The Premier Futsal league returns on September 15 for its second season, bringing together retired international football legends such as Ronaldinho and Ryan Giggs, professional futsal players and local Indian talent.

Last year, the inaugural season of the league, which has Portuguese football legend Luis Figo as its president and India cricket captain Virat Kohli as a co-owner, was watched by at least 100 million people around the world, according to figures quoted in the media.

The two-week-long second season will be played in two Indian cities – Mumbai and Bengaluru – before moving on to Dubai for the semi-finals and final. This season, the league has roped in actors Sunny Leone and Rana Dagubatti as brand ambassadors and co-owners of franchises.

The Field caught up with Premier Futsal’s CEO and co-owner, Abhinandan Balasubramanian, 26, who spoke about why the league had a change of venues from last season, what are the new things that fans can expect this year, what does it take to run a futsal franchise, why they aren’t bothered about being recognised by the All India Football Federation, and what are the future plans.

Excerpts from an interview:

Let’s get the biggest news related to Premier Futsal season two out of the way first. Why Sunny Leone?

Honestly, [it’s because] she is the most Googled Indian. Last year, one of the biggest learnings for us was that our product was great – people loved what they saw on TV – but one of the things that we lacked was the celebrity flavour to the whole thing. Any league in India, be it the Indian Premier League or Pro Kabaddi, has celebrities [endorsing it]. It’s necessary – Bollywood and cricket sell in India.

Along with driving the league by saying we are going to have the biggest footballers in the world, we also want people from the film industry amplifying that message. That’s why we have chosen our brand ambassadors and co-owners of each team on the basis of their reach on various digital platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Sunny fits the bill: She is the most Googled Indian, she has 30 million – 40 million followers on social media. In fact, every team this year has one celebrity co-owner. We will be announcing the rest over the next few days.

How do you build up an event that is so small in length commercially?

Our idea is not just to build out the league from a commercial point of view but also the Launchpad, which is the Indian talent hunt that we do. What we’re trying to do from next year onwards is to extend Launchpad into a three-to-four-month programme. That gives room for us to make a mini Indian league in itself – like a Ranji Trophy for futsal.

The three key elements of a sports league in the Western world are: creating jobs, building communities and setting up infrastructure. In India, we don’t have an existing futsal ecosystem. I think this ecosystem can only be created if you have great grassroot infrastructure. The All India Football Federation is starting its own futsal league in Goa next year but otherwise I think the sport is largely unknown in India.

Portuguese football legend Luis Figo is the president of Premier Futsal (Image: IANS)

Are there any plans of expanding the league itself?

The league is two-weeks long this year and we don’t see it in anyway becoming longer than four weeks. Two main reasons: Firstly, the [international] football players are way too expensive for us to be able to afford them for more than that duration.

Secondly, with any sporting event of this nature, you will lose your viewership in the middle period. Even the IPL has shown you that the first 15 days and the last 15 days is when the buzz is. Maybe that’s just our Indian mentality and culture that we as viewers cannot stick on to something for a period of over a month. Unless it is something like the Premier League which happens over nine months but comes every weekend only.

All the Indian leagues which are 10-to-15-days long have been changing owners frequently. Why does this happen?

[This is why] we didn’t have team owners last year. We had principal sponsors. There were questions being asked about the legitimacy of the league and lots of people wanted a huge discount on what it was worth. We felt it was best to continue it ourselves and just have team sponsors. This year, we have team owners because things have changed.

Today, we are getting more savvy investors who understand sport, who understand you have to bare losses for three-to-five years, then think about profitability and then about sustainability. They have to draw out a seven-to-10-year roadmap with a burn for the first three-to-five years, and only then enter into the sports business.

Can you give us a ball-park figure for the costs that a team owner and the league have to bear?

For teams, from an operational perspective, it’s largely the players’ salaries, their logistics and all of that, a bit of marketing. In that sense, just the operational cost for any team owner per year on average is about Rs 5 crore to Rs 5.5 crore, largely because of the [marquee] footballer, who takes up about 60% of that cost. The franchise fee depends on the city. The commercial value of a Mumbai or a Delhi team is much more than a Hyderabad or a Kochi team.

