What next, everybody wanted to know afterSachin Tendulkarretired in November last year. The answer is now clear:football. Last week, Tendulkar joined hands with Chennai-based real estate, media and entertainment company PVP to grab the coveted Kochi franchise for the Indian Super League, orISL- football's answer to theIndian Premier League, orIPL. Tendulkar may have played it right once again: Kochi is a football-crazy city; its stadium, which can seat 55,000, goes full for all matches. Imagine the possibility if matches are played here with IPL-like glitz and international players. If Tendulkar can do it, so canSourav Ganguly. The southpaw has got the Kolkata team in partnership with none other than Atletico Madrid. Kolkata is the original home of Indian football: imagine the frenzy if a new and improved package is on offer. Fans will clog every street to the iconic Slat Lake stadium.They are not the only ones to turn bullish on Indian football. Hardnosed businessmen like Harshvardhan Neotia, Sanjeev Goenka, Venugopal Dhoot, the Marans and the Wadhawan brothers too have put their money in the league. So have film starsSalman Khan,Ranbir Kapoorand John Abraham. The buzz is that Shah Rukh Khan wanted to buy Kolkata but was beaten to the post by Ganguly. All told, these people will spend Rs 320 crore on the eight-week carnival in September and October. There are other big stakeholders too in it. The league is the brainchild of IMG Reliance, a joint venture between the global media and sports business headquartered in New York and India's largest conglomerate and Rupert Murdoch's Star TV. IMG Reliance bagged the rights for all domestic football for 15 years from the All-India Football Federation, or AIFF, two years ago for $150 million. ISL is owned 70 per cent by IMG Reliance and 30 per cent by Star TV.The new league comes three years after JCT Mills disbanded JCT Phagwara and Mahindra & Mahindra closed Mahindra United - well-known football clubs with an illustrious past - citing financial unviability. Many had thought this was the death knell for the sport in the country. Indian football got its severest blow in the 1990s with the advent of cable television. All of a sudden, the realisation struck local fans that the football they had consumed all along was a very poor version of what was available on television. Disenchantment set in quickly. Attendance at football matches plummeted. Clubs were left gasping for breath. There was no money to develop new talent. The vicious cycle was complete.In 2007, an attempt was made to rescue Indian football with the Indian League, or I-League. But the stakes have remained too small to make any difference. ONGC, the original title sponsor, walked out after a year. Bharti Airtel, the current sponsor, is committed for only one year. If industry sources are to be believed, it has paid just Rs 2 crore for the sponsorship. Gate money is miniscule: crowds are seldom bigger than 4,000. In-stadia advertising revenue is close to zero. Television rights go for a song. Some corporations continue to be associated with the I-League: UB with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Aircel with FC Lajong (of Shillong) and JSW with Bangalore FC. Still, I-League has failed to live up to the promise.In 2007, Fifa President Sepp Blatter had visited Kolkata to watch a match between traditional rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Afterwards, when asked if Fifa would invest money to revive football in India, the voluble Swiss had said: "Help yourself and heaven will help you." Many saw this as a polite no. At the moment, India languishes at 145 in the global Fifa rankings amongst 207 countries.The symptoms may be dire, but actually the craze for football in the country has multiplied over the years, except it is for international football, not Indian. During the 2010 Fifa World Cup, every Kolkata neighbourhood had painted itself in the colours of its favourite team: Brazil, Spain and Argentina. European clubs have fanatical followers in the country. Also, new centres of football excellence have come up in the country, especially in the Northeast. The enthusiasm with which moneyed people queued up for ISL last week shows that Indian football might just rise Phoenix-like from the ashes.Will ISL succeed where I-League failed? It will all boil down to the quality of the sport. The rules allow each team to play up to six players from overseas. Each of the eight teams is expected to spend up to a third of its annual budget of Rs 30-40 crore on players. It is possible that each team will be allowed to hire one iconic player from abroad for up to $750,000 (Rs 4.5 crore). While this may not be enough to attract a Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney, it might net some others who are past their prime but still have some brand recall. "Our focus is on players who have just completed their full-time careers," says Jefferson Slack, senior vice-president (football), IMG Worldwide. "We have already signed contracts with Robert Pires and Freddy Ljunberg. In the months to come, we will announce more names." Some like Amit Burman of Dabur fear only over-the-hill footballers and discards will agree to play in ISL, and that may be insufficient to draw in the crowds. Burman, after studying the ISL prospectus carefully, decided not to invest in it.The IMG Reliance and Star combine will spend Rs 500 crore in the first edition of ISL. Most of the money will go into