In November 2019, City Football Group, the owners of Premier League champions Manchester City acquired a 65% majority stake in Indian Super League franchise Mumbai City FC.

The Mumbai side have been inconsistent performers in the ISL having reached the playoffs only on two occasions in the five campaigns so far but a variety of things worked in their favour.

The city is seen as a good market and it has a huge sports fan base that is waiting to be tapped. But, football aside, what does this deal mean for the ISL and the club? How will the know-how of the City Football Group change things?

Running a football team in the modern era is as much about knowing the game as it is about the finances. spoke to Mumbai City CEO Indranil Das Blah to try and understand the true impact of the CFG deal and the challenges ahead of his team.

Excerpts from the interview:

When you founded the club, what were you looking at achieving? And how are you looking at that plan now?

I think when we bought the club, we were very clear in our vision, we had a short term plan, medium-term plan, long-term plan broken up into three years, five years and 10 years, purely from a financial point of view, I think we walked into it with eyes open, we’re very clear that you’re not going to break even or make money in the medium term. Ten [years] is when you start breaking even so we’re aware of the expenses as such. I think the vision for me has been very good to run the most professional club, the most professional club in Asia. I think if you look at now, it’s our sixth year we’ve achieved all our goals in terms of whether it’s where we wanted to be financially, we’ve cut costs every year significantly. I think the only goal that we haven’t achieved is winning the ISL. And I think in a sense, we’ve underperformed, although, if you do a detailed study on our wins and the number of points, we’ve actually, in terms of total points still season six, we are third on the table.

No one... no one knew what to do with it [initially] apart from a ATK, I think to an extent, but they also had the support from Atletico. Alright, so that made a huge difference on the bench. If you look at the performance, it was that core group of six, seven foreigners who did the trick for them. I think in the first year, we spent ridiculously on our players. But then, I think seeing Chennai winning at the budget that was not in the top three made one realise that if you work well with your coach and you work well with your recruitment, with the technical director, you can build a good strong squad and not spend obscene amounts of money.

So, what was the big difference for you in terms of how you thought things would pan out and how they eventually did?

There were no surprises in terms of the losses we’re making. There was no surprise in terms of the kind of feedback we got from the market. I think traditionally, luckily, Mumbai has its advantages and disadvantages as a football market. I think the biggest advantage that we have is because it is the advertising and media capital of the country. If brands are looking at associating with you, they look at markets like Bombay and Delhi. So I think that’s a big advantage. We’ve always done relatively well compared to the other sides.

Initially, the ISL saw a lot of older stars come in. And now what you’re actually seeing is you just have players who can play...

I think, to start over there was a mandate, each club needed to have a marquee player, they were eight designated marquee players, you had to take them and their fees were incredible, right? The kind of fee that we were playing for one marquee player is almost entire squad costs for season six, for example. So it was a mandate, but at the same time, we understand why it was right. You needed to make a big bang, you needed to make a splash, you needed to sort of shakeup that system. So you needed those marquee players. I think some clubs got lucky, some clubs got unlucky. But if I was to go back, and if I was FSDL, I’d probably start in the same way.

How difficult is it to sell the ISL in Mumbai, to Mumbai?

It is very difficult because unfortunately a lot of your brand managers don’t understand football, there are very few people who actually understand Indian football. Out of the hundred percent marketing people you speak with, there will be 80% who don’t understand football. 10% would perhaps follow football but then they follow EPL. And then there’s a 10% who actually understand Indian football. So it’s always a challenge to sell football. Secondly, as I said, we are not like Kerala, the North East, or Goa. When a match happens there, that’s all everyone is talking about. In Mumbai, you have so many entertainment options. No matter what you do, how much noise you try to drum up. People in Colaba, Bandra don’t even know what’s going on.

