Chennai: Last year, a couple of months before the start of the inaugural Indian Super League, it was found out that there was only a six to eight inch gap between the grass and a cement foundation at the Balewadi Sports Complex, home of FC Pune City. That's worse than astro-turf. The organisers had to overhaul the entire pitch.
None of the stadiums had proper drainage in place either, leading to 250 workers sponging the Marina Arena pitch so that Chennai could play their first match. Dressing rooms were a different ballgame. The one at Salt Lake Stadium had to be renovated from scratch so that international players didn't go back home and crib about their decision to come to India.
And to fix all this, you need money. Lots of it. And if the numbers are anything to go by for this season, Firstpost has learned the ISL has banked brilliantly on its first-year success to double it's central sponsorship pool to Rs 100 crore as corporate bigwigs hop on to the football bandwagon.
The central sponsorship system is pretty streamlined. Stakeholders Star and IMG-Reliance put together a marketing team that sells the ISL as a product and unlike last year, when there was apprehension whether football would work or not, this season has seen a phenomenal increase in investment. 20 percent of this money is used to organise the league. The rest of it is divided among the clubs.
However, this money could not be distributed last season with IMG-R and Star spending all of it and more on rebuilding football infrastructure in the country. This resulted in a loss of more than Rs 100 crore and the franchisees took a hit of around Rs 35 crore each. There was no chance of sharing the central pool.
This season is set to change all that. Clubs are set to receive their 80 percent share from the Rs 100 crore pool as money from Flipkart, Maruti Suzuki, Volini and DHL pours in. Hero Motocorp remains the biggest contributor with the title sponsorship.
Firstpost has also found out that clubs have made more money this season with tie-ups with sponsors. Last year's average shirt sponsorship deal was worth anything between Rs 3 to 5 crore. This year, clubs have received between Rs 6 to 8 crore for the same. Clubs are selling more kit sponsorships too. At last count, there are as many as nine places on a kit that a club can get a deal for and companies have vied for visibility.
One of the biggest advantages of the timing of this tournament is that it incorporates Diwali and the Christmas festive periods. That, and the fact that Star Sports keeps showing ISL matches and highlights throughout the year is a big advantage for sponsors. Adidas (FC Pune City and FC Goa) and Puma (Delhi Dynamos, Kerala Blasters and Mumbai City FC) have signed kit deals with clubs.
Clubs have also increased ticket prices by 1.5 times compared to last season.
It's not just about the money, is it? It's also about the football. The increased salary kitty for teams (Rs 21 crore, up from Rs 18 crore) means better players. Clubs have also spent heavily on preseason tours abroad - more than 75 Indian players were training abroad in top class facilities for a month or more - a very European (football) concept.
More money, better players and more preparation time also means more competition. This year promises to be much closer with FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos completely revamping their squads and Chennaiyin FC, Atletico de Kolkata and FC Goa retaining many of their stars from 2014 and adding new faces.
Florent Malouda, Carlos Marchena, Lucio, Helder Postiga, John Arne Riise, Roberto Carlos, Simao, Adrian Mutu, Didier Zokora, Tuncay Sanli, Nicky Shorey and other big names have been lured to the league while head coaches Zico and Marco Materazzi and players Nicolas Anelka, Andre Moritz, Borja Fernandes, Iain Hume, Stiven Mendoza and Pavel Cmovs have all returned for a second season.
The new managers are also highly experienced. England is well represented as former Manchester City assistant David Platt and ex-Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace manager Peter Taylor have jumped on board.
Add to this the influx of I-League club stars who were left out last season. Such is the attraction of the I-League that Sunil Chhetri is now a full time employee of Mumbai City FC and will go back to Bengaluru FC on loan, when it was the other way round for many players in 2014.
With a stronger Indian contingent, mostly thanks to Bengaluru FC's stars being allowed to play in the ISL this season, the interest of fans who purely follow the I-League will also peak.
Managers have also had enough time to assess their squads. One may not see the uncertainty of last season, when managers were figuring out their best teams while the tournament was on. Most of them should know their 18 best players by now -- and this promises a stronger competition. In fact, there is no clear favourite out there.
Keep an eye out for better production also. Star Sports has promised more camera angles, better replays and closeups.
The Indian Super League is back, and there's no palpable mystery like last year. This year, there is an assured feeling about the tournament -- that it will see better football, bigger battles -- leading to megabucks in the future. And just like in any other league in the world, be it the Premier League or the La Liga, more money means a better league.
The writer tweets @TheFalseNo9
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Updated Date: Oct 03, 2015 12:13:12 IST