New I-League teams - AIFF on a desert safari in search of investors


I-League Derby Match In Kolkata

Will AIFF’s decision to not relegate the new teams for 3 years sit well with others?

Like the much hyped ‘investment melas‘ organized by various state governments both ‘home and away’ to solicit FDI in various sectors of the economy, an AIFF delegation will be visiting Dubai with probably as much fanfare this month end, to canvass investors for two I-League teams.

These two proposed corporate teams have been promised direct entry into the championship and no relegation for three years — in contrast to other private and institutional clubs who have to qualify for the top division and are also subject to relegation thereafter. The caveats attached are – the two clubs will have to invest in infrastructure (meaning, build a stadium) and youth development, which current I-League teams are apparently not doing with wholehearted commitment, and be based in any state barring Goa and West Bengal.

Last week, the AIFF had held an ‘open house’ for this purpose at its headquarters in New Delhi, which was attended by “30 interested corporate parties”. However, a maximum nine names only figured in various media reports (Hero Motors, Sahara, GMR, Venky’s, Piramal, Dodsal, IL&FS, JSW (Sajjan Jindal) and DSK Shivajians). I emailed the AIFF media department asking for the full list, but regretfully, my request was met with stony silence till the time of writing.

The AIFF certainly needs to be lauded for its attempt to bring in foreign investors into Indian football, build infrastructure (till recently the responsibility of the state associations) and promote youth development. Does this confirm that the AIFF’s efforts, despite having a heavy duty politician, minister and entrepreneur at the helm, have come to naught at home?

If the AIFF is serious about rewarding commitment to Indian football, it should straight away give one of two slots in the I-League to Dodsal FC (now re-branded as Mumbai Tigers) who not only floated a top flight team at the start of the current season to showcase their commitment but are seemingly intent to contribute more in terms of infrastructure and youth development in the future. And surely, the AIFF can persuade one more from among its many big time corporate suitors to complete the quota.

But what is the AIFF offering in return to investors, whether Indian or foreign? New corporate teams like Pune FC and Mumbai FC, who entered the fray a few years ago (they incidentally qualified from the second division) following Sepp Blatter’s visit and the Confederation of Indian Industry meet, were literally led up the garden path and sold a rosy dream of considerable Return on Investment based on the European model (sponsorships, telecast rights fees, ticketing, merchandising etc). A former senior Mumbai FC official reconfirmed to me that the reality was far different from what they were made to previously believe. Working for the same group at that time, I too was privy to Mumbai FC’s efforts to invest in infrastructure and have tie-ups with the glamorous European clubs for a youth academy. But it all fizzled out as the costs were staggering and the returns sketchy. Even decades old corporate teams like Mahindras and JCT pulled out because there were negligible returns in earnings and mileage from the Indian game, compounded by poor administration at various levels.

In late 2010, the AIFF had appointed the same Sajjan Jindal of JSW as chairman of I-League committee and Venugopal Dhoot of Videocon as deputy chairman with a mandate to market the championship. They failed, as did Zee Sports and IMG-Reliance, the AIFF’s marketing rights partners past and present.

Sajjan Kumar Jindal

Sajjan Kumar Jindal

The intention of the AIFF to not relegate the two new corporate teams from the I-League for three years is fraught with consequences to both second division and existing premier division teams, though this was once suggested by a coach of an I-League team earlier. Almost all teams barring East Bengal have got relegated from the top division in the past including champions Salgaocar, Dempo, Churchill Brothers, JCT etc. Mahindras were spared relegation despite finishing last in the second season and Mohun Bagan did not qualify for the super league in the first. Will the existing teams agree to be the sacrificial lambs for the AIFF initiative?

The issue has caused considerable disquiet among the existing I-League teams who have however held their counsel. “We are concerned about the development but we are yet to be officially intimated by the AIFF about it. We will have to debate all aspects of the issue before we can come to a conclusion and formulate an effective plan of action,” RAJ Gomes, president of the Indian Professional Football Clubs Association said over the phone from Goa.

The I-League clubs had launched the IPFCA last year to promote and safeguard their common interests and also exert pressure on the AIFF to keep their part of the bargain and make the I-League into a separate entity in which the clubs would be major stakeholders. So far, the AIFF has kept the issue in the cold storage. It remains to be seen how far the IPFCA will go to protect their interests and whether they can or will take the legal route to affirm the one-rule-for-all principle.

That said, there could be more to the agenda of the dash to Dubai than to merely seek foreign investors for the two I-League teams with the attendant riders thrown in. Efforts to attract FDI have been ongoing for at least a year now. In March 2012, a FICCI-affiliated delegation comprising of top AIFF and government officials and representatives of marketing agents IMG-R and Libero Sports India, visited the Soccerex forum in Manchester. The highlight of the visit was the two-hour workshop entitled “Destination India: The unique business opportunities in Indian football” which focused on discussing the “unique business opportunities Indian football has to offer in light of India’s bid for the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup“.

In yet another instance, last October, Punjab Deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal released the FICCI-Libero knowledge report on “Foreign Investment in Indian football” at a FICCI seminar in New Delhi. The report showcased the role that foreign stakeholders have played in Indian football while hoping for more of the same. I emailed both FICCI and Libero requesting for a copy of their report, considering that they had sent me their press release, but they ignored my request.

Incidentally, there was huge interest at Soccerex in the franchise-based Bengal Premier Soccer League that did not eventually kick off. Surely, with the AIFF intending to launch the national IPL-styled franchise league next season, it could well become the stellar attraction in Dubai, along with the U-17 World Cup bid. It will be interesting to see the composition of the AIFF delegation on this desert safari!

While on the subject of the U-17 World Cup, it will be interesting to know what conditionalities FIFA is demanding in terms of tax write-offs and other concessions from the Government of India before the nation is bestowed the right to host the tournament, and whether the laws of the land have to be waived for this privilege.

And how much will be the GoI’s commitment to the endeavour and how much the AIFF and its affiliates would be required to raise on their own? I sent an email to the Sports Ministry to enquire about these issues after I received its intimation last year that the GoI had agreed to sanction the event, but was not favoured with a reply. Surely, the public have a right to know before they are burdened by another financial fiasco like the 2010 CWG while the fortunate few are en route to the bank!




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