Indian clubs agree that off-field sustainability is as important as winning trophies

Punjab-based JCT, the first champions of India's National Football League in 1996, will follow Mahindra United, winners of the League in 2006, in disbanding their senior club to focus on youth development. "Now, there is not a single I-League club in North India, after Indian Arrows, formerly based in Delhi, decided to shift base to Kolkata," noted Deepak Vikraman in Deccan Herald.

“This decision is a great loss to Punjab and India," JCT coach Sukhwinder Singh said. “At the end of the day, the club was just losing more and more money, and being relegated was the final straw. They say Indian football is progressing, but there is nothing to prove it, no tangible results. We haven’t qualified for the World Cup or Olympics, and we aren’t close to qualifying either. Indian football needs to be more visible; without more people being aware of the game and through that taking up football seriously, there is no hope.”

Mufaddal A Choonia, deputy general manager of Mahindra said the Mumbai club had arrived at the conclusion last season that the I-League was not the way to go. “Our main problem was we were not making an impact on Indian football, which is why we decided to disband and work at the grassroot level. Bringing up talent is more important for an up-and-coming footballing country like India,” he said. “But of course, running a club in the current situation is not financially viable. There are no crowds, no coverage. If you want to try and make money out of running a club in this scenario, it just isn’t possible.”

However Sunando Dhar, CEO of the I-League, argued that club viability in India is not so different from other countries. “You look at any big clubs around the world. Not too many of them make money. Clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid have huge debts. More than 95% of the clubs in the world do not make money. This problem is not just India-centric; the mood in India is not as downcast as some might suggest. There still are many parties interested in forming an I-League club. Corporates are very much looking to be a part of our league. We are definitely going to have a broadcaster for next year, which will naturally increase the visibility,” he said.

East Bengal FC's secretary Kalyan Majumdar believes the fault lays with the All India Football Federation. "They don't know how to market the sport and they are running the show and earning a fat salary. AIFF is only making use of the clubs. We are supplying the talents and they are taking away from us by making some funny rules," he told PTI. "In fact, it would have been a similar fate for Salgaocar had they not won the I-League this season." He added that the Big Two Kolkata clubs - East Bengal and Mohun Bagan - would be spared a JCT-like situation because of their mass support.

Chirag Tanna, head of operations of four-year old Pune FC echoed the need for fan support. Pune haven't won an I-League title but are implementing marketing techniques to build a solid fan base. Interviewed by Dhiman Sarkar of Hindustan Times, he pointed out that no football club can survive without fans.

"When Mahindra United and JCT shut their football teams, one of the reasons given were the lack of fans turning up for the games and that is a very important point that all football clubs should remember. In India, a lot of clubs spend all their money on their I-League squad and not much on community development or fan development. I do not feel that is the best way to run a football club. At Pune FC, we conduct various fan and community development activities throughout the year. There is a separate budget for the senior team, youth development, fan development, community development and marketing activities," he said.

"When you talk about Indian football clubs being a commercial entity, it puts the onus on the clubs to generate revenue. Corporates can no longer write off expenses of running the football team as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activity. In order to be commercially viable, it is important to increase revenues and curtail expenses and while doing that, you have to ensure that the team is still competitive. At Pune FC, we try to generate as much revenue as possible via ticketing, merchandising and sponsorship. We focus on youth development as we do feel that a club with a good youth system helps reduce your wage bill considerably."