Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bend it like IPL
Abhishek Chakraborty | Updated: Apr 19 2014
Photo: Filmme.in
We have seen them in cricket, badminton and hockey in India. Now, it’s time for the football fraternity to jump on to the ‘league’ bandwagon. On April 13, Indian football got a leg-up when eight franchises of the Indian Super League (ISL)—the forthcoming, Indian Premier League (IPL)-style tournament—were announced. The promoters of the ISL—IMG Reliance and Star India—unveiled the names of the stakeholders that included former Indian cricket captains Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, besides Bollywood actors Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor and John Abraham, among others.
Backed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the apex body for the management of the game in the country, the glamour-rich ISL is going to see a host of well-known football players from across the globe, including former French great Robert Pires and former Sweden and Arsenal player Fredrik Ljungberg. The organisers have reportedly received positive responses from over 30 interested parties to its ‘invitation to bid’ tender notice so far. It is being said the winning bidders paid a franchise fee ranging between R12 crore and R15 crore annually for 10 years. Also, an additional R2 crore must be apparently spent by each team in the first year to develop the sport at the grassroots levels.

Ranked 145th in the world by Fifa, India, the ‘sleeping giant’ of world football, it seems, has finally woken up from its slumber, but not before everyone trying to grab a slice of the high-profile league pie. Tendulkar, who retired from international cricket last year after a 24-year-long career, has become the co-owner of the Kochi team along with PVP Ventures. Headed by Prasad V Potluri, PVP Ventures is one of the largest investors of the country in the media and entertainment industry and is listed on the BSE and the NSE. PVP was one of the bidders for the Hyderabad team of IPL in 2012.

Ganguly, also an ardent football fan, has tied up with four entities—Atletico de Madrid, Harshvardhan Neotia, Sanjiv Goenka and Utsav Parekh—to bag Kolkata, one of the most sought-after franchises. While Atletico de Madrid is the third-most supported club in Spain, Neotia is the head of Ambuja Neotia Group, a Kolkata-based real estate company. Goenka is the chairman of the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group and Parekh is the non-executive, non-independent chairman at SMIFS Capital Markets.

The Mumbai franchise went to actor Ranbir Kapoor, a keen follower of football and an avid fan of FC Barcelona, and Bimal Parekh, a well-known chartered accountant. Actor Salman Khan bagged the Pune franchise along with Kapil Wadhawan and Dheeraj Wadhawan of the Wadhawan Group.

Old game, new format
The two-month long extravaganza will start around September and will have a total of 61 matches, which will include 56 home and away matches, two home and away semi-finals and one final. So far, 10 possible cities have been identified by the organising committees as possible venues or centres for the teams, including football-crazy places such as Kolkata, Kochi and Goa. Each team will get to play games in their home and other cities, except the semi-final and final.

As per Kushal Das, general secretary, AIFF, the players will be selected on the basis of a draft system similar to what happens in IPL. “Each team will have 22 players, which must include a marquee player, seven international players and Indian players. We are also in talks with international footballers like Fabio Cannavaro and Xavi Parez, but nothing has been finalised yet,” he adds.

The organisers are also considering a few options for entertainment, but their focus will be more on cultural events. “Unlike cricket, football doesn’t have many breaks. So there won’t be any cheerleaders, who can be seen in IPL. However, we have plans to organise small cultural events before the start of a game and during the half-time breaks,” says Das.

Money’s worth
The proposed soccer league comes at a time when established IPL franchises are struggling to get sponsors on board. Coca-Cola, which held the pouring rights for Mumbai Indians for three years till the last season of the cricketing tournament, did not renew its contract this year. Be it Kings XI Punjab or the GMR-owned Delhi Daredevils, or Sunrisers Hyderabad, each of them is struggling to clinch the ‘right’ deals. So what’s in store for the newly formed ISL?

Abraham clarifies: “It’s the first year of the league, so it might be difficult to get sponsors at the moment, but I hope that with time and as the league progresses, we will start getting more. We need to understand where football stands at this point of time in the country. To make it one of the most loved and watched sports like cricket, it will take some time.”

