Beginning its kick off in August, the English Premier League (EPL), also known, for sponsorship reasons, as the Barclay’s Premier League, 2012-13 season will last till May next year. EPL is the most-watched football league in the world, broadcast to an audience of 643 million viewers, and has become hugely popular amongst football fans in India as well. In fact, in terms of television presence and fan following, football is fast emerging as a strong contender to cricket.
The English Premier League ( EPL), also known, for sponsorship reasons, as the Barclay’s Premier League, is the biggest football league in the world. Beginning its kick off in August, its 2012-13 season will last till May next year. EPL is the most-watched football league in the world, broadcast to an audience of 643 million viewers, and has become hugely popular amongst football fans in India as well. In fact, in terms of television presence and fan following, football is fast emerging as a strong contender to cricket. Sepp Blatter. the current President of International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) said, ‘I am very pleasantly surprised with the huge interest in soccer in a cricket crazy nation like India. It is the glory of the soccer world cup, which has transcended, like in other countries, over the language and sports barriers. In addition, ESPN STAR Sports’ programming initiatives and the special effort to telecast the FIFA World Cup in the national language, Hindi will further increase the viewership. I congratulate ESPN STAR Sports on all its plans to increase the popularity of soccer in India.’
The EPL kick-off has also swung the focus back on innovative happenings and connected issues in domestic football. In January this year, the formation of an interesting new Indian football league – the Premier League Soccer (PLS) — was announced – complete with world football stars ready to provide excitement and new hope for Indian football to fans, sponsors and the media. For instance, international stars like Robbie Fowler and Robert Pires were set to play in the new Indian league. Celebrity Management Group signed a long term 20-year contract, with the option of ten more years, to stage the league with Indian football authorities. This six-team tournament in the eastern state of West Bengal, the country’s most famous and most passionate football region, was to see each club with a star or ‘icon’ such as Fabio Cannavaro, Robert Pires or Robbie Fowler. Such stars were to be auctioned off live on television, just as in the mega-money spinning Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket competition, which introduced big money and glamour to the sport in 2008.
But Bhaswar Goswami. executive director of the Celebrity Management Group, was quick to dismiss the comparison. “The idea is not from the IPL,” Goswami clarified. “We have only taken one aspect from IPL and that is the auction of the players before the start of the season. Most of the stars or club ‘icons’ will be changed every year so fans will be able to feel the excitement every year.”
Six local business groups that bid successfully for a team to play in the Indian Premier League Soccer (PLS ) had spent around $7 million to buy the world stars at an auction. Crespo was picked up for $840,000 and Cannavaro for $830,000, while former Arsenal star Pires fetched $800,000, Nigerian Jay Jay Okocha got $550,000 and Fowler was sold for $530,000.
“This will be the first ever real pro tournament played in India with real professional clubs,” Goswani continues. “Each franchise will make a profit at least from year 2. They have an expense cap of $2.5 million (approximately Rs. 25 lakhs), so they must make a profit. They will share 50% of central revenues from the league. This is income from television at home and overseas and commercial ventures from the league and they will have their own sponsors and ticket revenue. It is going to be great for Indian football”.
“Along with the foreign stars, all of the other players are Indian players and then each club will have a top coach from around the world. Coaches are of huge importance in the game and this is the first time that talented young Indian players can share the dressing room with some of the top players in the world and also, some of the best-known coaches from around the world. They have never had this.
“In India, we don’t have stars in football, except for Bhaichung Bhutia, and haven’t had for a long time. We want home-grown stars. Whenever you develop a sport, you depend on the homegrown stars. The fans will always be proud to see their own boys perform. That is the basic essence of the whole model.”
India already has a model for young players and that is the top division I-League. This started with ten teams in 2007 and expanded to 14 teams. It has still some way to go to become a central part of the nation’s sporting infrastructure but it is growing in strength and professionalism. It is also where the nation’s best young players go to play. There is even a club, Palian Arrows, which is made up solely of the most promising prospects in the country and plays in the top tier with the best that the country has to offer. We can create new stars who will eventually play in the I-league.”
Crespo, Pires, Fowler and Fabio Cannavaro, Italy’s World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, were among the stars signed to play alongside district-level players. Six local business groups that bid successfully for a team to play in the PLS had spent around $7 million to buy the world stars at an auction. Crespo was picked up for $840,000 and Cannavaro for $830,000, while former Arsenal star Pires fetched $800,000, Nigerian Jay Jay Okocha got $550,000 and Fowler was sold for $530,000. However, the ambitious PLS couldn’t take off on schedule. The tournament was originally slated to be held in the state capital of Kolkata and five district towns of Howrah, Durgapur, Siliguri, Barasat and Haldia. But first, the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) refused to allow Indian players from the official domestic I-League to join, saying the PLS was essentially a state-level tournament. Then, the AIFF temporarily suspended the organisers from taking part in FIFA’S Transfer Matching System (TMS) – necessary for hiring foreign players – because the six new teams had not been properly affiliated.
This was compounded by the reluctance of the state government to release grounds owned by it for the PLS unless details of the tournament finances and the source of funding were made clear. More trouble was in store due to an inability to register the franchisees under any footballing governing body. Obviously, an iron will be needed to sort out such problems now and in the future. Meanwhile, even as the EPL is underway on foreign shores, big money and big excitement will have to wait a little in India.