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ISL teams shave cost as season gets longer

DHIMAN SARKAR

Five years, according to Erica Jong in her novel ‘Fear of Flying’, is a good time to take stock of a marriage. It is, she says, when you decide whether you would live with each other’s lunacy or give up the ghost.

Going into the fifth season, the relationship between the Indian Super League (ISL) and the country’s football set-up seems to have survived the test. The league has had Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano visiting and rumours that Atletico Madrid could renew their relationship with ISL, this time through Jamshedpur FC, have not piped down.

And it was after winning the ISL that Stiven Mendoza got loaned to New York City FC in Major League Soccer, USA’s top competition, before moving to Ligue 1 this year.

The ISL has grown – in size, duration and viewership. Star India’s managing director Sanjay Gupta was quoted as saying last May that ISL’s viewership is 20 times that of Premiership in India.

According to a Forbes report in March, title sponsor Hero MotoCorp more than trebled its commitment in a new three-year deal worth $25 million signed in 2017. A report in Mint last November said automobile makers Maruti Suzuki and service providers DHL too are staying for the next two seasons.

The ISL has also had the sanction of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), its winners getting a berth in the AFC Cup, the continent’s second-tier club competition.

With the league expanding – backed by steel majors, Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC joined last term – franchises have also begun to realise the need to follow the best practices of the football world. That has led to costs being pared even though the season’s expanded from a little over two months to nearly thrice that long.

Yes, franchises continue to haemorrhage money; most lose between Rs 25-30 crore every season, but as ATK principal owner Sanjiv Goenka said they knew that from the start in 2014. Even that has come down from over Rs 40 crore in the first season to Rs 25-30 crore in the last, according to officials of clubs and the league this newspaper spoke to. Since all figures are approximations, they didn’t want to be quoted.

From getting nothing from the central revenue pool in the first season, teams are now paid between Rs 5-7 crore, say franchise officials. And it is likely to increase this time, they say.

Most teams have also been able to increase income from their sponsorship deals, which are now in the range of Rs 6-7 crore, say club officials. Last season, Bengaluru FC sold a player to a club in China and paid transfer fees to Norway’s Stabaek FC for goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh, both firsts in India’s football history. More than what they earned or paid, it is the opening up of such possibilities that augur well for the league.

Some teams are also learning to spend wisely: four went to Spain for pre-seasons but others travelled to Malaysia, Thailand, Qatar and even finished part or all of it in India. Last season’s runners-up Bengaluru FC retained 12 players and promoted five from the second team for this season starting on September 29. Champions Chennaiyin FC has also kept 12 from last season.

For semi-finalists FC Goa and FC Pune City that number is 13, for Kerala Blasters it is 12, for Delhi Dynamos it is 11 while Jamshedpur FC have kept 10. Not all teams have walked that route – ATK have retained only six and overhauled their quota of foreigners, Mumbai City FC kept only one import and NorthEast United FC (NEUFC), while offering multiple-year deals to all Indian players from this term, have only six from last season. But the practice seems to be gaining currency.

Just as doing away with the marquee is — only Jamshedpur FC’s Tim Cahill would qualify this term. Along with Miku (Bengaluru FC) and Manuel Lanzarote (ATK), he could be among the highest paid players this season, earning around Rs 4 crore. “For the price of a marquee, we can get four good foreigners,” said a team official. Last year, Chennaiyin FC coach John Gregory said they decided to invest in youngsters instead of a marquee.

The focus has also shifted to signing foreigners who could make a name for themselves by playing here — somewhat like Mendoza – rather than those once famous. The league too has helped by pruning the number of imports to seven from 11.

The league has also cut costs by coordinating logistics of broadcast kit movement better, commentating from studios, doing away with the glitzy opening ceremony and a centralised PR firm and, generally, devolving greater responsibilities to clubs.

So, though no one is seeing any money yet, fiscal discipline from most stakeholders seems to suggest they are ready to buckle down for the long haul.

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