I’m in the sports world, I interact with a lot of people who are into sports. But when you tell them that Mumbai has a top division club playing the ISL, firstly, their first references is that it is Ranbir [Kapoor]’s club. That is the thing and that’s what we’ve tried to use as much as possible. We are selling football, but a large part of that also, we are selling Ranbir’s club. It opens doors. I mean, like it or not, tomorrow if you go to a brand saying that we are an ISL club, we are Mumbai city, chances are they won’t listen. But if you say there’s Ranbir’s club, suddenly, you know, it’s alert.

How do you sell it to fans? How do you get them into the stadium?

I think it’s the biggest challenge. And it’s something that we have struggled with. The easiest thing to do is to have advertising spends: do ads in the newspapers, do radio spots. We, over the last six seasons, have spent almost nothing on advertising. Forget TVCs, I’m not even going out there. We struggled. I think it’s the biggest struggle getting to get people into a stadium.

I think the one thing that the Indian football ecosystem needs most is heroes. The more heroes that you develop, the easier it is to get people into the stadium. When we had Sunil Chettri for two seasons, you could see a direct impact on the number of people coming into the stadium. So I think that is the critical factor.

Beyond that is just appealing to the emotions really, one of the things that we are telling a lot of kids is we know you follow United or Liverpool and we’re not saying don’t follow them. But follow your own home club too. The quality is not great yet, but the drama is there, they are giving it 100% and it’s your own club. And there’s been a slow change. But it remains the biggest challenge. And have we found an answer? No, we haven’t.

So does the ISL have a big picture plan?

By being in the system, we know how much of an effort has been put in to try and grow the profiles of Indian players. The mandate last year from the League was very clear – we want to concentrate on local heroes. The communication last year was to build profiles from each club. They wanted to take one local player and connect with the fans. Also if you look at the domestic players across Indian sport, Indian players are earning significantly more than any other sport including cricket. Take away the IPL: when you look at Ranji trophy cricketers, your Indian footballer is earning more than that?

So I think that it’s a process that has started and it started slow but the missing piece in Indian football is developing heroes. You need multiple entries. The moment you get one Indian kid playing in a league abroad, it will be a game-changer. But if we don’t produce a player playing in a top league in Europe over the next five years, I think we would have all failed collectively.

The City Football Group deal is something that has been in the works for quite a while. How did that finally happen now? What finally got them in?

If you’re looking at any bigger takeover, across industries, it takes a while. When someone like CFG decides to invest in a new country, a new club, they go through everything. I’m not just saying financial, legal, but also in terms of the market, in terms of the city, in terms of the football capabilities, in terms of infrastructure. So, that took a while... it took more than a year. Finally, the announcement happened. But it’s something that we’ve been discussing for a long, long time.

So how does it now, you know, change things for you in terms of say the goals that you had initially?

They’re very clear. They don’t want any drastic changes. They want to understand the Indian market, although they’ve spent a lot of time researching. Till March, they just want to have boots on the ground and understand the market, not just on-field but also off-field. I’m sure between them they have their plans in terms of what they expect the club to do over the next medium or long term. But for now it’s ‘sir, let’s just understand that market’.

In terms of targets and plans, I’m sure everything that we have planned is accelerated and it should be accelerated: because they know how, and off the field and on the field with their patented software in terms of just understanding what players to buy with the scouting networks, plus in terms of marketing and in terms of sales. Very few people know how to run a football club better than the CFG group, so I’m sure all our targets would be, you know, advanced from what they are. But for now, it’s a ‘wait and watch’ for them. They’ve been very, very mindful of us and our culture.

So what sort of time frame are you looking at before you break even?

It is difficult to comment on that now because we don’t know the impact CFG will have on us, like I said in terms of the Global Partnership network. There could be sponsors from the partnerships abroad that could have a significant impact here.

What we assure is that the process of breaking even will be accelerated. There are no two ways about it. One is we expect the team to start doing better and there’s no better way of achieving commercial success than with a winning team.

Also, in terms of their overall sales network, they have relationships. We see our commercial reach increasing. They know how to market right. So when you’ve attended meetings with the CFG, with local sponsors, they speak a different language. They understand how to sell football.

We need to work out how that translates into the market, but in terms of your question, ‘will we break even sooner than expected?’ a hundred percent.

