ISL 2019-20: Odisha FC CEO Ashish Shah talks about shifting base from Delhi, tapping local talent, building fanbase and more
Odisha FC CEO Ashish Shah about the state government’s proactiveness, the wanting levels of football culture and infrastructure in Delhi, strategies of building an all-inclusive regional fanbase and enthusiastic steps taken in the direction of nurturing Odisha’s footballing grassroots.
Those who have mentally switched off from Indian club football at the conclusion of last year’s Indian Super League season will be surprised at the exclusion of a name from the ten-team league roster.
Even though it was off-season, the change of narrative didn’t rest for those involved. One such team that had quite the literal plot change was Delhi Dynamos, in so far, the club relocated to Odisha and were renamed Odisha FC.
The change of home base for a sports franchise isn’t unprecedented, with numerous North American and Canadian teams undergoing the tumultuous process due to infrastructure and commercial needs. Last year’s NBA finalists, Golden State Warriors were initially Philadelphia Warriors. While another NBA team, the 76ers relocated to the city to fill the gap left by the team that moved to San Francisco. The second-most successful NBA team, La Lakers were initially based out of Minneapolis.
It is thus not out of place that this extremely precarious manoeuver exists in the global sport of football too, but perhaps is surprising that it has been pulled off to near-perfection in the nascent ISL
With the backdrop of the newly-named Odisha FC’s historic first match vs Jamshedpur away from home on the 22nd of October, where 23,000 plus tickets have been sold, Firstpost caught up with CEO Ashish Shah to talk about the process of relocation and this club’s future plans.
Ashish Shah has been in ISL since its inauguration. He helped set up Chennaiyin FC, with whom he stayed with for three seasons; after which, three seasons with Delhi Dynamos, which has now become Odisha FC.
Originally from Bombay, be’s been in the IT sector for 20 years and later ran a company organising sporting events, mainly high-elevation marathons in places like Ladakh. His skill-set with start-ups through IT and sports gives him a unique insight in his capacity as CEO of Odisha FC.
In this interview, we talk about the state government’s proactiveness, the wanting levels of football culture and infrastructure in Delhi, strategies of building an all-inclusive regional fanbase and enthusiastic steps taken in the direction of nurturing Odisha’s footballing grassroots with the assistance of former Barcelona product and current manager Josep Gombau and a Doha-based academy.
How much has the state government eased the transition for your club, from Delhi to Odisha?
Tremendously. The main reason why we finally decided on the relocation was the support that was offered by the government of Odisha. In terms of infrastructure, whether it’s in terms of the stadium, the training facilities, the rooms, the staff, the support staff and the players need, the gym – you name it, all the infrastructure that a football club may need, they have ensured that those were available to us.
Why do you believe being a Delhi-based football club didn’t work out? How much of it was down to the football culture in Delhi or the lack of it?
There were a couple of problems. One of them being the infrastructure: the kind of facilities that we are getting here (in Odisha) now were not made available by the Delhi state government. The cost of operations was a problem, and then the actual availability of infrastructure-related resources.
Secondly, as you rightly pointed out, the culture was a problem. While we did have a few die hard football fans, we were not able to get the general public into the stand. And it’s not only football but most sports in Delhi, it becomes difficult there because there are a lot of other avenues of entertainment in the city. The culture plays a telling role as well (which wasn’t fulfilled at Delhi).
This is a unique challenge, transplanting a football team to a new city, how has yourself, the players, the staff reacted to this sudden change of scenery?
(Laughs) Yes, it is indeed a big challenge. All of us had a couple of months to settle in, and there’s the time it took for us to sign the MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the government. The league has, as you know, started yesterday (Sunday) and our first game is tomorrow (Tuesday), we had to make sure of everything from accommodation to having the right kits and equipment. There are a lot of things we needed to comply with before the league started, in regards to league rules and regulations (from an operational point of view). It’s been a large-scale operation, but we are happy, there were many sleepless nights but we have managed, and the team is now in Jamshedpur, and the rest of us are here still trying to get the other details ironed out. It’s been challenging, but equally exciting.
