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 Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By NANTHA KUMAR foot­ball@thes­tar.com.my

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.

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