No broadcast revenue – does that hurt ISL teams?

No point complaining about it. It is what it is. In return, what do you get? You get Star [Sports]’s marketing reach. I don’t think you could have started the league the way it did if it wasn’t for Star. You could have been on any other platform any other channel and not being disrespectful to the likes of a Sony, but the kind of marketing or amplification that Star does... no one else does. So I think it sort of offsets the broadcast revenue that you don’t have. The advantage that we have is why you don’t have broadcast revenue. You have a central revenue pool, which other leagues don’t have, and while it is nowhere close to what you will probably get from broadcast, it’s still a significant jump.

So what is it like running a sports team in India...

I’ve been involved with the IPL when it began, I sell at various levels. It is the most challenging thing to run a football team because it is by far the second most popular sport in India. So, there’s an opportunity there. But it’s also the second most expensive sport after cricket and is significantly more expensive than kabaddi. So it is very, very challenging.

But again, like I said, the opportunity is right. Today we look at the kind of monies that all the asset clubs make from local sponsorships. It’s more than double what the PKL club’s make. Kabaddi is a great property and is the second most-watched sport in the country. But does it translate to local sponsorships? No, it doesn’t.

That shows the power and growth of football or the opportunity of football. Today a Mumbai city FC makes significantly more in terms of local sponsorship than PKL when TV numbers for PKL are much better than ISL. So that shows that there’s potential there. There is a reason why football is the most popular sport in the world. And that’s an opportunity that I think sooner rather than later, we will latch on to.

It almost seems like a race between other sports to try and get the first Indian global superstar.

What I swear by is that the opportunity for football is much more than like the likes of the NBA; because the NBA is really niche. If and when you have an Indian breaking into the NBA, it’s going to be a game-changer. There’s no doubt about it. But the kind of numbers that you look at would be nowhere close to football, because of the global nature.

How do you look at the Chinese Super League model? Is it sustainable?

I think the main difference between China and India is you have a diktat from the government in China saying that you have to play football in all schools. And because we are a democracy, we can’t do that. I think the other game-changer that should happen in Indian football is that you need the Federation, the central government to get involved. The same way it is in some of the other countries because the moment it becomes a diktat from the government saying that you have to do grassroots or you have to spend on the development of the sport. That’s when corporates wake up as well. There’s only so much you can do as a private enterprise.

Things are ever-changing in Indian football. How badly does football need stability?

Stability is what everyone looks at in any business; not just sport of football, you look at stability, you look at a long term roadmap, and unfortunately, we’ve not had that in Indian football. The closest we’ve come would be now, where you know that there is a defined plan: you know what will happen in two years with promotion-relegation, you know what will happen in 10 years or in five years with a larger, maybe a unified league.You can develop players knowing where they will be in five years or 10 years from now, but it’s been a challenge.

I don’t see the ISL going anywhere. I think that too much money has been spent on it. And the foundations are strong. You’ve got a strong channel partner, you’ve now got financially stable clubs, and you have an ecosystem that’s developed. So I don’t see any major changes happening unless something drastic happens in Indian sport, or in Indian politics.

Has the economic condition affected Mumbai City FC?

It’s definitely affected us. There are no two ways about it. I know for a fact that our revenues from local sponsorships should be at least 50% higher, especially post the CFG announcement. It’s a huge announcement for people who don’t understand football even. The moment you say that we are a Manchester City club, people’s ears perk right up.

So we will be hoping that the announcement will help significantly increase our local sponsorships. Yes, we’ve got a couple of additional sponsors, but it’s nowhere close to what we expected. I’m part of an entertainment agency. So beyond football, we speak about entertainment, Bollywood, music, sports, everything else. And there’s been a distinct slowdown in marketing and advertising spends. If you look at most brands, the first place they’ll cut is their marketing budgets. But within those challenges, I think the announcement has come at a good time, because it has given us a fillip when it comes to confidence and with hopefully the economy rebounding, I see us doing significantly better in sponsorships in season seven.