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Will the shorter football version succeed in India?

MUMBAI: Will the shorter football version succeed in India and a new sporting business be born?

Premier Futsal Management (PFM) will organise India’s first futsal league across eight cities from 15 to 24 July. 56 futsal players will take part. This faster, five-a-side version of football will include Indian players.

A franchise model, the organisers are looking to take a cue from Pro Kabaddi League in that costs are lower in terms of players and infrastructure.

However, one issue is that Fifa has not sanctioned the event. The AIFF has apparently sought legal advice. However, PFM CEO and director Abhinandan Subramanian is unfazed.

“Just to give a bit of background, Fifa and AMF are both governing bodies of futsal in the world. AMF futsal tournaments have predated Fifa tournaments. They have co-existed peacefully everywhere else in the world. I don’t see it being an issue that our event is not being done under Fifa,” he said.

Subramanian also noted that the talent pool for football and futsal are different. Professional football players do not play futsal and vice versa.

PFM will be doing a talent hunt in the eight cities to find Indian futsal players prior to the start of the league. 15 players will be identified, who will go into training with international players. Finally, five will be selected for the squad. Thus, there will be no clash with the AIFF from a talent perspective.

“There is no conflict as such. We have partnered the Futsal Association of India, which runs domestic leagues televised on DD Sports. It comes under the aegis of the AMF. The FAI has a very good talent pool and I don’t foresee any problems with the AIFF. They are a Fifa-registered body and we are AMF registered.”

Subramanian noted that the initial reasoning is that there is global passion for the sport. “Globally futsal is the fastest-growing indoor sport in the world. If you look at the major footballing pockets like England, Spain and Brazil, youth up to the age of 16 are fully subscribed to futsal. So federations have picked up on it as the go-to sport to train youngsters. Futsal itself has its own identity and has become a major sport. There are World Cups done by AMF and Fifa, which run in parallel to the football World Cups.

“In the Indian context, everyone has played futsal. It is just that we do not know that this is what it is called. It is like playing gully cricket, which turned out to be T20 cricket. The Indianness of it and the fact that it is the coolest sport that you have never heard of is something that we have stuck to. This is one of the reasons why we have gone with futsal. There is a bit of arrogance in every move that a player makes. We think that Indians will accept it,” he explained.

Subramanian noted that due to what the FAI has been doing, futsal events have not been packaged and promoted in the way that Premier Futsal plans to do with it. “Players play the sport under the FAI. Also new, small leagues are happening in private spaces across the country. For instance, you have Smaash! in Mumbai, Tiki Taka in Chennai. We need to commercialise the sport at a national level.”

For the organisers the monetisation rests on franchisees, broadcast revenue and central sponsorship revenue. “For the first season we have eight franchises in the major metros and Bangalore, Kochi, Hyderabad and Goa. We have identified these as the eight cities that we want to go out with in the first season. There is a lot of interest in owning a franchise and we will announce franchise auction process shortly.”

The aim is to see that franchises can look at the league not just from a brand perspective but also from an ROI perspective. A price discovery for franchises is being done. “We are talking to people to understand the bottlenecks in holding a franchise in other leagues. We have understood the bottlenecks and how we can optimise the overall league structure.”

Since futsal is played indoors, the monsoons are not an issue. In terms of learning from other leagues, he highlighted the high productions values of the PKL and the marketing of the ISL.

The event has roped in Virat Kohli as the brand ambassador. There is boldness in the sport and the way in which players take control within the constraints of time and space. “There are specifics within which the game operates like the 40-minute time limit. There is cockiness and subtle arrogance, and it fits with Virat. He has ticked all the right boxes.”

The aim is to have a shorter breakeven like the PKL. “Futsal lends itself to lower costs as the requirements of players and infrastructure are on the lower side. The costs of the game are at a much lower level. The aim is to optimise the operations so that it can become a lucrative ROI model for franchise owners as well in line with the PKL.”

Finance director Nithyashree Subban said that the aim is to see that franchises get an ROI in four to five years. Revenue will be a mix of central and local revenue. The former will see franchises get a share of broadcast revenue and central sponsorship deals. The latter will be about gate receipts. She takes heart from the fact that futsal is a new sport to the country and Indians are receptive of anything new.

“We would like to believe that the newness of the sport, coupled with the skills that will be shown on TV, will be the pull factor. We will announce the broadcaster shortly. Sponsors are happy about the fact that this is a new sport, there is promise for it to be built, and that it is a sport that is completely made for TV. There are a lot of big names in terms of international footballing legends and international futsal players. A campaign will be run to announce these names,” Subban said.

Subramanian added that international sports franchise owners will be looked at. “We are looking for well-known brands and also for brands that are savvy investors to be part of the owners set-up. Since this is a new sport and we are here for the long term, franchise owners have to be aligned to the passion of the sport and the commitment to develop it.”

Each squad will have 13 players including a marquee legend and five Indian players. Luis Figo is involved with the league. “He started off his career playing futsal with his local club in Lisbon, Portugal. He told us that great players like Zidane, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho have come through the futsal ranks to become skilful in football.”

Subramanian further noted that futsal and football have different sets of players, as the skills required for each format are very different. The stadiums are different for one thing. It is not like cricket where all the three formats are played on the same strip.

“Futsal has 20-minute halves. It is played in a 40-by-20 court. The tactics in futsal are very different from football. Football players would look amateurish on a futsal pitch and vice versa. In cricket, meanwhile, technicalities have happened like the bat becoming lighter. So it is easier to transition between the three formats.”

For now, Premier Futsal will happen only in India. Once India settles down, the organisers might take the event to other markets when it becomes big. “We have a billion eyeballs here. 10,000 people play the sport already. By bringing down international players and legends, India will be quick to pick up the sport,” he said.