Devesh Gupta

The Great Indian Football Gamble

Why Indian football should take heart from the launch of the Indian Super League.

The Great Indian Football Gamble

This is not cricket. This story is about Indian football, which even the diehard optimist can only describe as sad what with its low popularity and hardly any viewership for domestic games. It does not help that India is ranked 145th in the world rankings (of the 207 nations playing the game). It also does not help that ineffective federations and a huge policy paralysis hold up things. But there seems to be a silver lining around all this gloom.

Action replay

India was seen as a force in Asia in the '50s and '60s and was among top 20 football playing nations. The golden era of Indian football was in between 1951-62 when it won several international championships including the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games and stood fourth at the 1956 Olympics.


It is not as if Indian football clubs have nobody to back them. Some examples stand out. Kingfisher sponsors East Bengal Club, while McDowell's sponsors Mohun Bagan Athletic Club. Aircel is the title sponsor for the Shillong Lajong Club, Airtel is the biggest sponsor of the I League. There are others that are sponsored by companies such as ONGC and Coca Cola.

Says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice-president, marketing, United Breweries, "We invest in players, their coaching, upgradation of training facilities, gymnasiums, digital promotions (East Bengal has the largest social media fan page in India)." Anupam Vasudev, chief marketing officer, Aircel, says, "We aim to encourage the current crop of young talent and shape them into future football stars. Shillong Lajong FC is Shillong's pride and their huge fan base helps Aircel engage with the youth and build local connect in the region."

According to a GroupM report, on-ground sponsorships in Indian football increased from Rs 85 million to Rs 142 million between 2008 and 2013. Brands like Bajaj Allianz and Vodafone do a lot of activity around the sport to connect with the consumer. The former organises a grassroots contact programme, Allianz Junior Football Camp. In 2013 alone, it claims to have targeted 850 schools across 120 cities, reaching out to more than 43,000 kids. Some of the kids - after being selected - train with Bayern Munich in Germany. Says Rituraj Bhattacharjee, head, market management, Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance, "We wanted to connect to parents and children." Some of the other independent football programs run by brands are Aircel Campus tournament, Airtel Rising Star, Street Children Football World Cup and the Vodafone GFDC Rising Stars Football Festival 2013.

Some of the popular football names of those times were Talimaran Ao (Indian captain in its first official game in 1948 Olympics), Sailendra Nath Manna (captain and defender), PK Banerjee and Subimal Chuni Goswami (strikers) and Neville D'Souza (captain). The game has a history of more than 100 years in India with the Durand Cup being launched in 1888 and Mohun Bagan Athletic Club formed in 1889. IFA Shield, another popular tournament was established in 1893.

What went wrong with Indian football - post the '60s till about the '90s - could fill a book. Then came a resurgence of sorts with players like Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri attaining celeb status, when both signed professional football contracts with England's Bury Town and Portugal's Sporting Lisbon respectively.

Some minor achievements too came the country's way in the form of the Nehru Cup (2007, 2009 and 2012) and a qualification to the AFC Asian Cup (2011). That, however, didn't stop many clubs like Mahindra United Football Club, JCT Mills and Viva Kerala from shutting down recently. No media coverage, dwindling audiences, hardly any sponsors, lackadaisical support from the federations and increasing costs pushed football into a hole. But things are changing now.

The super league

In April this year, the game came into focus in a big way with the announcement of the Indian Super League (ISL). Promoted by Star India and IMG Reliance under the aegis of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the inaugural season will be played from September to November.

The league has eight franchisees: Goa, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Kochi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. These are owned by Bollywood celebs, business houses and sports celebrities such as the former cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly, Bollywood actors Salman Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham and businessmen such as Venugopal Dhoot (Videocon), Sameer Manchanda (represtents the Den Network), Dattraj Salgaocar (VM Salgaocar Group) and others.

Kushal Das, general secretary, AIFF, is of the opinion that ISL will lift Indian football. "The idea behind ISL is to get more eyeballs and investments. Our current properties such as the I Leagues, Santosh Trophy and others were not achieving this purpose, so we thought of creating a league attracting high net worth individuals, corporates and Bollywood stars, who will bring traction and investment to it."

Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India, points out that this investment is of a different kind. "It is not a thing of one year but of many years. The important part is getting the right players and paying the right amount of money because we want that a 10- or 12-year-old kid should be thinking about becoming a footballer," tells Gupta.

The Great Indian Football Gamble

The ISL will be played on a home-and-away format - each team gets to play seven home and the same number of away matches. The top four in the points table will make it to the knock-out stage. Each team will have a squad of 22 players. This includes one marquee player (of international repute having recently played in a World Cup), seven international players and 14 Indian players. Sixty one matches will be played. Some of the international footballers' names doing the rounds are Robert Pires, former France and Arsenal mid-fielder; Fredrik Ljungberg, former Swedish player and ex-Arsenal mid-fielder, France's Thierry Henry and New York Red Bulls striker, Hernan Crespo, former Argentinian striker and Dwight Yorke, the former Trinidad and Tobago forward.

