and offering emerging talents a globally competitive stage. The league’s academy system plays a pivotal role in grassroots development. Each ISL club boasts youth academies and developmental programs. Clubs nationwide are fiercely competing to secure young talents. Bengaluru FC, backed by JSW Sports, is renowned for its professional approach, housing the state-of-the-art AIFF and AFC-accredited JSW Sporting Complex and Academy. Similarly, Tata-backed Jamshedpur FC operates the AIFF 4-star accredited Tata Football Academy (TFA) and forged a partnership with La Liga giants Atletico Madrid in 2018, focusing on youth and grassroots development, highlighting clubs' vested interests in nurturing talent at the grassroots level.
Reliance Foundation, the owners of ISL, through their engagement in Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL), host India's largest and most inclusive U21 youth football tournament, signifying their commitment to fostering the entire football ecosystem in India. These initiatives provide exposure to young Indian talents. The Next Gen Cup, a collaboration between the Premier League, Indian Super League, and South Africa’s Premier Soccer League, serves as a gateway for young Indian footballers to compete against overseas academy teams, offering invaluable experiences that challenge their skills against top-notch opposition. This international collaboration facilitates talent development and fortifies the future of Indian football.
From an economic standpoint, investing in academies to develop players is more sustainable than purchasing ready-made players. National leagues eventually rely on homegrown talent to bolster sports growth.
Nepal witnessed the ninth edition of the Coca-Cola Cup Inter School National Football Tournament in 2017, a significant national-level grassroots footballing event engaging the school-level football scene. However, there’s a scarcity of similar national-level grassroots activities to engage football talents.
While the first season of NSL provided a platform for young talents like Ghalan and Dangi to shine nationally, NSL is yet to materialize its intentions regarding grassroots development. Despite its proclaimed grassroots motives, neither the clubs nor the league have taken tangible actions. The league and clubs’ credibility remains in question, especially with the breaching of the previous agreement with ANFA, which cited the lack of grassroots initiatives by NSL. Active grassroots involvement by NSL and clubs is pivotal in garnering mass audience support.
The absence of significant grassroots efforts remains a noticeable gap. NSL and clubs must actively engage in grassroots development to establish themselves as a credible entity in the Nepali football scene. Thus far, NSL and clubs have primarily functioned as entertainment platforms without a significant focus on uplifting Nepal’s footballing landscape. Without robust grassroots development, both NSL and Nepal’s footballing growth remain stagnant.
Renowned Indian footballer Jhingan highlighted the gradual pathway for Indian football to reach the World Cup stage, emphasizing that there are no shortcuts, only a challenging yet achievable journey. The AIFF has outlined a detailed action plan, ‘Indian Football 2040’, which sets ambitious goals to propel Indian football onto the global stage. With the government’s concerted efforts through initiatives like the Fit India movement and Khelo India program, India has laid a solid foundation to elevate its position in the world of sports.
Drawing parallels to the widespread support garnered by the IPL across India, Nepal, and globally, there exists ample potential for football promotion. Nepal stands to learn significant lessons from India’s sporting landscape, with aspirations to emerge as a formidable force on the global stage someday. However, realistic advancement won’t materialize without substantial changes.
The NSL has firmly established itself within Nepal’s sports discourse. NSL, alongside its teams and partners, possesses robust financial capabilities and holds the potential to create an unprecedented sporting experience for Nepali audiences, potentially dominating the country’s sporting scene. The league and its teams stand at a vantage point to capitalize on the enthusiastic Nepali sporting audience, provided they continue to invest and harness this fervor.
March 1, 2024, 1:29 p.m.
March 1, 2024, 9:18 a.m.
Feb. 29, 2024, 1:26 p.m.
Feb. 29, 2024, 11:46 a.m.
Feb. 29, 2024, 10:20 a.m.
Feb. 28, 2024, 12:40 p.m.
Feb. 28, 2024, 11:41 a.m.
Feb. 28, 2024, 9:56 a.m.