However, Videocon’s Venugopal Dhoot, co-owner of the Goa franchise, is optimistic about the league and feels football’s global approach will help get sponsors and advertisers. “Worldwide, soccer has three large sources of constant revenue: central sponsorships, which include broadcasting revenue; local sponsorships, which include club-level marketing tie-ups; and match-day revenues, which include gate receipts, F&B, etc. In addition to these, elements like academy revenues and players’ trading become a big part of revenue generation for the clubs. Our focus would be to grow each one of these,” he adds.

Dhoot believes that if the league can provide high-quality matches, getting people out of their homes won’t be much of a challenge, which will eventually lead to more sponsors. “While soccer might not have the fan following to compete with cricket, the level of interest in the metros and urban centres is quite amazing. Whether it’s Fifa World Cup or Euro Cup at odd hours, youngsters have in the past thronged clubs, pubs and hotels to watch these soccer matches,” he adds.

The organisers would be looking at sponsors who have the passion and belief for the potential of soccer in India. “We have several brands of FMCG, beverages and other consumer businesses to choose from, including some of our own group brands. There are already several corporates, including the ones that missed the opportunity to own a club, who would be interested to have an association with the event,” says Dhoot.

Some like Bimal Parekh, co-owner of Mumbai, are banking on their star owners (Ranbir Kapoor in his case) for the team’s promotional activities. “Ranbir himself is a brand. He is not only passionate about the game, but plays football every Sunday for two hours. So it is surely going to help us. We will soon start discussing our advertising plans with Kapoor,” says Parekh. The franchise has hired three agencies to look after its marketing division. “Hockey is the game of grandfathers, cricket the game of fathers and soccer the game of sons. So we have a long way to go,” says Parekh. They have plans to merchandise T-shirts, mugs, etc.

The Delhi franchise owners believe the Fifa World Cup, which will begin in June this year, will also leave an impact on ISL. Franchise owner Sameer Manchanda of Den Network says, “Look at the brands that are sponsoring the World Cup. There’s Adidas, Nike, Turkish Airlines, Eithad Airlines, Amazon. And all these are big in India. So they will definitely like to pitch in for an Indian league. Football doesn’t have commercial breaks like cricket, so the stadiums will be full of hoardings for sponsors.”

PVP Ventures is working on models like ticket revenue, shared revenue, sponsor revenue, but nothing has been finalised yet. “We still have six months for the league to start, so we will plan accordingly,” says a spokesperson.

Passion at play
Cricket has always been a craze in India, and the groups/companies that came forward to launch the IPL in 2007 took a logical step. They were quite sure that the returns would be higher. However, that’s not the case when it comes to football. Though it has a fair amount of fan base, football is still played in few states like West Bengal, Goa, some states in the north-east of India and Kerala.

Abraham says he bought the Guwahati franchise because of the cultural influence the sport has had in the region. “I bought the Guwahati franchise because football is still the primary sport in the north-east. A football match in Shillong has an average of 15,000 spectators. So my focus now is to make football a pan-India game,” he says.

Despite having a busy schedule in Bollywood, Abraham plans to devote a lot of time in promoting his team and the league. “I am not just the face of my franchise, I am also the owner. So I will promote the team to the fullest.” Commenting on whether his Bollywood commitments would hamper his efforts, Abraham says, “I’m not a factory who acts in four to five films a year. My last film was Madras Cafe and my next release is due only in 2015. So I have plenty of time to devote for my other passion, which is football.”

Delhi franchise owner Manchanda believes football is a global game and no sport in the world can match its fan following. “IPL is in its seventh year and football is just taking off here. The broadcast rights for IPL go for billion dollars because everyone knows there are viewers. But as football is just kickstarting in India, the fees would be far less,” he adds.

As per industry estimates, IPL sponsors Vodafone had paid R55 crore, while associate sponsors such as Amazon had come in for R25 crore. Some of the bigger FMCG companies such as Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and Procter & Gamble (P&G) continued to stay out of the tournament this year because of the high costs involved.

