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The Great Indian Vanishing Act: How to Make a Rival Product Disappear!

Friday, 19 February 2016|Chiranjit Ojha
Ladies and gentlemen, at the start of 2015, we give you the greatest magic trick of the year.

Follow the money.


Starting from August itself, IMG-Reliance flooded Indian television with ads building up to the arrival of the first edition of the Indian Super League. Hundreds of crores are spent on television, online, print and billboard advertisements throughout the country as well as organizing gala events and ceremonies to make the tournament a success.


Fast forward a few days, it turns out that the I-League as well as Federation Cup are being run on a tight budget of 40 crores. The entire money is spent on organizing the tournaments which leaves no room for marketing. In the run up to the awkwardly-arranged Federation Cup, there is virtually no publicity, not even some measly billboards in the host cities.


Follow the commitment.


The ISL stood out in terms of telecast quality. Professional camerawork, engaging commentators, multi-language broadcast, up-do-date stats... everything came together to form a captivating experience for the viewers. The goals, tackles and saves were shown from many angles, in slow, super-slow, ultra-slow motions to depict every detail in vivid color and definition. IMG-Reliance and Star spent a long time making sure everything was in place, that the crew was fully prepared and the operation did not face glitches of any kind.


Fast forward a few days and the country’s flagship cup competition is being broadcast by a network notorious for its track record of incompetence. But at least they were going to showcase the tournament, and the fans would finally get to see their clubs actually play a match, right? Wrong. In a brilliantly ambiguous statement that explained absolutely nothing, Ten Sports declared that they wouldn’t be able to telecast any matches on the first two days of the tournament “due to lack of live feed from the venue.” Now, what do they mean by “lack of live feed”? Aren’t they supposed to create the live feed in the first place? Well, apparently it’s not as simple as that. As marketing partners of AIFF, IMG-Reliance are in charge of distributing the TV rights, therefore it was up to them to get an uplink clearance from the government in order to make the telecast happen. And it turns out they had failed to obtain said clearance because of “Christmas holidays” in the offices.


So the most prestigious cup championship in the country gets a television blackout because there is a holiday in some government office? Have you ever heard an excuse as pathetic as this anywhere else in the footballing world? Are we to believe that IMG-Reliance, half of which is owned by the company that produces the Barclays Premier League telecasts for the entire world, which organizes events like the IPL and ISL, which prides itself in its quality and professional skills, just happened to forget all about getting an uplink clearance for the Federation Cup in time? The venue was decided ages ago; why didn’t they apply for it until just a few days before the tournament, during the Christmas holidays? Were they that hangover after the ISL success party?


Well, all right then, but we will get to see the matches from the 30th December, isn’t it? There is no way they are going to deprive fans who haven’t seen their clubs in action for months even further, right? RIGHT? Wrong. Despite promising a live telecast of the Bengaluru FC vs Mohun Bagan match, Ten Action failed to show it. Apparently, that uplink permit was still being elusive. Telecast finally began today, on 31st December. And immediately the fans were treated to the familiar spectacle of an empty stadium. The production quality, in spite of certain improvements, still lacked polish. In an ironic repetition of a goof from last season, somebody went “hello check hello check hello check” on a microphone that was live, on air.


Follow the accountability.


IMG-Reliance went all out to make sure ISL was a success. They created a worldwide buzz about the tournament. They flooded the stadiums with celebrities. They did it because it was their product and their own reputation was riding on it. It was their cause and they rallied to it.


But when it comes to I-League and Federation Cup, we see a precarious pass-the-buck culture of accountability. Kushal Das, the CEO of I-League, calls his own tournament “a failed product” in an event promoting the ISL. But he isn’t prepared to accept any responsibility for said failure, although he is generous with lecturing I-League clubs about learning professionalism from ISL franchises. When asked about lack of promotion for I-League and Federation Cup, AIFF is happy to cite limited budget allotted by IMG-Reliance. So it’s never their fault, you see. Blame the clubs. Blame the pittance of a budget. Blame the TV channels. Blame the crumbling stadiums. But never once point a finger at our revered governing body who have been gloriously presiding over our sliding FIFA rankings.


So, are IMG-Reliance taking on the responsibility? Come on, don’t be daft. Why would they even do that? What do they care about I-League and Federation Cup? Those are nothing but liabilities to them. Let me explain.


