Home >Mint-lounge >Business-of-life >Bengaluru FC: Men of steel

Facing the new JSW Centre in Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai—a sprawling structure with huge lobbies and hallways—is the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) ground, visible from the large windows of the building’s business centre. On a lazy Saturday afternoon, a group of men are playing cricket on a pitch made in the middle of overgrown grass. The ball soon gets lost in the vegetation which makes one wonder if they would have been better off playing football.

Football is also the company’s latest passion, outside of its primary business of making steel, in which JSW Steel Ltd is among the country’s Top 3. It’s their first wholehearted venture into sport, started off with the launch of their football team Bengaluru FC on 20 July, with a young Jindal at the helm.

Parth Jindal, 23, is obviously excited at the developments which have given him a growing team of 20-odd players, including India’s captain Sunil Chhetri, his Indian team strike partner Robin Singh, former English Premier League (EPL) professional Ashley Westwood as coach, and a direct entry into India’s premier competition, the I-League, which is tentatively scheduled to start on 21 September.

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Parth Jindal says they could build a training facility for other sports at Vijayanagara in Bellary, where their main production facility is. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Parth says their overall sports initiative will focus on five disciplines—athletics, boxing, swimming, judo and wrestling—with the plans of starting an Olympic Village-style facility to train young hopefuls. It’s an idea initiated by tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi, who approached the Jindals some years ago with the proposal, which was later adopted by the family once Parth returned from Brown University in the US. Bhupathi also gave JSW Sports its CEO, Mustafa Ghouse, a former Davis Cup tennis player with a formidable first serve. But it is football that has kicked off first among JSW’s sports initiatives.

The Jindals’ entry into football coincides with some other developments, which put into context, bears significance. Another industry giant, Mahindras, disbanded their successful football team some years ago, focusing instead on other sports. Indian football itself is in a state of confusion, after the AIFF mooted an Indian Premier League-style league with partners IMG (International Management Group)- Reliance, which other I-League teams are unhappy about.

“The Mahindras was a big setback, it was upsetting," says Parth. “Ever since that has happened, the measures that AIFF has taken as a governing body…they have done the right things. The vision requires tweaking, which we all are working towards. I-League teams and IMG need to work together with the AIFF, or the loser will be football."

Dressed in a crisp shirt, Parth looks excited to be the owner of a football team. He has grown up watching EPL teams Arsenal and Manchester United, while playing school football for Mumbai’s The Cathedral & John Connon. He has not seen too many football matches in India, thus has not had to endure dilapidated, smelly stadiums. He is clearly an outsider, which means he comes into the politically charged cynical world of Indian sports without any baggage.

In JSW, Parth’s primary function is of an economic analyst, but the sports project is his baby to nurture. His involvement with the football team will be more than with other sports, because “someone from the family should drive this whole initiative to give it the importance it deserves", he says.

JSW will spend about 8-10 crore on this team annually—an additional 2-3 crore will go to the AIFF as a fee for starting the team. Parth says the mandate from his father Sajjan is that while they will remain optimistic, the company is willing to incur this kind of expense.

Sunil Chhetri. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
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Sunil Chhetri. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

“We are still in talks with the KSFA (Karnataka State Football Association) and the AIFF on how exactly they want us to do this," he says. “Owning an I-League team means you are not making money but losing money. It’s not commercially viable; this would not be possible for us, to put in money without knowing how to make it back. For instance, in building a 25,000-capacity stadium, you are talking about spending over 50 crore."

“That’s the amount all clubs have to spend," he adds. “As a corporation that wants to do something on the long term, we are willing to take the punt. Dempo, Salgaocar, Mohun Bagan and the others have been doing this year after year. The credit for the survival of this league goes to those stalwarts who have been investing money just on passion. The AIFF expects all to build infrastructure but where will you get the additional funds from? We have asked if they have some plan and how we can do this."

Bengaluru FC is currently feeling buoyant because of the positive response to their club on social networking sites, their only tool of promotion so far, says Parth. That young audience is clearly their target—to get Bengaluru hooked on city-specific loyalty, with a larger fan base than other local teams like Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd (HAL) have perhaps managed.

The club will focus on universities, set up kiosks to sell jerseys and other merchandise. With the signing of Westwood, Chhetri, former Middlesbrough player in the EPL, John Johnson, among others, Parth feels there already is encouraging support for his team.

“We did debate whether we should get into this or not. We have this mindset, if we lose some money every year, we are ok with that. We are willing to take that hit for Indian football.

“But we would like the money back at some point," he says, laughing.

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