IMG Worldwide, Reliance Industries and Star India are equal partners in the league. While Star India incurs the production costs, the other two will bear the marketing costs. The franchisees were decided after a bidding process conducted by Ernst and Young.

Cost-benefit analysis

According to an ISL spokesperson the base price for each city-based team was set at Rs 12 crore at the time of 'Invitation To Bid (ITB)' announcement. A total of 30 bid documents were sold. "We are happy to have received a commitment of Rs 120 crore per year from the eight League Partners," says an ISL spokesperson.

Vinit Karnik, national director - entertainment, sports and live events, GroupM, explains that ISL has an IPL-like model, but with two differences. "IPL sold the media rights to MSM, while here Star India is the equity partner and the broadcaster for ISL. Secondly, the expectations from the ISL franchisees are to develop the eco-system around the grassroots level, unlike IPL," adds Karnik.

ISL has created a central pool which will get money from the licence fee of the franchisees and advertising and sponsorships (on-ground/on-air). The revenue stream for IMG Reliance and Star India would be from club participation fee (licence fee), 20 per cent of central sponsorship and ad revenues and gate receipts for the finals.

Eighty per cent of the central sponsorship and ad revenues will be distributed among the eight clubs, adding to the team sponsorship and gate receipts for seven home matches along with the playoff match (if a club qualifies for it). According to Gupta of Star India the total investment for the first season would be around Rs 400 crore including the production, marketing, players, stadium, out of stadiums, overseas players and other costs. "We expect the first year ad-sponsorship revenue collection to be between Rs 150-200 crore," he predicts. Ticket sales provide more.

PVP Ventures (it owns the Kochi franchisee along with Tendulkar) is banking on the fact that football is the most popular sport in the world. Rajeev Kamineni, executive director, PVP Ventures says, "Our revenue will come mainly from endorsements and sponsorship and we have made a significant financial commitment for the next 10 years."

"It is like a normal business," declares Sameer Manchanda, managing director and chairman, DEN Networks (the Delhi franchisee). "It gives us a great brand extension in the local region," he adds. DEN Network will also be launching the 100 Mbps broadband network in Delhi and will be using the ISL as a medium to promote it.

ISL has made it mandatory for all the franchisees to promote football at the grassroots level before choosing the bidders. June, 2014 will see the roll-out of an ambitious six months school outreach programme introducing and imparting basic football to one million children. Together with eight franchisees, an investment of Rs 16 crore per year has been allocated for this. Going forward, each franchisee has been mandated to have age group training programmes starting with the under-8s and by the fifth year to set up academies.

At this point of time, there aren't too many details available about the league - there is no official website, no official Facebook Page or a Twitter handle. The franchisees have not yet shared their marketing strategies but claim that many advertisers are interested. According to Gupta of Star India, the marketing budget for the ISL would be to the tune of Rs 100 crore and the campaign is being handled by Ogilvy and Mather.

ISL and advertising

Gupta says that the audience for the ISL will be the young and aspirational class of SEC ABC in the age group of 15-30 in 1 million+ towns such as Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, besides traditional football playing pockets. He further adds that the game is growing at a rate of 80-100 per cent year on year in terms of ad revenues. PVP Ventures' Kamineni is aiming for a 360-degree campaign that will "give our team maximum visibility."


All said and done, football is the second most popular game in India after cricket. But when it comes to TV viewership, football trails cricket and world wrestling entertainment (see table). And within the football-watching audience, a huge slice watches only international football matches.

The popular international football sporting events that Indians love to watch are FIFA World Cup, English Premier League, Barclays Premier League, UEFA Champions League and the Spanish League.

Sony Six owns the broadcast rights to FIFA 2014 and 2018 and the forthcoming under-17 World Cup (that India will host in 2017), the CONMEBOL matches from 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying rounds, qualifiers for UEFA Euro 2016 and UEFA Euro 2016, FIFA Confederation Cup Russia 2017 and 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Says Prasana Krishnan,

EVP and business head, Sony Six, "We have positioned ourselves as the home of international football."
The Indian football-watching audience is unquestionably the youth, primarily between 14 and 27 years. "But today an 8- or 10-year-old is also watching football," says Karnik of GroupM. In cricket it is, the entire family watching. But the former is picking up in the metros. Bars and pubs host special offers for big matches. According to Krishnan, there are fringe viewers too. "Many people come for big events only. We have to push aggressively, nurture and market to them to make them dedicated fans," he concludes.

"The success of any sport," points out Joydeep Basu of The Telegraph, "depends on the success and result of the efforts of your national team." In India, a lot of hopes were pinned on the I League that was started in 2007 bringing several top clubs of the country to play each other. But it has not been able to spark the fire.

Many people hope that under-17 Football World Cup in 2017 will be a good opportunity for advertisers as it will have global eyeballs. It will help in also strengthening the infrastructure for the game, youth development, and help in knowledge transfer from FIFA.

Four years ago, International Management Group (IMG), a global company that has its business in sports, fashion and media, signed a deal (in association with Reliance) with the AIFF purchasing the marketing rights for football in India for a period of 15 years under which it will also be responsible to develop the sport in the country. The alliance owns the commercial rights to the game including media rights, sponsorship and advertising rights, licensing and merchandising rights and franchisee rights. It is also paying the AIFF a sum of over Rs 30 crore every year as a part of the deal to let the AIFF body bear the expenses for its other properties such as the I League.

