It was a hot day on 29th May 2014 in Bangalore, much hotter than Bangaloreans would expect. At 4 PM on a working day a historic event happened in Bangalore. A handful of sports fans called “Blues army” gathered on the road and started shouting “BFC…BFC”. As the group moved on, more fans joined and slowly this small gathering turned into a big crowd. The chants of “BFC” grew louder. This “Blues army” was following an open bus parade of the football club they support – Bengaluru FC. Bengaluru FC had just created history by winning I – league in their maiden season. They are probably the first club in the world to win a league title in their first year of existence. In my mind this victory parade was a bigger than the victory itself. I say this for 2 reasons. First, the city was not Kolkata and second the sport was not cricket.
This turnout of fans to support a football team in India is of huge significance and may be start of a new era in Indian football. We are used to seeing cricket fans going berserk on streets in this country. You can say sports fans are fanatics but this is special. Cricket fans throng streets when India wins a major international trophy but this parade is akin to a victory parade when a team wins say a Ranji trophy. Bengaluru FC has made history on field. It was a fairy tale which started on the right note. They built the right team with an exceptional coach. In this euphoria we should not forget that they have achieved another historic milestone. They have laid foundation for an exceptional club, a club which can be a model for Indian football. The victory parade is just an outcome of those efforts. What the club has done off the field is commendable and full marks to the team behind it.
Managing a football club in India in unprofitable. Historically clubs in India have been supported by corporates and big business families. In pure financial terms they have just burnt money to support a sport they like. India has seen rise of professional clubs recently though these clubs have also been supported by corporates. However making a football club profitable is still a mystery. You might say it’s a worldwide phenomenon but in India it is for different reasons. TV ratings are low, match attendance has hovered around 3,500, there are no sponsorships to talk about and there is negligible income from merchandise sale.
The only real source of money right now is the prize money. The champions will get a grand sum of Rs. 50,00,000. This is miniscule when compared to the cost of running a club. Unofficial estimates suggest that the cost varies between Rs. 5 crores to 12 crores and with AFC guidelines on international participation, the cost will only go up. How does a football club have financial sustainability in India? AIFF is trying to promote football but it’s yet to see any results. They have created a new “IPL style” commercial entity which is proposed to have a new super league. Will that help the cause or it will just become a commercial venture is yet to be seen.
Will BFC be able to make a commercially viable venture out of the football club. I think yes. They have focused on factors under their control and the most important factor for any club is their fans. BFC has engaged with fans from the word go. They have engaged with fans through all channels. They have fan interaction nights in local pubs, they invite fans to watch practice sessions, they have fans volunteering and they have official fans. The list of offline activities goes on but a greater success has been their online presence. They have 43,660 fans on facebook. This is fifth highest following amongst the league teams. The two Calcutta clubs lead in this list followed by clubs from Shillong and Pune. To achieve this in the first year in a city with dismal football following is commendable. The stark difference between the top 5 and the other clubs is appalling. The other clubs have an average of 5,000 fans on facebook.
The result of this engagement is there to be seen. Their home matches are packed, they have fans traveling with them for away games and their fans come wearing BFC t-shirts to the game. The icing on the cake was the turnout for the victory parade. Their fans will rise steadily and it will not be a surprise if they leave Calcutta fans behind. This rise in fans will have direct impact on revenues. The gate receipts will increase, there will be more sponsors interested in the club and slowly they will be able to sell TV rights. It may a long road ahead but I will not be surprised if the destination is reached sooner rather than later. And for this a big kudos to the management team of Parth, Mustafa and Mandar.