Abhishek Sharma had first watched Nadong Bhutia play in 2014 when the striker from Sikkim was plying his trade for Mumbai City FC in the inaugural season of the Indian Super League.

Back then, Sharma was a student of sports management and working part-time in the industry. Bhutia was a budding footballer who had just entered his twenties and had earlier played in the I-League’s top two divisions. He was a part of the Royal Wahingdoh team that had finished third in the 2014-’15 I-League. He had a bright future ahead.

Two years later, however, Bhutia found himself staring at an uncertain future as a professional footballer. An ACL injury that forced him to sit out of the ISL 2016. He had also failed to make a mark after playing two seasons of ISL, failing to find the net a single time for Mumbai and ATK.

This is when Sharma approached Bhutia and offered to represent him as his agent. Sharma had formed his own sports management company called Athletes Today, which also dealt with player representation. After Bhutia agreed to come on board and recovered from his injury, Sharma got him a contract to play in the Calcutta Football League.

Today, Bhutia is not back in the ISL but has signed on to play for Minerva Punjab FC in the I-League, which has become the unofficial second tier of Indian football. “Nadong is only 24 and if he plays well in the I-League this season, I’m sure we will be able to get him back in the ISL next year,” said Sharma.

Increase in talent pool

While four to five agencies who have been in the business for the better part of the last decade represent 80% of the footballers in India, there are also dozens of new entrants – such as Sharma’s Athletes Today – that have popped up in the last three to four years, after the introduction of the ISL in 2014.

“Before the ISL, every agent was a relative or a close friend of the football player,” said Indranil Das Blah, CEO of ISL team Mumbai City FC. “But over the last three years there has been a consolidation in the market.”

With the ISL and I-League running in parallel this season, the talent pool of Indian footballers has increased, which has led to a boost in business for player agents. The ISL has also reduced the cap on the number of foreigners who can feature in the playing XI from six to five, further boosting the clubs’ requirement of signing Indian players.

With the ISL and I-League running in parallel this season, the talent pool of Indian footballers has increased (Image: ISL)

“There is a chance for somebody playing in a regional league to upgrade to the ISL or I-League,” said Nikhil Sharma, CEO of Anglian Management Group, which also represents athletes. “The I-League would have about 250 Indian players and ISL would have 100-odd, and they are both mutually exclusive. More players means more opportunities for agents, who have expanded their portfolio.”

The boom in the football agent industry in India is also helped by the fact that anybody can become a player representative provided they have a good network in the industry. The All India Football Federation has a registration process with an annual fee of Rs 50,000. However, there are only four registered football agents with the AIFF. Four out of an estimated 100 at least, according to industry experts.

Unregulated industry

The AIFF used to conduct an exam earlier, but it was scrapped two years ago when Fifa itself decided to deregulate the industry after realising that 70% of all player transfers are conducted by unlicensed agents. Fifa decided to pass the onus on to the national federations and introduced its regulations on working with intermediaries.

The regulations laid down a few ground rules such as prohibiting any kind of payment to an agent if the player concerned is a minor. Fifa also made a few recommendations such as a 3% cap on the agent’s fee. The recommendation is hardly followed. An agent’s commission in India is in the range of 5% to 15% of the player’s contract fee, according to industry estimates.

“The 3% recommendation makes no sense in India because there are hardly any transfers taking place in the Indian market from where an agent can claim a commission, so the only source of income is the player’s contract fee,” said an industry professional who requested anonymity.

“Most players in India on average would earn between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh in a year. If you’re earning under 10% on that, it doesn’t make any financial sense for an agent,” the official added.

The figures slightly increase in the ISL, where the median contract value across the 10 clubs this season is Rs 20 lakh. The ISL also has a cap of 5% for the agent’s commission. A 5% commission on Rs 20 lakh would earn an agent Rs 1 lakh. While it is the clubs that mostly pay the agent’s fees, it’s not uncommon for the representatives to take money from the players as well.

Note: The above chart has been made with the assumption that all drafted players have agents, which may not be the case.

For non-ISL leagues, the agent’s fees depend on the market conditions and how badly the clubs want a certain player. “Right now, India is a players’ market, not a club market,” said a football agent who requested anonymity. “There are very few talented Indian players in the market, and they occupy 80% of the club’s salary budget. Supply is less and demand is more.”

Since the ISL and I-League are running in parallel, the bargaining power of players has also increased. This in turn means an agent can demand more from clubs as commission.

What do agents do to earn their fees?

The primary responsibility of agents is to find their players a club and negotiate the contracts. The negotiation does not involve just the player’s salary, but also aspects such as game time over the season. If the player is signed by a club for a high fee but then is made to sit on the bench for most of the season, he will not be able to command an increased contract value the following season.

In a developing football market such as India, agents also have to scout for players – although clubs have started doing this themselves slowly – and look after their commercial and financial aspects.

“The player representation industry in India is not structured yet and therefore a lot of what we need to do encompasses dealing with softer aspects, emotions as well as finding ways to get things done which in an ideal scenario should be no brainers,” said Varun Achreja, whose company Football Solutions represents players such as Jackichand Singh, Lalthuammawia Ralte and Souvik Chakraborty.

Agents also also look at the holistic development of young athletes. “Footballers right now aren’t earning a lot of money, so we also look at getting them boots and equipment contracts, accommodation, and even education since most of them come from very underexposed backgrounds,” said another agent who requested anonymity.

This does not mean the industry is spotless. “The biggest problem we face is that being dirty is being clever in this industry,” said the agent quoted above. “Poaching happens, not a lot of things are in public domain, not a lot of things are structured. A small carrot of money or good football boots is sometimes more than enough to entice them to sign,” the agent added.

If this has to become a recognised industry, all player representatives need to be aligned, said Achreja. “It is only then that we will be able to do justice to all football players that come from modest backgrounds and help them avoid the traps of manipulation, enticement, poaching and other dirty practices that currently plague the industry.”

Disorganised industry

The disorganised nature of the industry also pops up issues such as multiple agents claiming to represent one player. “This is why I always talk to the player first and ask him who represents him,” said Mandar Tamhane, chief technical officer at ISL club Bengaluru FC.

This problem can be eradicated if players have a mandate with their agent, Tamhane added. “There should be an official legal document where a player says I am represented by X agent for this season. A verbal agreement is a big uncertainty.”

Such issues should not come as a surprise in an industry that is still growing, industry professionals said. “There are places where improvements can be made but it’s happening slowly,” said Kuldeep Sharma, who has represented footballers in India since 2010. “Five years ago there were hardly 10 agents in India but now there are more than 100.”

Club officials are of the opinion that agents do need to exist as long as they are competent enough. “Any Tom, Dick and Harry should not come and say I am a football agent and I can take care of players’ interests,” said an ISL club official who requested anonymity as he was not permitted to speak with the media.

“At the end of the day, it is necessary that the players focus only on the game and leave everything else to their representatives,” he added.