Estimated reading time:9 minutes, 54 seconds
Friends call him Buddha for a reason.
Be in life, sports or the business of it, very few things frazzle Balu Nayar anymore or upset his Zen-like calmness. This notoriously intense professional – with cross-sectoral work experience with global advertising, media, telecoms and internet companies is always a picture of peace.
More importantly, as the former MD of sports and celebrity management company IMG in India, Balu, as he is popularly known among peers, along with his team conceived, designed, marketed and successfully monetised the Indian Premier League (IPL) —- the biggest cricket carnival anyone had ever seen. So handling high adrenaline assignments without breaking into a sweat has also now become second nature.
So when Dinesh Raj, Nithyashree Subban, Abhinandan Subramanian along with their investor Xavier Britto teamed up with Balu and conceptualised Premier Futsal – a 5 side, indoor variant of football – he was ready to play ball once again. If anyone can withstand IPL’s multi-billion dollar stakes, this looked like a dribble in the park.
It’s the T20 of football. An inter-city competitive league featuring global legends Ronaldinho, Falcao, Hernan Crespo, Michel Salgado, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs jostling with professional futsalers from over 20 countries including Brazil, Columbia, Russia, Libya, Italy among others and high performing local talent; a young, dynamic and exciting format that’s simple and viewer friendly — with 2 matches over in 80 minutes and no off side rules — it was meant to be turbo charged entertainment. As Balu puts it, “Designed for today’s audience – quick, simple and flamboyant, amenable to viral content on social media, with a great in-stadia experience, probably better than provided by any other sport.”
Should be a trailblazer right?
But even before the kick off there was a foul.
A hostile Indian football federation tackled hard to trip up Premier Futsal (PF) by calling it “illegal, unsanctioned and unauthorized.” Overnight Futsal became a perceived threat to Indian Super League (ISL) – a 2 season old, much hyped multi-city professional football tournament. Even Praful Patel, politician-cum- highest office bearer of Indian football, unleashed his diatribe. “Any brand Ambassador of an ISL franchise cannot do the same for a league not recognised by #AIFF or #FIFA,” he tweeted. What looked like a red card to Virat Kohli, Premier Futsal’s star backer, the larger, bitter subtext was for all to see.
Very few will publicly admit but corporate shadow boxing and bullying by deeper pocket rivals soon ensured potential Futsal sponsors and franchise owners to pull out from the first edition of the tournament, some even as late as a week before the final countdown.
But throughout Balu did not fret, fuss or lose sleep. He seemed to have second guessed every manoeuvre. A dose of yoga and an active lifestyle was enough to distress.
“Evidently big business with interests in sports was not happy. Sponsors, franchise owners were specifically told to stay away. Many buckled, some didn’t,” admits a senior marketing head on condition of anonymity.
With their backs to the wall, PF’s chairperson Britto had to pump in Rs 75 crore -Rs 100 crore himself in offline advertisements, TV production, travel and logistics, in stadia experience. “But now the proof of the pudding is for all to see. Season 1 behind them, they will only grow from here. Next year should be the breakthrough year. I know international advertisers are in talks already to come on board,” the person quoted above added.
But after being reticent throughout, save one stern rebuff, July 24th was the time for Premier Futsal to give back a rousing reply to all its critics and fence sitters. In front of a full house in Mapusa, team Mumbai 5s were crowned the inaugural champions after a thrilling final against the arch rivals from Kochi that went up to sudden death. It culminated a fortnight of pulsating fast paced matches; jaw-dropping twists, turns and trickery, shake of the hips, the audacious dribble, no-glance passes and ‘nutmegs’ from the marque headline acts. The packed stadiums in Chennai and Goa — even on weekdays — would go ballistic every time the young and raw local talents, handpicked from a nationwide launch pad programme, would match the global icons shoulder to shoulder and score. A group of over 60 kids from the Manchester United Club Fans of India virtually painted the stadium red with their giant banners, and brought the house down with their raucous support for Giggs and Scholes.
“Till the last minute, there was an air of suspicion and doubts if we would be able to withstand such opposition. Nobody believed we could deliver so many international stars who have never played in India before,” quips Xavier Britto, who as Chairman, Premier Futsal, backed the league, even bankrolling it almost entirely[b2] .” But we worked hard in silence. Now the success should make all the noise.”
Balu though flatly refuses to talk about the preceding controversies. “Enjoy life like a multidimensional blitz chess tournament. If everything went according to plan, our existence would be deathly boring,” is his diplomatic answer, underplaying the whole thing.
Futsal fever has caught on fast. In between the goals, #PremierFutsal had even trended on social media at least 4 times and a video clip of Ronaldinho scoring 5 goals against Bangalore became one of the most watched sports videos in over a decade!
Even television ratings show a rising wave of enthusiasm. As per the latest ratings, 15 match Premier Futsal league had 3 times more unique viewers and average viewership than the 61 match ISL’s 2nd season in 2015.
“I am really surprised at the response. The thumping energy is infectious and there lies its charm,” says Dilip Chabbria of the eponymous car design company and owner of Mumbai 5s franchise. “Backing motorsport would have been such a cliche.”
