Rise of the Indian Premier League
The successful launch of the football version of cricket’s Twenty20 in india further strengthens the belief that, with the right marketing and ideas, the game could rise again there.
THE staple of tragedy and triumph often underpins mainline Indian cinema and it surprised none when cricket, needing to reinvent itself for a disillusioned audience, turned to Bollywood in 2008 for razzmatazz and redemption.
The deafening success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 was founded on the patronage of the Khans and Kapoors, as much as on the backing of big business and sound strategies. It was show business on a scale that was not seen previously anywhere, partly due to the shrewd merging of two dominant mediums: sports and cinema.
The football chapter of the IPL, named Premier League Soccer (PLS), was flagged off last week with the auction of veteran players in search of a final financial hurrah. None summed it better than an honest – or barefaced – Robert Pires: “If my (club) president likes me, it could be Us$1mil. It is a lot of money. I’m not going to complain about that am I?”
The former Arsenal attacker is not the only retired footballer to give in to the lure of another fat payday. Following an intense auction on Monday, Fabio Cannavaro, Hernan Crespo, Robbie Fowler and Jay-jay Okocha were drafted – just like they do in the National Football League in the United States – into the six franchises for 34 games between Feb 25 to April 8 in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.
The six West Bengal teams had the choice of very decent coaching options within the fixed “transfer” budget: Peter Reid went to Kolkata for US$200,000; Portugal’s Fernando Couto was snapped up by Howrah (US$240,000) while Siliguri – which staved off five rivals to snatch Pires – settled for Marco Etcheverry (US$200,000), Bolivia’s most famous footballer.
India-based TV ratings agency TAM Media Research revealed last year that between 2005 and 2010, television interest increased to 60%, with 120 million cricket viewers and 83 million who watched football. There is another interesting statistic: at least 55% of the 83 million are ardent devotees of the local I-league.
The PLS has the backing of the Indian football governing body, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), in the form of a 10-year contract and its organisers, Celebrity Management Group (CMG) have bagged a deal to televise their tournament to a minimum of 50 nations through the sale of their global broadcast rights for the first season and are currently in talks to market their local television rights.
It is estimated that India has 6,450 clubs and 3.5 million registered players but the breadth of the game is limited to the northeast and southwest. In Goa, Kolkata, Kerala, Bangalore, Pune and parts of Delhi and Mumbai, the following for cricket is reportedly matched or surpassed by football. The epicentre remains West Bengal, where fanaticism takes a fresh meaning. The two major clubs from this state, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, bank on tens of thousands for their derby match.
On Jan 7, Mohun Bagan completed their double over their mortal enemies with a 2-0 win before over 40,000 spectators. This, of course, dwarfs to obscurity when we learn that 131,000 watched the semi-final of the Federation Cup (the equivalent of the FA Cup in England) 15 years ago at the Salt Lake Stadium while millions more were glued to the television set to witness East Bengal knock out Bagan on their home turf.
In an email interview conducted with Gautam Roy, the Media Officer for East Bengal, late last year, he noted that while the potential for football as a sport and prime television content was vast, the growth in football was achieved independent of the AIFF and the lack of success for the national team, which was one of the top sides in Asia until the 1960s.
“Sponsorship from either the public or private sector has not really been (consistently) forthcoming for Indian football and have had a dampening effect in its growth. Even the start of the National Football League in 1996 had Phillips as the major sponsors but they did not last beyond two seasons,” Roy recalled.
“Later on Tata, ONGC, Hero Honda, Peerless (became) sponsors, but none of them had any long-term association. Even Zee Sports, the marketing partner of the (AIFF), withdrew in 2010 and the present marketing partner has been unable to find a title sponsor since (2010). The authorities have to launch into aggressive marketing (of the I-league) in this regard,” he said.
Selling appears to be a common problem in the game. The PLS did not draw out Bollywood’s best to the starting blocks though the project itself has earned a close watching brief from the forces-that-be in Indian football as well as supporters. The interest in football is rising every year, with the Premier League and La Liga being the rage amongst youngsters in the world’s fastest growing middle class.
In another interview with Kalyan Chaubey, CEO of Mohun Bagan Football Academy and former goalkeeper, agreed with Roy that football has captured popular imagination – “most Bollywood superstars are fond of football” – in spite of their “lack of achievements in the international arena.” Where they differ on the subject is the conviction that they need more skilled administrators rather than an enormous amount of sponsorship money.
“The government did not fund things to popularise cricket. We need a group of quality football administrators, with a forwardlooking vision. Private companies are willing to put their money (into football) but the administrators have to create the (product). There are plenty of top businessmen in India who are football fanatics – but they are (sharp) businessmen too,” he pointed out.
The launch of the PLS vindicates Chaubey’s belief. Industry magnates such as Lakshmi Mittal and Venky have pumped in hundreds of millions in Premiership outfits Queens Park Rangers and Blackburn Rovers. CMG, on the other hand, have found owners for five out of the six franchises and are confident that there are suitors for the odd one out, Haldia.
Chaubey said the domestic league is growing daily and Roy indicated the high competition in it by the seven different league winners in the last 15 years. Unlike the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga, the I-league, Chaubey held, is not dominated by a set of teams or a single side.
The quality of the games, he continued, has improved and more investment would attract more talent such as foreign footballers and coaches and finance youth development. Roy, meanwhile, welcomed PLS and believed that the new venture would not have “any major impact on the I-league” in the short term.
“This being the first year, the matches will be confined in one state only (while) IPL cricket is spread out all over India. It will definitely create some interest in football wherever it is played and will definitely have a positive impact on the grassroots development (especially in enhancing) the infrastructure (and) facilities in the various districts of the state where it is being held.”
New frontier: Former italy defender and captain Fabio Cannavaro is one of the ‘icon’ players to be picked by the five franchises india to play alongside local players over seven weeks.
The big payday: argentine legend Hernan Crespo leads a host of semi-retired world stars to play in a new football tournament in india. The Premier League Soccer (PLS), the brainchild of officials in the state of West bengal, is due to start on Feb 25 in an attempt to fuel growing interest in the sport in india.
‘if my (club) president likes me, it could be us$1mil. it is a lot of money. i’m not going to complain about that am i?’ says former French international footballer robert Pires.
The God factor: Former Liverpool striker robbie Fowler has quit as player/coach of Muang Thong united in Thailand to join indian club Howrah Calcutta.