It just might be Indian football's Kerry Packer moment. Just like the Australian media moghul added colour and drama to cricket, revolutionising its format, will West Bengal's Premier League Soccer (PLS) deliver the necessary kick to the game of the masses here?

The infusion of big bucks through corporate sponsorships and some glitzy marketing is just what Indian football requires. Especially at a time when it is passing through a “cash crunch”, what with I-League clubs such as JCT and Mahindra United disbanding their teams. It could also get the beautiful game new-found audience interest.

Thanks to the way the six teams in the fray - from Kolkata, Siliguri, Barasat, Howrah, Durgapur, and Haldia - have netted Rs 120 crore in no time, PLS has already grabbed the nation's attention. The amount may be small when compared to cricket's crores, but it's a big enough strike for football.

The initiative, which is the brainchild of the Indian Football Association and the Kolkata-based sports management firm Celebrity Management Group, borrows heavily from America's Major League Soccer and cricket's Indian Premier League (IPL T20). Like in the IPL, there is an auction of teams and their players.

According to Bhaswar Goswami, Executive Director, Celebrity Management Group (CMG), cricket has managed to do the right things at the right time. “Unfortunately, other sports could not do so, which is why they lag behind. PLS is going to be different from what we have seen in football till date. It is going to be exciting, youthful, glamorous and popular.”

Different strokes?

For starters, the catchy names of the teams in the fray and the exciting bidding action. Barasat Euro Musketeers was bought for Rs 25.15 crore by URO Infra Realty India Ltd - the highest priced franchise in the league. The Bengal Tuskers was bagged by Aajay Consultants at Rs 18 crore, while the Camelia Group managed to get the Kolkata Camelians at Rs 11.15 crore. Howrah Manchester went for Rs 9 crore, picked up by Syncsys Infotech, and Durgapur Vox Champion was netted for just Rs 7.6 crore by Tulip Infonet. The yet-to-be christened Haldia team was grabbed by Greymind Communications for an undisclosed amount.

PLS has also brought in a host of international stars it has labelled “icon players”. Franchises have coughed up funds to the tune of Rs 4.20 crore for Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo, Rs 4.15 crore for Italy's World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, Rs 4 crore for Arsenal legend Robert Pires, Rs 2.75 crore for former Nigerian midfielder “Jay-Jay” Okocha and Rs 2.65 crore for Liverpool star Robert Fowler.

Of the five foreign coaches, former Portugal star player Fernando Couto fetched the highest bid of Rs 1.2 crore (Howrah Manchester).

These “icons” will be accompanied by a pool of overseas players - mostly from South America and Asia - and a host of Indian national and catchment area players, forming a 30-member squad each for the six franchises.

The revenue goal

The goal for PLS is to break even in two-to-three years' time. In its debut season, the PLS is likely to garner revenues of about $5 million-$6 million by way of broadcast and commercial rights, says Goswami. Close to 50 per cent of these revenues would go to the franchisees.

“The amount of funds they have invested in each franchisee is quite modest, so breaking even will not be difficult. In fact, we hope they will start breaking even from the second year,” he said.

The investors who have bought the franchises may be relatively little known regional players, but they are all pumping in money on brand-building exercises in order to boost revenues.

Debojit Choudhuri, Chief Operating Officer, Euro Musketeers (team Barasat) says that the company will invest an amount equivalent to the annual spend on teams such as Mohun Bagan or East Bengal, on marketing and branding alone. Unofficial estimates peg the annual spends of these teams at Rs 10 crore - Rs 13 crore.

“We will take a holistic 360-degree plan. We plan to rope in three brand ambassadors (taking a cue from ‘Three Musketeers' as well as our name). One will be from the international arena, one national and another one regional,” he says.

Spectator support

Although the organisers are optimistic about getting a full house, thanks to the presence of the international stars, sports analysts, however, have reservations.

Arunava Chaudhuri, an independent expert on football based out of Germany, says, “The organisers have tried to get the best players and in this they have indeed done a good job. But what one needs to see is whether the Bengali football fan will associate with a Cannavaro, Pires or for that matter Crespo.”

Moreover, most of these “icon players” are past their prime so the enthusiasm among football enthusiasts might be slightly lukewarm.

The pricing of tickets would be another crucial determinant for the success of the league matches, says Chaudhuri, pointing out, “Even for the Lionel Messi match in September last year, the stadium went half empty because of the high prices of tickets.”

Between the ball and the goal

It's all very well to get the funds and the star footballers. What about infrastructure? Are the stadia and facilities adequate?

According to Chaudhuri, football management in India is still not too well structured. “Though PLS is a novel concept, there are some issues with the infrastructure, particularly with football grounds and accommodation. One of the biggest risks is that these icon players might not like what they see,” he says.

Goswami, however, feels that there would be a phased upgradation of infrastructure. “The PLS concept is such that infrastructure will be upgraded. It is not possible to upgrade five to six stadiums in one to two months, so we will do it phase-wise,” he says. In year one, we will upgrade the pitches and player exposure areas, including the locker rooms and entry–exit points,” he explains.

The seating capacity of the stadiums also needs to be increased. “Most of the football stadiums in India have an average seating capacity of about 15,000, the exceptions being Barasat (25,000) and Siliguri (30,000). So there is a need to increase capacity in other places. Once that happens, the revenues for the franchisees will also increase,” Goswami points out.

The organisers of PLS will invest about Rs 10 crore for improving infrastructure in the first year. “Each franchisee is responsible for dressing rooms for each team,” he says. “Over the next three-to-four years, we might have to put in Rs 5 crore–Rs 6 crore for upgrading infrastructure at each stadium,” he adds.

The ground has been prepared, the stars roped in, now to see if football's big bet pays off.

(This article was published on February 15, 2012)
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