How different is the vibe in Odisha as compared to how you first started out your operations in Delhi?
We can definitely feel a positive vibe. As mentioned, with the entire government machinery is helping is, we find that thing move fairly fast.
We also now have a supporters club who call themselves ‘the Juggernauts.’ They are also growing naturally – they have a lot of initiative, they meet us very often at our office to discuss the kind of things they would like us to to do and vice versa. We are hoping this energy translates into the larger sections of society here in Odisha.
Let us expand on that. What are the steps that you have taken to ensure that you are off to the best possible start in terms of fan engagement and identity building?
Fan engagement is one of the toughest variables, it’s not a switch you can flip on. It’s a bottoms-up approach. We have started engaging with people who have been following football in the state, the supporters’ group that has been formed, through them we are reaching different institutions, colleges to begin with. Through the government now, we will start reaching out to schools, children, and by extension their parents (because the young ones are not going to come to a match on their own).
The IT sector in Bhubaneshwar which is quite significant is being reached out to, particular companies. In terms of our commercial reach-out, we have gotten in touch with small and large businesses, be it hotels, pubs (Echoes in Bhubaneshwar will be hosting a screening of Jamshedpur vs Odisha FC) or other establishments.
Our cooperation with the media has also helped the process through events like the kit launch and the announcement of the MOU. So, now wherever we go, people seem to associate the Odisha football club. Even the vehicles we use for transportation of the club staff and management, have been branded in our colours. There will be more visibility as we build up to our first home game (vs ATK on 24th of November).
In terms of having a dedicated fan base, Bengaluru FC seems to have attained that golden standard. Are you trying to replicate that in your club’s own image?
The answer is yes and no. There’s, of course, something every club can learn from Bengaluru FC. Once you figure out the right kind of audience you want for your supporters’ clubs, you would engage with them and empower them to be a part of some of the decision-making process: we can jointly come up with campaigns and chants, or trends on social media.
What is different is, that every city has a different kind of soul, and demographic. The Bengaluru FC fans, they are urban, English-speaking, so their chants reflect it. Here in Odisha, it’s going to be largely Odia-speaking fanbase. One of our priorities is to make sure whoever we hire in terms of communication, or social media, or otherwise, are people who can speak the native language. The dialogue with the community becomes that much stronger.
We have been finding a lot of older people in Odisha, and in Cuttack especially, for whom football is a lifestyle. We would like them to also become a part of the supporters club. They might not be jumping in the stands as the younger fans would, but the older fans will bring with them a different kind of wealth of experience, influence and communication. Our vision is beyond the usual 18-30 demographic ISL clubs tend to concentrate their efforts on.
I can answer this question better perhaps a year down the line, as to how the supporters’ club finally looks like; how different or similar we are to Bengaluru FC. They have done a good job, and it’s always important to learn from the best examples.
In terms of youth development, you have the experience of manager Josep Gombau, a product of Barcelona’s world-renowned academy, La Masia. What kind of effect would you like your football club to have on the Odisha grassroots development?
The objective is very simple, we want the youth of Odisha to represent Indian football national team, both in men’s and women’s category. We have a grassroots initiative tie-up with Aspire Academy, Doha. It’s is one of the most premier football academies in the world, it trains the Qatari national team, which won the Asian Cup.
Since they are the host for the next 2022 World Cup, the infrastructure is state-of-the-art. Odisha FC will be working with them to scout, train, develop, educate, empower talents.
Having Josep is an advantage because he understands what the youth needs. The style and the philosophy he wants the senior team to play with, he wants it to percolate down to the youth team.
This integrated approach will enable a seamless transition for youngsters who will be trying to break into the first-team. Just like it happens in the LaLiga. With the Odisha government as our partners, the focus has to be on tapping into the local talent pool.
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