To the All India Football Federation (AIFF), it seemed like a marketing coup that would change the game. After all, the joint-venture it inked a megabuck, multi-year marketing deal with had Reliance Industries and IMG, a global giant in sports marketing and management. Seventeen months later, there seems to be many a slip between potential and performance.
The 15-year, Rs. 700 crore deal in December 2010 promised, according to the IMG website, to "radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularise and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level." Kushal Das, the AIFF secretary who was with IMG, had then said time had come for football to generate big money.
With the AIFF ending the last fiscal at least Rs. 5 crore in the red and its marketing partner having done little to fulfill its promise, ennui seems to have replaced excitement. The marketing partners are yet to get a title sponsor for any AIFF tournament, including the I-League. It was also learnt the AIFF has forwarded three suggestions to revamp the I-League and cut costs but don't know how and if they have been taken forward.
Not only that, IMG Reliance missed the April 20 deadline to inform clubs about the changes they planned to ramp up Indian football. Speaking from Pune, Chirag Tanna, head operations Pune FC, which finished fifth in the last I-League, said: "It took IMG-Reliance 15 months to meet the I-League clubs and that happened after a letter was sent to the AIFF and them signed by 12 out of the 14 clubs. During this meeting held in February, Jefferson Slack, IMG's Senior Vice-President, committed to come back with a revised I-League structure on 20th April. We are in the first week of June, and in spite of repeated reminders, we haven't received any communication.
"…In fact, in the last 12 months, nothing has been done to improve the I-League or Division 2, only 1 club youth tournament was conducted and that too lasted for only a month… These are alarming signs and if things don't change quickly, Indian football will sink."
Tanna said I-League clubs are likely to meet by the second week of June to decide on their next step. As an outsider looking in, Sabya Sachi Dasgupta, managing director of the Kolkata-based sports management company, Leisure Sports Management, which helped the AIFF start the National Football League in 1995 with IMG, said it is possible there is a lack of interaction between the AIFF and its commercial arm.
"Possibly what is missing is an appropriate package that puts football in the correct context. Why have the I-League with so many teams, spend so much if the market isn't ready for it? The first year we ran the Premier Hockey League, it was worth Rs. 4 crore and we had international stars in a product that predated the IPL," he said.
Two divisions of the I-League and its U-19 competition cost the AIFF approximately Rs. 15 crore last season, said a federation official who didn't want to be named. Barring the yearly Rs. 31 crore IMG Reliance was committed to paying - it will increase to Rs. 38 crore from this year till 2015 - the AIFF's other major source of income is around Rs. 5 crore annually its national team sponsor Panasonic pays.
That deal predated the arrangement with IMG Reliance but once it expires next March, a new one will have to be routed through the marketing partners. Ditto the agreement with kit sponsors (Nike) which ended last January.
"This agreement grants IMG Reliance all commercial rights across all football properties controlled by AIFF including but not limited to the national teams and all current and future professional leagues. Such rights include media rights, sponsorship and advertising rights, licensing and merchandising rights, franchise rights, new league rights and any other commercial rights...," according to the IMG website.
"This doesn't seem like a good deal because it is not based on individual properties of the AIFF. Also, I think football has been undersold. The I-League alone has over 180 matches and even if that alone was worth Rs. 35 crore, it would come down to only around Rs. 20 lakh per match. It is almost like a distress sale to get out of its earlier deal," said Bhaswar Goswami whose company, Celebrity Management Group, organised the Argentina-Venezuela international friendly and brought Diego Maradona over in 2008.
If the AIFF has given up hope, it is not showing it. "Because this is a 15-year deal, the gestation period too is a little long. I am sure before the next season starts, IMG Reliance will have a lot of things to say about how they want to take Indian football forward. Banking on the reputation of Reliance Industries and IMG, we sold the rights because we thought nobody would be able to market football better. And as they are also our strategic partners, we are waiting for them to add value to our suggestions," said Subrata Dutta, the AIFF's senior vice-president.
It is rumoured that former AIFF general secretary Alberto Colaco would join IMG Reliance as a part-time consultant after his term as general secretary of the Goa ends on Thursday. IMG Reliance didn't react despite repeated attempts to contact them. Chief operating officer Ashu Jindal didn't respond to a text message or email from HT.