Reliance Sports CEO Sundar Raman on proposed ecosystem for Indian football

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The Reliance Sports CEO explained why Indian football needs a new ecosystem to take it to unprecedented heights...

Sundar Raman, Reliance Sports’ CEO, spoke on a plethora of topics at The Football Movement Conference organised by The UK Department for International Trade (DIT) together with India On Track (IOT) and the Premier League.

He explained the current structure of Indian football and what is wrong with it, why the Indian Super League (ISL) was borne, what the new ecosystem will look like and the possible hurdles and timeframe to achieve the same.

Sundar Raman talks of the meritocracy of the three tiered league proposal

OPENING ADDRESS

Sanjay Gupta (STAR INDIA COO) spoke about we being a one sport country but have started to take on many. There cannot be a better example than me. I have sat on the other side selling only one sport and for all my known professional life in cricket, defended the fact that Team India is more important and set the context that the league and club structure shouldn’t eat into the country structure and pride.

Then I moved to a place which was more inviting and certainly a bigger calling from a football standpoint so when Sanjay did say that with people moving from cricket to football, well not entirely moving but also taking on football. I see myself there.

Gianni Infantino on Roadmap for Indian football

I am suddenly given the opportunity to expand the club structures and to say ‘Come on, let’s get clubs to play for seven months, eight months, 12 months a year and there is a career opportunity for young Indians, the 80’s born the millennials, to actually make a living and a career out of sport.’

What does it take for us to encourage sport as a viable career, what does the institution need to do, what does the commercial partners like us or the federation like the AIFF or any of the stakeholders in the ecosystem need to do to make this movement come alive.

Sundar Raman Ecosystem

It’s about creating a sustainable ecosystem for Indian football. We will talk you through about what we need to do as stakeholders in building that.

ISSUES PLAGUING INDIAN FOOTBALL

It started off as a document from the AIFF’s ‘Lakshya’ document which highlighted a few key issues that existed in the Indian football ecosystem. 80 per cent of the current league matches were confined to three stadias, eight of the 14 clubs were based out of two states, only four clubs had something called as a fan club which was reasonable. It wasn’t a two man and a dog watching a football game except for those four clubs.

The marketability was severely handicapped and restricted. Because the matches, the clubs were Goa and Kolkata centric being the two states, which didn’t have the necessary infrastructure such as floodlit stadiums, the matches were confined to day time. Imagine us in our busy schedules taking our time to go and watch a football game during day. It ain’t working either on television or in stadia.

Sundar Raman - Proposal will be structured further after due diligence

The financial investment, the ability to attract investment both as a league and as a club was severely constrained as a result of all of that. That’s the sort of the genesis that started. We launched the ISL as a breakaway to actually create and show what football can be in this country.

The map of India shows white spaces (referring to a presentation where states who do not have a club are being highlighted in white colour) in there. Even with the current ecosystem of the ISL, I-League and the division two clubs, we have 30 clubs from 15 states. But 80 per cent comes from a few select pockets – Kerala, West Bengal, Goa and the NorthEast. That’s television and stadium audience. While these are pockets of excellence, what we need to look at is the large opportunity of white spaces. While we have taken the liberty to paint the entire states, these are actually dots on a map. A Mumbai or a Pune or a Kochi doesn’t represent the entire state or provide an opportunity for the entire state. It is an illustration to the white spaces as much as to the coloured spaces we need to build on.

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The existing calendar was a bit of ‘I change the colour of my jersey play for a different club’ culture. You started off with the ISL in October, November, December which sort of the festival season leading in to the Christmas-New Year break. Then you start with the I-League playing from January until March along with division two. The same set of players wearing a blue jersey changed to a red jersey and played for a different club. Effectively the same set of talent pool had the limited opportunity of playing for six to seven months but it wasn’t bringing in new talent. You had the Federation Cup and then the AFC Cup which sort of dotted the rest of the year. The shorter window restricted the marketability of both the leagues. The matchday attendances were clearly impacted because you had to schedule 60-70-90 matches within that three month period almost playing a game every day.

