The glamorous league

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: Mar 9 2014, 09:57am hrs
Sitting in the comfort of his plush, air-conditioned suite at the Four Seasons in south Mumbai on a balmy early summer afternoon two years ago, Jefferson SlackIMGs global business development head for footballmoaned about his company making huge losses by investing in Indian football.

Investing in India, Slack claimed, was the biggest commitment IMG has ever made in football. But it was not yielding desired results. To make it sustainable, a new parallel tournament was required. He didnt elaborate on the parallel tournament back then.

Last Monday, though, IMG-Reliance finally went public with their plans. IMG-R and Rupert Murdochs Star TV invited bids to buy teams for the Indian Super League (ISL). Its an ambitious project and has already been postponed twice due to logistical reasons. This time, though, they are confident of kicking off the eight-city tournament, another offspring of crickets commercially successful Indian Premier League (IPL), in September.

Recently-retired football stars like Dwight Yorke, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Louis Saha and Hernan Crespo have already confirmed their participation. IMG-R further claim to be in advanced talks with the likes of Thierry Henry and Michael Owen. World-renowned coaches such as Kenny Dalglish, Marcel Desailly and Peter Schmeichel, too, have confirmed their presence. The auction of players and coaches is expected to be conducted in May.

The list of prospective owners is just as glamorous. Shah Rukh Khan, looking to expand his Kolkata Knight Riders brand beyond cricket, will bid for a team based out of the West Bengal capital. He is likely to be challenged by former India captain Sourav Ganguly to own a franchise from Kolkata.

Others who have expressed interest include actor John Abraham, producer Ronnie Screwvala, the Jindals, Rhiti Sports and Mahindra & Mahindra, who had ended their association with Indian football four years ago by disbanding their I-League team Mahindra United.

The market, however, still seems unclear of the promise the property holds. The base price to own an ISL team is R25 crore. This is much higher than what franchise owners paid in the Indian Badminton League (R3.5 crore) and in the Hockey India League (R10 crore). The amount is also higher than the annual budgets of the I-League teams, which hover in the range of R10-15 crore.

Despite the pieces of this puzzle slowly falling in place, there is still a lot of skepticism over the tournaments impact on Indian football, which has reached its nadirthe national team ranks a dismal 154th and the domestic league is struggling to survive.

On the face of it, it is difficult to see how a three-month tournament restricted only to eight cities can raise the standard of the game in the country. But it can set the ball rolling.

One of the key objectives of the ISL is to help IMG-R recover the money it has invested in Indian football so far. They have been spending close to R31 crore annually since signing the 15-year R700-crore deal with the All India Football Federation in 2011.

However, with the I-League virtually being a dead property in terms of its marketability and the national teams performance fortunes plummeting to new lows, they have had no returns on their investments.

In stark contrast, the presence of world-famous footballers and renowned coaches along with the involvement of Bollywood stars, sports icons and business honchos can generate public interest and attract more sponsors. The I-League, despite being the premier domestic competition, is pale in comparison to the projected glamour of ISL.

IMG-R claim that a portion of the profits generated from this tournament will be reinvested into Indian football to improve the facilities for the I-League, spread it to more regions of the country and mobilise youth development.

Its not just the monetary aspect, though. Better playing fields would be required across the eight venues for the likes of Pires and Owen to play on it. Currently, the pitches are hard, uneven and laden with dry grass. You cant expect the players to play attractive football on grounds like these. IMG-R have hired pitch experts from Londons Wembley stadium to improve the conditions here. Pitches will be relaid/repaired wherever necessary. Ultimately, it will also benefit the I-League teams, who, too, play on the same grounds.

Having conceptualised and organised the IPL, IMG are aware of the ground realities of running a project of this magnitude in India. In this particular case, though, what they have promised and how much they eventually deliver will decide whether it helps in reviving Indian football or ends up being a spend-thrift bunchs fling with sports and glamour.