Compared to the first meeting with Lalit Modi in London’s blue blooded Cadogan Place in 2006 to think of “ways to revitalise Indian domestic cricket and bring back the viewers,” Nayar met the core team behind was to become Premier Futsal in 2015 in far humbler settings in Mumbai’s tony Bandra over beer for help in conceptualising and taking to market a sports related property.
In retrospect, IPL had the momentum created by Dhoni’s boys winning the T20 World Cup and the presence of Indian and international stars to at least generate the initial trial viewing. It also had the backing of a pragmatic body like BCCI. The tough part for Balu and IMG was to convince them to rope in private ownership for franchises and allow team selection to go out of their hands. “Capitalism entered (with its pluses and minuses) and a mix of entertainment were all part of the design,” says Nayar.
“Modi was the poster boy of the IPL… But the face can only get credit if the core is right and that is where Balu’s team stood out,” recalls commentator Harsha Bhogle, who was associated with the league from inception till 2016.
Premier Futsal in comparison, on the other hand was a new sport being introduced after a very long time.
“I saw in Futsal a potential to do what the IPL had done to conventional cricket,” says Nayar.
“This sport, for all its flamboyance and far more use of ball control and technique, hasn’t really got the attention that it deserves and I thought there was a definite proposition for the Indian audience,” he explains further.
This was however, a blind hypothesis – there was no on-ground evidence to back it but just a gut instinct backed by his own experience in the success of the IPL.
“It’s always hard to break the initial barrier but when you start you need to take a leap of faith. Cricket lords over everything in India but football is an old sport while Futsal is an innovation. So if you mix international stars with home grown talent and mix fun and entertainment in the mix, you can fill in the shortfall,” argues tennis legend Vijay Amritraj and the promoter behind Champions Tennis League, someone with whom Nayar worked closely for Chennai Open.
Agree’s Vinit Karnik, Business Head at ESP Properties, the sports and entertainment specialist unit under WPP’s GroupM: “Futsal as a format is something we can easily relate to.Simply look around in our playgrounds and you will see the sport being played largely as 3 a side or 5 a side.”
What’s really adding value to advertisers is the universal appeal and the early signs are encouraging. 57% of the audience is rural. Just like IPL, it has also crossed the gender divide — 41% of our first-day audience has been female.
“Balu got the whole consumer experience from his stint in Yahoo Asia. Nobody spoke that language then. He can take his cross discipline approach into new ventures,” says Seattle based Sunil Sanghani, ex Vice President for Strategic Ventures at IMG who worked closely with the team in India across multiple properties. “He’s extremely well networked across sports, music, technology industry guys,” adds Sandip Das, former Deputy MD, Hutchison-Essar.
The unknown has always helped Balu to press the refresh button on his career every few years to get into a new domain. And since sports is an everlasting passion, his involvement with Premier Futsal will continue. Even before IMG, during 2003 cricket Cricket World Cup, as head of Hutchison’s Head of Value Added Services, Balu worked with his team to offer live match video clips on 2G — unprecedented the world over – to all Hutch subscribers.
The objective will be to build on the initial Futsal momentum and help stakeholders make a good return on investments. The owners of the Chennai team for example, Hindu are pumping in approximately Rs.10 crore each year, for a period of 10-12 years. In comparison, each team in ISL invested around Rs 50 crore on year 1 alone. Operating profits are expected from 2nd year onwards.
“It looks promising and has a lot of potential. However it is still in early stages of development in India,” says Rajesh Kaul, President Sports Business, Sony Pictures Network, Premier Futsal’s broadcast partner.
From experience Balu knows, the teething problems will always be there. He remembers even back in 2008, IPL was that close to being a failure. A day before media rights bids — the first really important milestone — were due to be opened on a Monday, the healthy competition amongst 6 bidders had plummeted to just 2. Even after sending prospectus to 6000 potential buyers in India, UK, US, Australia and the Middle East, they just scraped through on franchise bids with only 10 valid bids for 8 teams.
But nobody remembers all that now. What’s important is even after season 9 this year, 317 million people received at least an hour of unbridled joy from the IPL. Knowing that is the biggest “wealth creation in his mind.”
So Next season of Premier Futsal will be bigger and grander with 2 new city franchises and at least 2 additional venues. Star involvement from Luis Figo will ensure big names and building a world-class property. Virat Kohli with his dizzying star concentration, will also continue to add chutzpah to the marketing cocktail and connect with the audience to build new sports and stars, but creating noise alone won’t be good enough — it needs to sustain its fan base and make money.
Industry players estimate, Pro Kabbadi League, arguably till date the most successful non-cricket property on the back of massive marketing spends has seen around Rs 300-350 crore getting ploughed in by the league management company, broadcaster and team owners cumulatively to make it onto a TRP jackpot in 3 years flat with some teams breaking even on year 2 itself. Back of the envelope calculations for ISL puts a comparative figure to Rs 650-700 crores after two seasons and profits remain elusive while that for Mahesh Bhupati’s 2 year old International Tennis League would be Rs 75 -Rs 100 crore a season.
A new game of blitz chess has only just begun.