New Delhi: The success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament has been an eye-opener on the huge economic possibilities of sports sponsorship in India, Ben Wells, head of sponsorship at UK’s Chelsea Football Club, who is in the country looking to partner local corporate firms to develop the game, said in an interview. Edited excerpts:
You come from a family of Chelsea supporters?
Actually my family supports Manchester United, but that’s not a problem at all. Mine’s an objective profession. In fact, I work with a team of 20 people at Chelsea, only three of whom are fans of the club. We have to be quite dispassionate about it; we are knowledgable but not emotionally attached.
Ben Wells, Head of sponsorship, Chelsea FC. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Last year Chelsea became the first English Premier League (EPL) club to open a soccer school in Asia in Hong Kong. You’ve also joined the Asian Football Confederation to work for football development in China. Why this focus on Asia? Why not on Africa, which produces so many footballers who actually play in the UK?
Well, why not Africa… that’s a good point. We’re very fortunate to have four African players in our first team, but I think we are looking at a variety of reasons why we are interested in Asia. First, there is now a maturity of interest in the premier league in Asia; now there are some second- or even third-generation fans in some markets for some EPL clubs. There’s massive opportunities in terms of economic growth across the region in Asia, whereas in Africa, that’s all still developing.
Now you are in India, which is a really tough place to be in for a football superpower, because the game is really struggling in the country.
We have a lot of ideas for India, and that’s part of the reason we are here and we are talking to the IFA (Indian Football Association). I think our eyes were woken up to the possibilities of what can be achieved here by the IPL, which was effectively an overnight sensation.
But it was based on a solid foundation. Cricket is the only sport India really likes.
Absolutely, but behind that are other underlying trends. See, cricket became this big only after India’s World Cup win in 1983—that’s just two decades. Think of how people were talking about Twenty20 before India won the Twenty20 World Cup. There wasn’t much support for the format here, most people criticized it. After the World Cup win, overnight we had the IPL and now just look at it! This kind of sports success story has not happened in any other country anywhere. It also made us realize that if you get a small group of very powerful people together, things happen in India.
Also, if you look at the demographic skew in the country, half the population is 25 or under now, and these are the people who will set the trends, and these guys, you know, their time’s short. They want something that fuses music and fashion and sports and glamour and they can watch it in under 3 hours. What’s the difference between football and Twenty20 cricket in that regard? I think football will explode here in the next two to three years.
What is your plan for India?
We need a corporate partner in India with the kind of credibility we don’t have in the country, and then we need to network, build corporate and political relationships so we can be here for the long haul. We want to run nationwide developmental programmes, not just one academy in one city.
So unless corporate houses get involved in a big way, it will be impossible to develop Indian football. But corporate houses don’t want to get involved because the returns are poor and unpredictable. That’s a Catch-22 situation.
I see that. Over the last 12 months I’ve been to see a lot of the big Indian companies, a lot of seriously big companies and everyone gets football and they understand where it sits in the hierarchy of global sports—it’s No.1! They also understand that if they wanted to launch into it tomorrow they won’t get returns.
I think what is missing is a framework where they can create a football programme here, and that’s where Chelsea can help. A lot of these massive Indian domestic brands are becoming bigger global players. These brands are looking for platforms. Now the EPL is in 211 markets globally, everyone knows the EPL. They see cricket is played only in nine countries to any degree globally, and the predominant market is in their backyard in India.
So cricket is not the platform to launch these brands into the international market. If they are looking at a sport, football is the only one which translates across global territories.
The brand will have to take a long-term view on it and say, well OK, we are not going to necessarily make any revenues in the next two or three years in our own country, but there’s a long- term play in India and there’s also an opportunity to go big internationally.
Do you have a long-term vision for Indian football?
I was here just before the (2010 FIFA) World Cup, and I thought imagine what it would be like if India hosted the World Cup. India would go absolutely crazy for it.
We are at the bottom right now—lack of structure, lack of infrastructure, icons, everything. Turn the pyramid around and say let’s host the 2030 World Cup and work backwards. This might just force development to happen at the speed that is needed. Imagine the legacy that will create. I can already see and feel the legacy of the Commonwealth Games the moment I landed at the swanky new airport in Delhi. And despite all the negative things doing the rounds now, lots of people will look back after the Commonwealth Games, they will look at the legacy and say why don’t we have more of these events here in India? Now we’ve got a Grand Prix coming next year as well, and I think there is a real convergence of factors at the moment. We have the realization that sports is a force for good and a lot of Indian corporates are seeing that. People are seeing now, through the success of the new generations of Indian golfers and tennis players, that actually sports is potentially a good career and we shouldn’t ignore it. People are seeing that it’s big business, big bucks.
Tell us a bit about managing sponsorships for one of the world’s richest clubs.
We have a very high entry level in terms of sponsorships. It’s a high-end, premium, exclusive deal. You have to meet the threshold set by the club. It’s not a platform for brands to advertise, we don’t give no space on our hoardings, or our website. We are extremely possessive about our IP (intellectual property). That means that there is only a limited number of people who can work with us and it takes a lot of time to get sponsors on board. Samsung and Adidas, our main sponsors, well, I can’t divulge the numbers, but they are big eight-figure deals on an annual level, £1.5 million is the minimum for our second-level sponsors.
How has it been for you, working at the historic club?
When I was in Germany last month for a pre-season tour, I was charging around with a colleague to find a football pump in Hamburg because we needed to give some footballs for a charity for kids.
Then later on, on the same day I was fighting with the stadium officials to push back the starting time of the match because our players were stuck in a traffic jam. I have run with urine samples of our players during a sweat test when we launched our partnership with Gatorade because all the testers at the centre were women. So yeah, my job involves a lot of multi-tasking.