Aizawl FC redefining economics of Indian soccer

If only big spends mattered. If only big names mattered. If only glorious past mattered. And, if only perception mattered. The club atop the I-League table should have been bottom placed. The club that rose from the relegation is set to clinch the coveted professional titles. The club won’t even have been considered a serious competition to its fancied rivals.

Aizawl Football Club, a virtually defunct amateur entity six years ago, is breaking conventions. Defying all norms. Creating history for comparison with Leicester City’s success last season. Similar to Midland Team’s fairytale success from the relegation zone to the Premier League title. The hitherto little known, unheralded club from North East is set to write an I-League history. Most underprivileged club, rising to the top. With limited funds. With limited resources. With limited facilities. But more professionalism, more commitment and a strong self-belief. A perfect case study for Harvard and IIM leveled CEOs, management gurus.

If only money mattered. If only name mattered. One Bagan player would push the entire Aizawl FC set up into deficit. The graphic below is an indicator.

This is the commercial comparison between one single team versus the most expensive buying of its fancied rival. That battled on Saturday for the top slot in the I-league points table. Aizawl FC’s total annual spend at Rs 1.26 crore, including players fee and other operations costs, is less than the Rs 2.20 crore Bagan annually pays to its most expensive player Sony Norde. Now there are other numbers. That matter the most. Indeed. Aizawl, the weakest in commercial number, is the strongest on strong figures to determine the ‘Real Boss’ of the league.

Standing atop the table is the club that registered itself as a private limited company only two years ago. To meet the first basic criteria to qualify as an I-League club. After two years, the team has gained the most. The club is still running in losses. A bare minimum annual expenditure of Rs 1.51 crore is Rs 66 more than Rs 85 lakh Aizawl FC has been able to generate from various sources.

Again. If only numbers mattered. Bagan, who end up paying more to Haitian star Norde as part of the Rs 6.6 crore three-year deal, earn around Rs 18 crore from sponsors alone. Rs 15 crore from UB Group, Rs 1.5 crore from Saradha Group. Adidas and Amra Remedies are other major contributors.

The progress made by a neglected state draws national attention. The commercial playing field is set to change for Aizawl now. That may also define the values of the other clubs with smaller balance sheets. “There will be some impact. Small players will be inspired to invest in football and market might react positively to the high passion which is visible from small teams coming from North East and other cities,” says Shaji Prabhakaran, FIFA Regional Development Officer for South and Central Asia. “But it all depends upon each of the clubs how they approach the market with a long-term plan and connect fans. On the whole, the win by Aizawl will certainly inspire in many ways.”

Operating on a modest budget, among the lowest in the league, the club has accomplished extraordinary feat. This is a team that was relegated from the I-league on its debut in 2016, only to be reinstated a few months later. Aizwal now has to understand that playing skill at its own will not convert into commercial success. The long hours spent in training, strategies worked out in the dressing room, brain-storming by the team think tank – matter little in number-crunching of commercial world.

“The commercial success is achieved with sales strategies. With realistic, still attractive, projections of what you bring to the table for your commercial partners. Exercise on the excel is not less strenuous than the team’s act in the middle. The enthusiasm and talent on the field now will have to have blend perfectly with strategies of the board room. Successful coaches and players will required to be backed by wise CEOs, managers and sales strategists. That’s the recipe for a commercial sports body to survive and thrive,” says Ashish Chadha, CEO, Sporty Solutionz, the company with 360° interest in the business of sports.

With the title, or even without the title, Aizawl FC is set to change the socio-economic dynamics of Indian soccer. On economic front there will be more hope, more opportunities for teams with lesser budgets and players with lesser market values. On social sphere, the soccer will move beyond the blocks of Kolkata, Kerala and Goa. To the talent rich North-Eastern hills. “There will be change for the good, but that will be a gradual process. It will not happen overnight. FC Aizawl’s fairytale success will do a world of good for Indian soccer. It will inspire a generation of talented youngsters from North East. Will give a boost to the soccer market,” says the mathematician and computer-engineer turned soccer administrator Joy Bhattacharya.

Aizawl were first thrown into the national limelight in 2016. By winning the I-league 2nd Division on its fourth attempt the previous year, AFC had become the first club from Mizoram to participate in the top division. A proud moment for a football-obsessed state. A year later its closest to the coveted crown.

Money mattered at every step. Even when the all-Indian club, with a majority of Mizo players except the goalkeeper, made I-League debut. AFC often outsmarted the big boys, especially in home games, but couldn’t convert performances into points. Still, they did not finish last. But had to live with relegation to the lower tier. Just because moneys matter. The bottom-placed, Pune-based club DSK Shivajians then enjoyed a three-year immunity from relegation. For, they have entered the I-league through the corporate quota. The AIFF had an incentive scheme to lure corporate investment into the sport.

And then, of course, performance mattered. Aizawl FC got a second chance. Good sense prevailed in AIFF. Aizawl’s showing in the season was good enough for consideration to reinstate the club in the I-League. Rest. It was for the Mizoram boys.

For their part, Aizawl have made one big leap. From rock bottom on balance sheets to right at the top of points tally. From a relegation to the shot at the title. A giant leap – for the club. A platform laid. For Indian soccer – as a sport. And as a market, too. Aizawl’s feats would open a range of possibilities, which need to be handled and nurtured well.

Then there are ironies of Indian soccer world. If AIFF and its commercial partners IMG-Reliance’s succeed in their revamp plans I-league may be relegated as the second tier of much fancied Indian Soccer League. That will restart yet another struggle for the club. Will yet again leave a big crater between the mighty, privileged and the fighting, underprivileged