Football, unlike one day or T-20 cricket, does not enjoy the liberty of huge free commercial time (FCT) because of its unique nature. Football's on-air advertising opportunity lies in the beginning, before the first half, the end of the first half, before the second half, the end of the second half and at the end of the match. According to experts there will be only 900-1,000 sec fcts during every game. Gupta feels that a tally of 8-10 advertisers is ideal unlike cricket where there are many more. This will ensure the intensity of ad connect with the audience.

On ground activation will play a major role in getting the necessary traction for the city teams and build their brand name. The sponsors and advertisers can further take the brand promotions to malls, retail chains, schools, colleges and other catchment areas. In-stadium activation with billboards, seating advertising, ground advertising, scoreboard advertising, along with merchandising and the online push should round it off nicely.

The opportunities

The April announcement of the ISL became a talking point in the digital space. According to Meltwater, a global online intelligence platform, ISL made headlines in 112 news pieces in March, 2014, while the count went past 380 in April. There have been over 1,200 online news items on it with Business Standard, Times of India, the New Indian Express, IBN Live and leading the charts. Globally, there were 66 similar news pieces in the US, 15 in Canada, 17 in the UK and 8 in the UAE. On the day of the ISL announcement there were over 2,500 conversations around the subject on social media with more males talking about it.

In another interesting search, Meltwater says that Tendulkar was more searched than Ganguly when it came to the ISL especially on the day of the announcement. Speaking about this buzz, Zubair Timol, area director, India Middle East and Africa, Meltwater Inc, says, "ISL is a tremendous platform for creating fan-driven excitement and content. Giving fans access to the buildup of the tournament and insights into the locker room, is a wonderful chance for the ISL to create a supporter driven environment from inception. Furthermore, the strong commercial aspect to ISL will give advertisers an opportunity to harness their TV and online coverage."

The Great Indian Football Gamble
Many are of the opinion that ISL has the right mix of people that includes Bollywood celebrities, investors and sportspersons, who can generate traction for the game. Secondly, they believe that it has now got the required funds that were never put behind the game. Thirdly, they believe that the eco-system is conducive as Star India and IMG Reliance coming together will give it the perfect push on television and other platforms with an apt marketing strategy.

Some are hoping that the ISL will create heroes, lift the standard of the game, generate eyeballs, bring in commerce and promote football at the grassroots level as a mandatory norm for the franchisees. Joydeep Basu of The Telegraph, doesn't want to express a firm opinion. "The only thing we know about ISL at this point is that some people have bought the franchisees, but what they will do with it is a mystery." But won't the big money coming in play a big factor in the development of football? "Why then," he asks, "do small African countries like Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria and others do so well internationally?" Good point.

Das from AIFF believes a lot can happen. "There has been no structural development in the last few years, no good grounds or effective infrastructure. These are things that we are trying to address." The ISL is not expected to work a miracle overnight. Fans like Karnik of GroupM are of the opinion that it should be given a time of at least 3-4 seasons before forming an opinion. The bright side is that the ISL will, hopefully, push the younger lot to play the game.

It is almost certain that the franchisees will not be making the money immediately. It is more of an investment game. Basu of The Telegraph cautions that the business of sports is very serious. "Making money is one thing and developing the sport is another thing. It should not be mixed. And I do not agree to fact that the big advertisers are here to change the face of the game," he points out.

In any case, the ball has been set rolling. It remains to be seen if it finds the goal or rolls away uselessly.

A Note From the Editor

We got an insight into the plight of Indian football in the most unexpected way last week. A colleague wanted to buy a photograph of Indian players from one of the stock image libraries. They couldn't find one. And when they did find pictures of Indian players playing football it wasn't what they had in mind: these were images of cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni and others relaxing with football! But pictures of the Indian football team at play? None that we could find.

India's international performance in football is a bit of a joke. It reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s and the Indian team even emerged at No 4 in the 1956 Olympics. There has been embarrassingly little to say since. In a number of states, among them West Bengal, Kerala, Goa and the North East, football is hugely popular. Even in other places, it is common to see kids kicking a ball around.

Now, metros are witnessing upper middle class children joining organised football leagues. There is a resurgence of popularity for football but, alas, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of play in India. Almost the entire television viewership is to watch the international matches in which Indians don't feature. In fact, the popularity of the likes of the English Premier League on TV has destroyed ticket sales to Indian club matches across India. People don't care to watch second grade football when they can see the world's best so comfortably at home.

There is an air of hopelessness about Indian football. This is not surprising considering that the country stands at No 145 in world rankings. Last year, even war-torn Afghanistan thrashed India in a regional tournament. Poor infrastructure and appalling administration of the game are two of the reasons why things are the way they are.

The question is: can the launch of the Indian Super League with such powerful partners as Reliance, IMG and STAR revive the game? With the glamour of film and sports stars, the power of money and the reach of media, this is the best chance yet to yank Indian football up by the seat of its pants. Let's keep our fingers crossed.