Sandeep “Sunny” Narang might have never played football seriously, but the dapper 48-year-old knows quite a lot about the business of the sport — how to make money from it. His mantra is simple yet elegant: invest in a club when it is small, take it to the next level, exit when it is successful and pocket the gain.
No football club makes money; it’s only the valuation that matters. “A majority of the European football clubs are bleeding. Yet there are investors putting in big bucks either for the vanity of owning a team or in the hope that they will sell out some time later,” he says. It would be fair to call Narang football’s angel investor.
In a sense, Narang has extended to football what he has been doing in other sectors. Apart from the family interests in art (it has one of the largest collections of iconic British photographer and artist David Bailey), commodities, manufacturing, lifestyle and real estate, the Indian Institute of Technology dropout (he was studying metallurgy) who decided instead to study economics in Delhi’s Hindu College invests in entrepreneurs who come with innovative ideas and products. He has invested recently in a solar ATM company, a micro-spinning outfit and Happily Unmarried, a company that sells funky accessories.
Narang is not the first Indian businessman to have been bitten by the football bug. The Thapar (JCT Phagwara), Mahindra (Mahindra United) and Salgaocar (Salgaocar FC) families have all invested in the sport. Two of them, Thapar and Mahindra, have wound up their teams because they had become financially unviable. Vijay Mallya bought 50 per cent each in Kolkata’s two iconic clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. But the biggest investment has come from Pune-based Venkateshwara Hatcheries which bought over Blackburn Rovers, an English Premier League, or EPL, team in November 2010 for £23 million.
However, the team has since slid to a lower league amidst charges of mismanagement. There has also been speculation that some Indian business houses like Sahara were looking some time ago to buy out Liverpool, another topnotch EPL team.
Narang’s tryst with football started in 2011 when a Dutch banker and a friend suggested that he could put some money into FCV Vikings, also known as FC Vestsjaelland. Established in 2008, it was at the bottom of the Danish second division, and later went up one notch to become a first division team. Anglian Football decided it will put in € 1 million over five years and take 25 per cent in the team. “We had valued it at € 4 million and our gamble was that it would one day reach the Superliga,” says Narang, the chief strategy officer of Anglian Football. It happened in 2013 — one year ahead of the target. “By moving to the Superliga the team’s valuation has gone up to € 15-20 million,” adds Anglian Football CEO Dhruv Ratra.
There’s more upside left to the investment. Denmark may have only 12 teams in the Superliga but the top five get to play in pan-European tournaments like UEFA Champions League and the Europa League. The valuation of a team shoots up once it participates in such leagues. “To get to the UEFA Champions League or Europa League, we need to invest at least another €10 to 15 million. We will have to pay higher salaries to get good footballers so that we can finish in the first five of the Superliga,” Ratra says.
In other words, unless the stakeholders put in more money, the valuation will not go up. And people will line up to buy the club only if it gets to play in the coveted European leagues. In fact, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. For the additional investment, the current owners need to bring in sponsors, and they won’t step in unless FCV Vikings breaks into the top five — it ended the last season at the 9th spot. Ratra reckons it will take the team two to three years of consistent performance before sponsors trickle in. Meanwhile, in addition to the capital appreciation, Ratra says Anglian Football has earned some money through gate receipts and TV rights as well as catering.
The Danish experiment fuelled Narang’s appetite for football. His next stop was Shillong Lajong. “When we looked at the I-League for investment, nothing was available for less than Rs 40-60 crore. And none of the teams had a business model,” says he. “But we saw an opportunity in Shillong Lajong. There was a lot going for the team which could turn it into a viable business proposition.” The star attraction was that its valuation was low, though Narang says he paid about 30 per cent more than what he did for FCV Vikings: Anglian Football in 2012 stuck a three-year deal to buy 15 per cent in the team for Rs 8-10 crore.
The other attraction was that the team could be turned around to a viable business model. Shillong Lajong was popular — it came 6th amongst the 13 teams in the I-League this year — and therefore its stadium in Shillong, which can seat up to 30,000 people, would always be full and fetch the owners decent gate money. Unlike many other I-League teams which spend anything between Rs 8 crore and Rs 10 crore on player salaries, Shillong Lajong does not spend more than Rs 3 crore. That is because it nurtures in-house talent: it trains local boys and forms teams to play for under-13, under-15 and under-17 tournaments. Many of them are coached in its academy which even has a residential hostel. It has used social media like Facebook and YouTube to create a fan base and sells tickets on the digital platform.
This is how the club spends only about Rs 5-6 crore each year — amongst the lowest in the I-League – and recovers over half the money through ticket sales and other sources. But how far can the valuation of Shillong Lajong go? With the advent of cable television, Indians have dumped desi football totally for European football; and that has hurt all Indian football clubs. There isn’t much value left to extract in it.
Meanwhile, Narang has taken the logical step of joining the ISL bandwagon. The Guwahati franchise will be owned two-thirds by Abraham, the film star, and one-third by Shillong Lajong. That makes Naranag’s exposure to ISL indirect. But it is clear that he is an important link. Thus, FCV Vikings players, who are paid an annual salary, could play for Guwahati in ISL, just like Shillong Lajong footballers, also paid an annual salary, could play in the Danish league. The Guwahati franchise will therefore not have to spend big money to get European footballers to play for it. Each ISL team can have up to ten foreign players in the team. This is important because, in their absence, the quality of the game will fail to attract viewers.
There are eight teams in ISL, which means there will be a strong demand for overseas players and support staff. Seeing an opportunity in this, Narang is tying up with Legion FA (based in the UK) to bring English and European football expertise to India. “The company will help ISL teams get foreign players and coaches; it will also offer deals to run clubs on behalf of the owners and provide consultancy,” says a senior Anglian Football executive. The company has already signed a letter of intent with veteran goalkeeper David James who has shown his intention to play for ISL. Talks are also on with BT Sports, an arm of British telecom, for an alliance to make programmes in India.
Will the Indian football fan fall for it?