Two different clubs. Two different names. Two different cities with contrasting cultures. As owner of Delhi Dynamos and now Odisha FC, Rohan Sharma has experienced plenty high and lows in his four-year tenure.
It was in 2014 when Sharma first came to know about Indian football, after reading an online article about the Indian Super League while he was in the United States. As an Indian-origin child, born and brought there, Rohan Sharma grew up with a fascination for football and considered investing in a Major Soccer League club before his father, advised him to invest in Indian football as a gesture to give back to the community.
In 2016, the Sharmas purchased a 55% stake in ISL club Delhi Dynamos before acquiring full ownership. But on and off the pitch, it was a journey to forget for them and Delhi Dynamos, with the capital club enduring bottom-table finishes alongside failing to establish a concrete fan-base from 2017-’19.
Ahead of the 2019-’20 ISL season, Delhi Dynamos was rebranded as Odisha FC and shifted base to Bhubaneshwar after an agreement with the Odisha government, which sparked a turnaround in fortunes. Odisha FC narrowly missed out on the playoffs, which was one of their better campaigns since the club’s inception in 2014. Sharma aims for more such highs after a new makeover.
Scroll.in caught up with the 27-year-old to discuss the challenges he faced so far, his plans for Odisha FC, the legacy he wants to build, and more.
Here are the excerpts:
The stint with Delhi Dynamos didn’t pan out well. How do you look back at things?
When we took over Delhi, we didn’t have much context about Indian football. We assumed a European sort of model where you look at all the capitals city clubs that are usually the bigger ones which is why we invested in that city and I realised when I got there that there were a lot of infrastructural challenges. That was only one slice of the pie.
It was too big of a city to establish a good football base. We saw a lot of clubs there that were not doing well. Even the Indian Arrows, which is sponsored by the government, couldn’t run properly.
Delhi is a very complicated city to run a football club. There’s obviously a lot of talent in Delhi, half of our youngsters have come through from there but for a club to be economically sustainable, it is very hard. It’s a very expensive city, as well. Look at Goa or Kolkata, they want to support their local clubs, they have that state pride as they belong from there but that wasn’t the same in Delhi as it is a diverse city.
I didn’t expect all of these problems although we still tried to make it work. But at the end of the day, our losses were getting too much. It was like a snowball effect to the point where it got bigger and bigger. After the end of the fifth season, it was quite depressing. I didn’t want to be involved. I didn’t see anything happening, there was no fan energy and it drained me out.
At first, we didn’t want to move from a bigger city to a smaller state and once we had a meeting with the Odisha government and how much they wanted to make this work, that gave us a push.
What I like about Odisha FC is that local connection, I’m able to get more people involved as its a local club. We are trying to build that local connection and then scale it from there.
Delhi, I hope someday proves me wrong but what we lacked is that we weren’t able to make a noise in the city and that led to our downfall. If I had the chance to do it again, I would never invest in Delhi.
Having now moved from Delhi to Odisha, how big of a change have you seen?
Everyone wants to be a part of this club and it is something the people of Odisha believe in. This season, we had more sponsorship than what we did at Delhi Dynamos, roughly six-seven times more. Our costs have reduced in Odisha, thanks to the government. Ticket sales and merchandising have gone up.
Fans were coming back to the stadium and bringing more people. Things like infrastructure, having our own practice field and apartments close by, no traffic in the state, have been one of the biggest positives.
The energy was there, that’s why I feel we did better this year. The players felt they were a part of the culture, community and more. That’s what gets you going, once you know how much it means to the people.
We lost a few players in Delhi because they didn’t enjoy the environment around the city. The hardest part about Odisha FC has been keeping people entertained always as you would like them to be, but the government is trying to build more. Things are developing. In five years, it’s going to be different.
Odisha is not known for football. How do you plan on building an identity and increasing fan engagement?