But as a league itself, what we’ve done very differently compared to all the other leagues in our country is we have taken all production, execution and on-ground management on us, just to ensure that there is complete standardisation of the quality of what’s going on. Our average spend per year would be around Rs 75 crore. That would go down a little bit once we have all the team owners come in and share our costs. At the moment, our forecast for revenues over the next three years is Rs 30 crore to Rs 35 crore annually.

The Mumbai franchise, which Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs plays for, won the inaugural season last year

What would you say about the standard of Indian futsal players?

You’d be surprised. Technically, India does not have a professional futsal player. The guys we get on board are amateur players who have gone through trials and been selected. But Indians scored about nine goals and had five or seven assists last year. And the guys they are playing against aren’t ordinary – they are the world’s best futsal players. If they can score these goals past the best goalkeepers in futsal means they are great talent.

What we’re trying to do starting from this season is give one Indian player per team the opportunities to play at the academies of our legends for three-to-six months.

Are you facing a crunch in terms of finding Indian talent because the AIFF has not recognised the league?

No, no. Lots of private leagues happen globally – in Kuwait, Australia, US. Some of the biggest futsal players play in them – Falcao, Ricardinho, etc. We are building it out as a private league. We are also a combination of two different sports coming together in one format, so it’s misinformation that drives people to say you need recognition.

The fact of the matter is we’re mixing two sports. We combine retired football players, local talent and professional futsal players, so we can’t be officially recognised. It’s an intellectual property that we have created.

Can you provide some clarity with respect to what happened in the whole Bhaichung Bhutia episode? One day you announced he was your ambassador, the next day he pulled out. What exactly happened?

No comments on that.

Considering that the AIFF plans to start its own league, how many years do you think you will require to be self-sufficient?

Our roadmap is over a three-to-four-year period. Obviously, you can’t guarantee that we will break even by the fourth year and reach profitability but given the way things are progressing it gives us confidence that we can break even in the fourth year.

For instance, Carlsberg and Etihad have come on as sponsors this year and they have never done football sponsorship in India before. If you see our other sponsors or partners, you will see many new companies who have never tested sports sponsorships before.

That means we are talking to a new-age audience in a tech-startup world whose employees are always watching football. That gives us hope that we can reach profitability in the next two to three years.

Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho confirmed his three-year association with Premier Futsal (Image: IANS)

You have six teams from six different cities, but the league is being played only in two Indian cities. How does that work?

We are a made-for-TV product. We don’t see ourselves as a home-and-away venue-based sporting model. Our idea is to every year go to two new cities and have one destination for the semi-finals and finals, package it like the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens.

Having these footballers here for a two-week period and having them travel to six different cities will just cause strain, even for the futsallers. It leads to fatigue and a drop in performance. We don’t want that. Our league is made for TV – it is indoors so we are anyway not going to get more than 5,000 people in a stadium, so it doesn’t matter where it is being held.

Why Dubai?

Why not? We’re an international product. We have players from over 25 countries playing in this league. I don’t think any other league in India can boast of this number. Our viewership overseas is equal to our viewership in India – again something no other league in India can boast of. We got a lot of appreciation from around the world after the first season, predominantly because futsal has never been done at this scale ever before.

We went to Dubai because it is a global hub, there is a very strong football culture in the whole Gulf region, it’s a well-known sport there as opposed to India where we brought it in.

Is the eventual plan to have overseas teams as well?

We are open to that and we have got some interest for an overseas team. We’ll see how it goes, we are taking it one step at a time.

What’s new this year?

The rules are the same, but there are some other changes. From a television perspective, we have added a lot of new technologies. We have Spidercams and slo-mo cams, which have never been used in football before. More importantly, the whole packaging will change. We are trying to think of what kind of analysis can be done, bring in data such as how many calories were burnt by a player, what is the acceleration that happens, heart rates, etc. From a stadium experience point of view, we are doing a lot of things to engage with fans this year.

What are your viewership targets for this season?

Our overall viewership in India last year, including TV and digital, was around 33 million. Globally, it was about 61 million. Combined, it was about 100 million. We have to achieve at least three-to-four times that this year. We are going to be broadcast in over 70 countries this season.

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