setting up the infrastructure for the matches and the live broadcast. On the other hand, it will get around Rs 120 crore from the eight teams as licence fees. The total television advertising is expected to be of the order of Rs 200 crore. Under the contract, the teams will get 80 per cent of this money. This means IMG Reliance-Star will get Rs 40 crore. A similar amount of money may come from selling sponsorship rights. All told, it could end the first edition of ISL with a loss of Rs 300 crore. The eight teams, on the other hand, will spend Rs 320 crore on licence fees, buying players, logistics and promotions. With advertising revenue of Rs 160 crore, they could close the edition with a loss of Rs 160 crore. They will recover some money from sponsors and ticket sales, but that won't add up to much. Those who have invested in the teams know there will be losses in the short and medium terms. "It might take us 10 years to make money," says Dhoot. "But you cannot ignore a sport that is played in 200 countries as against cricket which is played in just a dozen countries. In five to six years, I am sure we will have Indian stars."The key question is: will advertisers buy into ISL? The organisers are confident they have the numbers to attract brands. Star India COO Sanjay Gupta says the tournament is targeted at urban youths between 15 and 24, many of whom watch popular overseas football leagues like the English Premier League and La Liga. "There are 300 to 400 million people who watch sports on television. About 10 per cent of them watch foreign football. Others do not see it because they cannot identify with the teams and there are no Indian faces," says he. "ISL will provide city and player affinity. We expect 30-40 per cent of the sports audience to watch it."As far as advertisers are concerned, Gupta says three categories will be chased: one, the 100 to 150 brands that currently invest in cricket but want to hedge their bets; two, e-commerce companies that want to engage with the youth but find cricket too expensive; and three, large companies that find it "uncool" to be associated with cricket. Bharti Airtel, India's largest telco, falls in the first category. "After cricket," says the company's chief brand officer, Mohit Beotra, "we are betting big on football as it fits in with our brand which is for the youth." Some feel football viewership has reached a critical mass that can no longer be ignored. "Just look at the number of youngsters who stay up till late night to watch international football matches," says Sameer Manchanda, the chairman of Den Networks which has invested in ISL's Delhi team. Still others say that ISL will gain from the momentum of the Fifa World Cup that will be played in June and July in Brazil.What might help is that the current football push has the blessings of Fifa. Thus, India has bagged the rights to host the under-17 World Cup in 2017. That gives India a slot in the quarter-finals. The Indian probables are quietly undergoing training in Goa under the watchful eye of Australian coach Scott O'Donnell. The Union sports ministry has sanctioned Rs 95 crore to upgrade stadia and promised another Rs 25 crore as contingency money. Fifa has given $2 million (Rs 12 crore) to refurbish the Cooperage Stadium in Mumbai. Fifa is keen to popularise the sport in India and China because these are the final frontiers left to conquer. Others too see a huge upside for Indian football. "There are probably 10 million Messis waiting to be identified in India," says Slack of IMG Worldwide. "So our aims are to inspire young Indians to play football, create an entertaining football product for Indians and create conditions where Indians will play under great management and world-class facilities." However, Praful Patel-led AIFF, which will get $10 million every year from IMG Reliance as licence fee, is yet to announce how it plans to use that money.In spite of AIFF's not-so-masterly inactivity, serious money is going into football at the grassroots. Thus, Videocon has put in a proposal with the Maharashtra government to set up a football school in the state. Bharti Airtel sponsors the local Goa league that churns out a lot of bright players. As part of its tie up with Manchester United, it has sent 50 young kids for training to the club. "Football connects to the youth and that fits in well with our brand value. It might not have the same scale as cricket but its appeal cuts across economic strata, which is important," says Beotra. Coca-Cola will in July launch the Coca-Cola Cup, which will cover 2,600 schools across 86 cities in 29 states, in which over 42,000 footballers between 12 and 15 years will hone their skills. "The target is to discover some good players for the under-17 team in 2017," says Coca-Cola India Vice-president (commercial & marketing) Debabrata Mukherjee.The eight ISL teams too have been mandated to spend a minimum of Rs 2 crore every on grassroots football development. This might be woefully small, but it's a beginning. Along with this, all eight are expected to open their own academies by the fifth year which will act like a talent nursery for them. The organisers have set the target of reaching out to one million children in the first season itself through grassroots programmes.Fifa's Blatter had said in 2010 that India was a "sleeping giant" that was finally getting out of its slumber. Will the elephant begin to run and dribble? Wait till September.
Source: Business Standard