Videocon’s Dhoot is of the view that, commercially, football in India needs the right amount of investment, commitment and patience in the first few years. “We are focused at this point in investing at the grassroots level, training facilities and marketing of the sport to ensure we have both high-quality football and attention of the consumers,” he says.

The Goa franchise owners are even prepared for further investments in the initial years as they are sure of returns once the league starts. “Once we achieve this objective, we believe returns would be commensurate in form of sponsorships, academies, gate receipts and several other marketing tie-ups,” says Dhoot. Dattaraj Salgaocar, Shrinivas V Dempo and Dhoot are behind the franchise rights for Goa.

Reaching out
The cumulative reach of the popular IPL grew from 102 million in season 1 to 123 million, 144 million, 161 million, 163 million and 215 million in seasons 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, respectively, as per data collated by TAM Media Research. Though a number of leagues have copied its format so far, none of them has been able to generate the figures achieved by IPL. So what happens to ISL, when it starts later this year?

The AIFF is working hard to make the league a success. It plans to upgrade the stadiums to international standards and use high-tech cameras for a better viewing experience. “The first thing we are doing is to ensure the stadiums are of international standards. Similar to what happens in a top football match, we will be using 12 cameras so that we can gain as many eyeballs and spectators to the game of football as possible,” says Das of AIFF.

Das believes the reason why IPL and cricket are a success in India is due to better infrastructure. “Infrastructure makes the spectator experience better. The whole endeavour in ISL is to make football better watched and enjoyed,” he adds.

Srinivas Dempo, co-owner of the Goa franchise, believes dividing the teams into states will help the franchises, as it will create a set fan base. “Like IPL, the ISL has eight teams, representing eight different cities and set bases of fans, unlike the I-League, in which Goa itself has four teams, and the viewership gets divided,” he explains.

Some like Kapil Wadhawan, chairman of Rajesh Wadhawan Group and co-owner of the Pune franchise, believe that the new league would offer opportunities to millions of Indian youths to make their dreams a reality. “It is important that we provide India’s youth access to localised sporting action. Football is the world’s most favourite game and it attracts huge interest among Indians. However, we do not have a domestic forum to bring this interest to life. ISL will provide this long-awaited platform to bring together India’s football enthusiasts,” he adds.

The ISL, some critics say, will revolutionise the world’s most-watched sport in India. But in a country, which sleeps, eats and drinks cricket, is it going to be a smooth ride for a event revolving around a second-rung sport like football? Also, the big question is, can ISL become another success story a la the extremely popular, cash-rich and glamorous IPL? Can franchises make the most out of the tournament when other sporting leagues like the Hockey India League or the Indian Badminton League have failed to rake in the moolah?

Abraham says Indian football needs to overcome a number of challenges before it can even come close to a model like IPL. “There are a number of challenges that the country needs to overcome. Unlike cricket, football is at a distant second when it comes to popularity in India. So, first of all, we will need to raise the standards of the domestic games,” says the actor.

Abraham believes the ‘real’ success for ISL will come only in the sixth or seventh edition when Indian players will play for international clubs. “The heroes of the sport are the players and spectators. The real success will come only when we will get to see our footballers playing for international clubs. That will be called an achievement,” he explains.

Agrees a spokesperson of PVP Ventures, co-owner of the Kochi franchise. “It is going to take a couple of years to make ISL a brand like IPL. However, we are happy to be with ISL, as sport has been an area of focus for us,” said the person on the condition of anonymity. PVP ventures is also the owner of Hyderabad Hotshots in the Indian Badminton League.

Ganguly also hopes the ISL will be a beginning for the revival of football in the country, but cautions on its impact on Indian football. “A very positive approach has been taken… It’s too early to say if it will become a mainstream football (event) in India,” he was quoted as saying in the media recently.

Abraham has been promoting Indian football across the world. He was roped in as the brand ambassador for UEFA European Football Championship 2008. It was this passion for the game that led to his decision to buy a team in ISL. “You have to look at two ways when it comes to football. First is its financial aspect and the second, passion. I am passionate about football and that’s why I am here in ISL,” he adds.

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