Indian football – rising from cricket’s ashes?

Posted on August 5, 2011


First featured in FT

With their cricketing fortunes seemingly on the wane, now seems as good a time as any for India to jump on a lucrative football bandwagon. This is exactly the plan of the West Bengal division of the Indian Football Association, which aims to revolutionise domestic football by setting up a money-spinning league for the beautiful game.

The Premier League Soccer (PLS) is inspired by the hugely successful Indian Premier League (IPL), whose Twenty20 tournament has turned Indian cricket into big business since its launch in 2008.

West Bengal’s IFA is setting up the PLS in partnership with India’s Celebrity Management Group and TV rights holders Mahua TV to launch the league in January 2012.

Envisaged as a short-fire competition running from January to March, the PLS aims to rival India’s existing domestic I-League, administered by the All India Football Federation (AIFF). The national I-League, however, has largely failed to grip the imagination of Indian sports fans since it started in 2007. The PLS hopes to follow in Twenty20’s more glamorous footsteps.

Licences to set up the League’s initial six teams – or franchises – will be offered for sale this month to companies with a minimum net worth of Rs100m. Teams will be created in an IPL-style auction soon afterwards.

Each team will have a 25-player squad consisting of one “icon” player – the PLS has already spoken to Dutchman Edgar Davids and Japan’s Junichi Inamoto about joining and Juan Pablo Sorin of Argentina is a heavily rumoured third – plus three overseas players and 21 Indians.

The organisers are confident they can attract enough big name players to generate the revenue and fan interest they will need to put the I-League in the shade. All players signed by the PLS’s franchises will be unable to feature in the I-League and vice versa.

Will they succeed? Cricket has long been India’s dominant sporting obsession but 47 per cent of Indians now claim to be football fans. The launch of the PLS is one of many signs of the growing commercial pull of the world’s most popular sport in a relatively untapped emerging market.

Interest in international football, in particular, is on the rise. Commercial rights to televise European games were sold to a partnership of IMG Worldwide and India’s Reliance Industries for $140 million last year. In November, Blackburn Rovers became the first Premiership club under Indian ownership when they were bought by Pune-based poultry company, Venky’s, for £43 million. Rovers are due to tour India in October and have plans to build a stadium and academy in Pune as an official ‘feeder’.

The organisers hope the PLS will stimulate the game at the grassroots level. But in attempting to lure superstar names, the new league is consciously following the model of the American MLS or the Russian Football Premier League.

The attraction of India as a retirement destination for ex-international footballers is not yet proven. But the experiences of the IPL suggest that where there’s money, the big names will come. The relatively short seven-week competitions also make it a more attractive proposition for players winding down towards the end of their professional careers.

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Posted in: Soccer, Sport