The beautiful game of football first captured my imagination during the France ’98 World Cup, and I still recall Zidane’s exploits and Coca cola’s “eat football, sleep football, drink only Coca cola” campaign with Ricky Martin. As a natural progression, I tried to learn more about the game, and was bitten by the Arsenal bug in the process. While the obsession with Arsenal kept growing over the years, a part of me wanted to support an Indian club too. But the quality of the game was well behind what I am used to, and I could not make the compromise. Also, until the I-League started a few years back, club football was very disorganised in the country. Of course, this was because there were no investors in the sport and the people running the game did not have any concrete plan to counter the dominance of cricket.
When the Tatas were spending huge money on buying the likes of Corus and the Jaguar Land Rover, I was wistfully wondering what it would be like if they could invest a part of their riches in Indian football. When the Venky’s bought the English Premier League team Blackburn Rovers, the only thought I had in mind was that they could have used that money to invest in India. Of course, when their English excursion came to an end with Blackburn being relegated from the Premier League, it made me thank the heavens that they turned a blind eye towards Indian football. One would not want to have somebody at the helm that does not understand what a release clause in a contract means!
With various business houses and celebrities spending huge amounts of money on the various franchises of IPL, I could only reflect on how Indian football would have changed, if the men that matter at the AIFF had taken Lalit Modi’s proposal more seriously. Not only did they miss a trick with the I-league, they also struck a 15 year deal with the Reliance-IMG alliance which has only harmed Indian football even further. The deal, worth 700 Cr, was supposed to help promote Indian Football and popularise it, along with developing players from the grass root level. Needless to say, none of this has happened. Since the deal with Reliance-IMG was signed, there has not even been a title sponsor for the I-League since ONGC was shown the door for reasons unknown last season, let alone steps being taken for popularising and improving the game.
And so, when I read the news that Shahrukh Khan was poised to pick up a stake in Dempo SC, it felt like the clouds were finally parting from the sky to let in the sunshine (a bit corny, I know!). Here was a man who has been the centre of attraction in the IPL for the 5 years since its inception. Whether it was celebrating the team’s victories in style, being part of off-field controversies, or just promoting his team on the telly, he has been fully committed to the cause. He has backed his team everytime they were in a slump and, at the same time, has been ruthless enough to remove players who were not helping the team’s performance (irrespective of the status and popularity of the player).
But what can he bring to Indian football? It is easy to spend money on a sport that already has millions of followers. It won’t be the same when it comes to football in India. However, the important thing to remember is that the Kolkata Knight Riders are one of the few teams in the IPL that are actually making a profit. He was instrumental in getting different brands to sponsor the team in various guises, even though the results on the field were not overwhelming. And that is exactly what the game needs.
As much as the idea that the game and the commercial arm should be separate is commendable, it is nigh on impossible to do so. If the game has to become better, it should be seen as a viable career option for the players. Unless you can do so, you cannot expect good players to come through the system. They need to believe that if they have the talent and work hard, they can have a good career and earn good wages. For that to happen, the clubs need to be making a lot more money than they presently do. And for that to happen, there needs to be a lot of marketing and the game needs to be popularised so that advertisers and sponsors can look at Indian football as a competent alternative to cricket. You can see where all this is leading to!
If SRK is successful and does get the stake in Dempo SC, or any other club for that matter, it would be a great fillip for the game. As an investor, he would want to get a return on the money that he has spent. Having been the centre of attraction in the IPL, I don’t see him sitting back and waiting for Reliance-IMG to do their thing in terms of attracting people to the game. He would go all out in terms of branding and getting others to jump on to the bandwagon. With the kind of popularity that he can generate, there would be other investors who would want to join in for a piece of the pie, which can only be good.
But will SRK be a committed owner? The deal with Reliance-IMG has not been fruitful for the I-League clubs as they do not get any share from any revenue generated through the promotion of the league. Even the discussions are still going on, there has been no response from Reliance-IMG regarding this issue and they haven’t met their commitment of coming up with a structured plan by April 20. In such a scenario, would SRK let his company, Red Chillies Entertainment, lose money in football? Or would he help in putting pressure on Reliance-IMG to come up with a model that is profitable for everyone? Or would he take it upon himself to promote the club and the game so that he doesn’t have to depend on anyone else?
“Only sex and SRK sell in Bollywood”, said Neha Dhupia.
But if he is to sell Indian Football, Shahrukh Khan has a lot of work to do. Will his famed passion for sports save the day? Only time will tell.