When you entrust the marketing, organizing and financing rights of your product to a particular company, the whole incentive for that company is that if they manage to publicize your product, they get to take home a fat chunk of the profit. So they will try their hardest to sell your product because their profit depends on it. But let’s say you also allow that company to make and sell a product similar to yours at the same time. In that case, will that company give a toss about your product anymore? They will concentrate on selling their own product and see your product as a rival. And they will use their practically all-encompassing influence over your product to suppress it. That’s just the way business works. You play up your own product and beat down the competition to maximize profits. Pure, simple arithmetic.


But what kind of an idiot gives their own marketing partners the rights to create a rival product? It’s like Coca-Cola signing away their financing and marketing to Pepsi! Or, even better, the Jedi Council asking Darth Vader to take over the manufacturing of their spaceships! Yet, this is exactly what AIFF has done, and the result is there for everyone to see. It’s been 4 full years since IMG-Reliance have come on board. They have had no discernible positive impact on the I-League or club football in general. Indeed, the national league is now shorter than ever. The national team is playing less and less matches, and their ranking is going from bad to worse. Many clubs have folded, while others have been booted out citing licensing terms (which, by the way, do not apply to ISL franchises). All the glitter and glamour has been concentrated on the ISL, while Indian football has gone dark from the wavelengths.


Now, some might take offense to me referring to ISL and Indian football as separate, opposing entities. Isn’t ISL supposed to be a part on Indian football? (Or the “birth” of it?) Well, there’s a reason I’m doing that. Something I wrote about in the lead up to the ISL as well.


Remember, in the weeks leading up to the launch of ISL, when India was supposed to play two international friendlies? One was cancelled, the other was not telecast. Yes, when every channel was blowing up with ISL advertisements, there was no room for the national team on Indian television. There were no live updates on the internet either; the official Twitter accounts of AIFF and I-League remained inactive during the match. Around the same time, the official website of I-League disappeared from the internet. They were apparently working on a re-design, but why would that warrant taking the site down for weeks? What is this, the 1990s? And now, in the weeks following the conclusion of the ISL, we have the Federation Cup taking place sans any publicity, promotion or telecast. A bunch of astonishing, bewildering, infuriating coincidences or a clear pattern?


You see, to reap the most value out of a product that has gained a following, it’s necessary to make sure that people don’t get their fix from another similar product. The ISL has captured an entire army of spectators that have been completely ignorant of Indian football so far. They aren’t even aware of I-League and its clubs, thanks to the national media’s fixation with cricket and ignorance of other sporting disciplines in the country. But ISL has captured people’s attention to domestic football and right now, they are hungry for more. If these new fans develop a taste for tournaments like Federation Cup and I-League, which by the way go on much longer than IMG-Reliance’s tournament, and develop club loyalties there, ISL will lose its status as the exclusive mega event in Indian football.


So it’s of utmost importance to IMG-Reliance to ensure that these people stay hooked to ISL but remain ignorant about Indian football. Today, profitability of a sporting event hinges on creating a satisfactory experience for the TV viewer, and if I-League and Federation Cup fail to deliver that, it majorly degrades their value as brands. Sponsors will be discouraged from investing in them, and the appeal of ISL will shoot skywards. The I-League clubs will get less and less revenue. The legions of casual fans will eagerly wait for “the ISL experience” every year, and turn away in disgust when top division Indian football fails to even remotely match up to it. It’s called creating value through scarcity. Similar tactics have been used for decades by companies selling diamonds and medicine to great success. Drug dealers do it too, on a regular basis.


What we are looking at is at best a criminal negligence by the organizer that has all but broken the Federation Cup to pieces, at worst something way more sinister. But will they be held accountable? No. Will this abject failure wake them up from their stupor and inspire them to do better in the future? Not at all. You know why? Because it’s not they that will have to suffer from the fallout of this fiasco. It’s the clubs that will bear the brunt. It’s perfect, isn’t it? AIFF will be as useless as ever, IMG-Reliance will make a mess of things, Ten Sports will act like ignorant morons... but it’s the clubs that will pay for all that. And their fans. And the I-League, the Federation Cup and every tournament that forms the backbone of Indian football. The ISL will invade our homes in all its flashy, clamorous glory while top division club football will fade and disappear from our screens and minds.


Ladies and gentlemen, at the death of 2015, we give you the greatest magic trick of the previous year.


IMG-Reliance have made Indian football vanish.