The fan culture will build by what you do in the community and the more you show you’re there for Odia pride. Our digital media or the way we market stuff online is in Odia, so we want to give it the connect that the club is part of the city.
I want to bring more Odia people to the club so it feels like it’s theirs. I realised in Delhi, if you don’t do that, you can’t be sustainable or successful. Here, I’ve got the chance to engage with the state and the people.
I want to focus on the female team, Odisha has good female athletes so we better take advantage of that. Secondly, I want to go outside Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack and target more cities in north Odisha with more events there. Grassroots development is another big thing, the more Odia players we have in the senior and youth teams, the better the audience will connect with them. Shubham [Sarangi] is now an icon here, being the only Odia player in the league and the locals identify him. The more players we have like Shubham, the more stories you have to tell and that makes the community involved.
The more you get your hands dirty in the community, people will understand you’re there for the club. That’s something we can do now, having a smaller state to work with.
How do you plan on creating that winning culture in the team?
Why we fared badly in the past was that when I took over the club, I didn’t have an Indian superstar in my team. The reason why I let go of everyone is that I wanted to start from scratch. We wanted to build this squad with a young Indian core. What I realised is having young players, it does take time for them to gel in a new system and an environment. So now, these core Indian players have played with each other for almost three years. Where I felt we lost last year was depth.
Winning starts once you have that confidence. When you have that mentality we’re the underdogs, we are gonna outwork you, we aren’t going to give anything away, that’s when the winning culture will grow. I feel we are now starting to get it and the players are hungry for success. We’re tired of getting defeated and that resentment, anger, that frustration is starting to build in.
Now we’re ready to fight and we saw more of that this year. This core is ready to rumble. They’re older now, been around and signed extensions cause they believe in the project. I want my boys stay with the club for 10 years more. They feel the association and that hunger. Hopefully, that keeps growing.
Financially, it has been a difficult time for all. How is the club coping up with the situation so far?
It has become stable now. We’ve got some funds coming in and investors have been able to even things out a little bit. This season could be more challenging since we could be playing away and it makes things complicated from a financial perspective as we have a lot of local sponsors. If not, then we’ll be okay. Luckily, we’re not running huge operations as much in the offseason. Financially, we are doing better than in the last couple of months. We can still afford a Sandesh Jhingan. Fingers crossed.
Now that your losses have reduced, when do you see the club breaking even?
(Laughs) Ideally, it would have been two seasons ago as per the projection from our previous partners. You need to have money coming to be sustainable. But this move to Odisha cut down a lot of the financial stress, so maybe in three-four years, I see a break-even point for us or even sooner, if we get more sponsors coming in. We’re being smart about how we are spending and running things.
Since the advent of the ISL, we’ve seen big spenders in the league mostly challenging for titles. Why do teams with lower budgets haven’t been able to do that?
I don’t think that you need to spend big on transfers in Indian football. It’s a myth. If you look at spending, all teams are relatively close to each other barring a few teams and in terms of talent. What it comes down to is scouting. In the past, why we haven’t done well is we didn’t do our scouting right but last year we got it right and performed better. If you trust your scouting and make the right moves, I don’t think there’s a big gap. It’s not like the Premier League where the money is king. Here in ISL, anybody can beat anybody on a given night. It comes down to scouting, if you do that right, money doesn’t matter.
What are your goals for the club?
In the short term, we want to win. We’re tired of being in the bottom half of the league.
For the long term, I want to focus on women’s football now and see how I can grow that. Women’s football needs more push from ISL clubs, sadly which we’ve all failed at doing.
I want to bring more Odia boys into the team. We want to be an Ajax – a young team that kicks everyone’s a**. That’s my dream. I want to develop a squad for the national team apart from winning trophies. More importantly, we want to give back to the community.
We don’t want to be the underdog anymore but the top dog. It’s going to take a lot of work but once we get there, I want to stay there. I want to build a dynasty and a legacy for Odisha FC. We want to be that club that everyone looks up to.