Sundar Raman on ISL

There was no appointment with football that you could have. You switched on television and you saw a football game. But for a fan who wants to pick sides and support his team, you sort of had to go to the stadium every third day, it could be a working day, it could be a weekend. But you were lucky because you have x number of weekends and x number of weekdays. There were very,very limited opportunities for players.

NATIONAL TEAM

The cramped schedule also meant that the national team did not find enough time to get together, prepare for the FIFA national friendly calendars which sort of had an impact on the Indian team’s ranking.

PROPOSED ROADMAP FOR INDIAN FOOTBALL

What was proposed by the AIFF was an integrated an expanded football ecosystem with the premier division at the top, with a league one and league two structures, with league two divided into two zones. And then with the future expansion of league three which sort of acts as a feeder league system for the rest of the footballing ecosystem. And for a meritocratic pathway, a Super Cup was kept aside for a certain time of the year which actually provided an equal opportunity for any club in the football ecosystem to fight for the top slot as the big dogs of Indian football as the ecosystem progresses.

Sundar Raman: 'We need multiple leagues to expand to all corners of India'

The proposed calendar was three tiers running parallelly, starting with the ISL running from September to March. If this has to happen in 2017 then it will start in November with the Under-17 World Cup scheduled for October. This is a sort of inflection for Indian football. You have enough conversations about Indian football, the conferences such as this, the Prime Minister (Shri Narendra Modi) in every one of his addresses is making a very strong and compelling point about making Under 17 World Cup a success. The amount of grassroot effort that has gone in is tremendous. FIFA has launched a Mission XI Million programme to get 11 million children get a taste of football and that’s a reasonably large number. And if the integration/expansion plans kicks-off, we believe 2017 year will be a very, very important year and an inflection year in Indian football.

Sundar Raman on fan base

The proposed calendar sort of aligns to the rest of the world’s calendar – nine months of club football in a year, a meritocratic pathway for the Super Cup – any club could win it at the end of the league season inn March getting on to the end of April. It will allow more number of footballers coming through the ranks. You won’t have the same set of players changing jersey and playing for a different club. But also ensuring that league one and league two have enough footballers in their ranks as much as the premier division of Indian football.

Quickly, ISL envisage continues as the home and away format, restructured with additional clubs. Obviously, all of them to follow the licensing criterion as required by the FIFA and AFC, played over a seven month duration. League one similar format – 10 teams, eight, nine ten clubs into newer geographies, 90 matches, focus on maximixing revenue potential for each of those clubs and a minimum of matches at 18 for each them, again played over a seven month period. League two – two groups of club system playing home and away, playing a total of 70 matches, minimum 8  matches per team. The pathway for them is to play 8 matches per team.

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The ecosystem of Indian football, if we end rolling this out and in a successful manner, will change the white spaces from 30 teams across 15 states to 30 teams across 23 states and more importantly with a roadmap of 2020, move to every single state in India. And that is what is required for a population as large as India. To roll out a club football system which is sustainable where there is a viable career to be made for every single Indian who has a dream of playing football as a career option.

From a standpoint of the Super Cup, the objective is to create a competition which becomes the meritocratic pathway, irrespective of how big or small, how big your salary purse is or how small it is, how smaller a location you are coming from or not, it is envisaged as a 45 match competition, leading from a qualifier to the semifinal stage played over a two month period on a neutral location or a set of locations that makes it conducive for teams and fans to support their clubs as the giants of Indian football across the three tiers.

Roadmap for future of Indian Super League and I-League explained

While at it, there is also Indian football that is focussing on the women’s league. The first edition of the women’s league was launched in the later part of 2016, a few months back. There is a pre-qualifier that happened in July-August, the tournament happened in January-February. We believe there is a big opportunity for women’s football and this is something that we will continue to focus and develop as we look ahead in shaping Indian football and just not focussed on the men’s Indian football.

CHALLENGES

The intent and goal orientation across all stakeholders has been very, very clear from the beginning. If we put all our minds together and say we want Indian football to succeed, drive and provide a viable career option for the youth of the country, we have to taken on any obstacles that come along the way.

