Sitting in the comfort of his plush, air-conditioned suite at the Four Seasons in south Mumbai on a balmy early summer afternoon two years ago, Jefferson Slack—IMG’s global business development head for football—moaned about his company making huge losses by investing in Indian football.
Investing in India, Slack claimed, was the biggest commitment IMG has ever made in football. But it was not yielding desired results. To make it sustainable, a new parallel tournament was required. He didn’t elaborate on the ‘parallel tournament’ back then.
Last Monday, though, IMG-Reliance finally went public with their plans. IMG-R and Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV invited bids to buy teams for the Indian Super League (ISL). It’s an ambitious project and has already been postponed twice due to logistical reasons. This time, though, they are confident of kicking off the eight-city tournament, another offspring of cricket’s commercially successful Indian Premier League (IPL), in September.
Recently-retired football stars like Dwight Yorke, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Louis Saha and Hernan Crespo have already confirmed their participation. IMG-R further claim to be in ‘advanced’ talks with the likes of Thierry Henry and Michael Owen. World-renowned coaches such as Kenny Dalglish, Marcel Desailly and Peter Schmeichel, too, have confirmed their presence. The auction of players and coaches is expected to be conducted in May.
The list of prospective owners is just as glamorous. Shah Rukh Khan, looking to expand his Kolkata Knight Riders brand beyond cricket, will bid for a team based out of the West Bengal capital. He is likely to be challenged by former India captain Sourav Ganguly to own a franchise from Kolkata.
Others who have expressed interest include actor John Abraham, producer Ronnie Screwvala, the Jindals, Rhiti Sports and Mahindra & Mahindra, who had ended their association with Indian football four years ago by disbanding their I-League team Mahindra United.
The market, however, still seems unclear of the promise the property holds. The base price to own an ISL team is R25 crore. This is much higher than what franchise owners paid in the Indian Badminton League (R3.5 crore) and in the Hockey India League (R10 crore). The amount is also higher than the annual budgets of the I-League teams, which hover in the range of R10-15 crore.
Despite the pieces of this puzzle slowly falling in place, there is still a lot of skepticism over the tournament’s impact on Indian football, which has reached its nadir—the national team ranks a