The obstacles have been in the form of structures, governance, attracting investments, finding younger Indian talent, providing Indians with more younger heroes from India. The chances of us succeeding will only increase if there are more and more Indian kids shining on the stage, making a name and a mark for themselves. To us, that is a substantive learning we have got from the Indian Premier League (IPL) where we had mercenaries coming and playing in the IPL, big names big bucks. What the Indian boys learnt is the ability to cope under pressure, perform under pressure with 50000 prying eyes cheering and jeering them.

Sundar Raman hurdles

To me that sort of set the tone that if you believe in yourself, you will start to punch above your weight and the minute that starts to happen in Indian football ecosystem, with a structure like this, we can address those three or four blocks then we are really on the highway to success.

TALENT

The success of the football ecosystem cannot be restricted only to a club level. It needs to permeate to the country and with talks of a 48 country participation in the World Cup, it becomes even more imperative that large number of Indian talent comes through the ranks. The redefined ecosystem that we are trying to put into place of three tiers will allow more a 1000 players to start to look at it as a viable career. That gives you a large enough pool to pick and choose from the quality of talent that is available.

WILL WE SEE RELEGATION-PROMOTION IN NEW LEAGUE STRUCTURE?

These are ongoing conversations. Clearly we will look at all of that at an appropriate time. There are governance structures that need to be put in place, there are commercial economies that need to be put in place, unlike the Premier League where there is a parachute payment which allows the clubs to land softly over a period of time, unless those metrics start to evolve, it becomes a difficult decision to go and say ‘Let’s do it from tomorrow.’ We must take care of the entire ecosystem in a manner that we are protecting but not at the cost of competitiveness and meritocratic pathway. We will ensure that all that happens.

The success of the football ecosystem cannot be restricted only to a club level. It needs to permeate to the country and with talks of a 48 country participation in the World Cup, it becomes even more imperative that large number of Indian talent comes through the ranks. The redefined ecosystem that we are trying to put into place of three tiers will allow more a 1000 players to start to look at it as a viable career. That gives you a large enough pool to pick and choose from the quality of talent that is available.

RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CLUBS AND LEAGUES

We enjoy a good league-club relationship ever since the day we kicked off. The fact remains that the league becomes stronger if the clubs become stronger and the clubs become stronger if the league becomes stronger. To us at this point of time, it is about attracting the right kind of investment. You have 40 advertisers who have some consistency into sport as an investment. To us, people should stop looking at football or sport at large, as tactical investment. The commercial and broadcasting structure of India are more favourable as an advertising-based model rather than a subscription based model where people start to pay a subscription to watch major sporting events. That market is still evolving.

Sundar Raman

Football is not necessarily the most advertiser friendly model. There is a commercial break in cricket at the end of every over or every five minutes. Those are the challenges that we need to work together with. It’s about attracting investments, sustaining and ensuring that the player costs are manageable. At the same time, attracting more and more talent to come and play here.

The success of the football ecosystem cannot be restricted only to a club level. It needs to permeate to the country and with talks of a 48 country participation in the World Cup, it becomes even more imperative that large number of Indian talent comes through the ranks. The redefined ecosystem that we are trying to put into place of three tiers will allow more a 1000 players to start to look at it as a viable career. That gives you a large enough pool to pick and choose from the quality of talent that is available.

TIMEFRAME FOR THE NEW ECOSYSTEM TO BE IMPLEMENTED

I would like it to start tomorrow. There are a few hurdles, as I said too, to cross and we will take one day at a time as we cross those hurdles.

The success of the football ecosystem cannot be restricted only to a club level. It needs to permeate to the country and with talks of a 48 country participation in the World Cup, it becomes even more imperative that large number of Indian talent comes through the ranks. The redefined ecosystem that we are trying to put into place of three tiers will allow more a 1000 players to start to look at it as a viable career. That gives you a large enough pool to pick and choose from the quality of talent that is available.

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN FOR MERGER TO TAKE PLACE

If it has to happen this year then there are certain conversations which need to be closed with the AIFF and the joint venture partners in the Indian football system along with the I-League and the ISL clubs. Obviously, we need to get new investors on board to expand the league and structure the calendar, the discussions with the existing clubs also needs to happen. All of this in the works.

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