(This article was first published in the July-Aug 2014 edition of Aurora.)
The 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup has enthralled the world for the last month or so. The popularity of the ‘beautiful game’ (as football has been nicknamed), has made it a hot favourite among corporate sponsors who reportedly spent over $1.4 billion on the recently concluded World Cup. In Europe and South America where football is considered more than a sport, companies like Adidas, Barclays (official sponsors of the English Premier League), Coca-Cola, Emirates, Nike and VISA among others, spend millions of dollars on football sponsorship annually.
In Pakistan, sports sponsorship is synonymous with cricket because the game is popular, well organised and ostensibly gives brands a good return on investment. However, the high cost of cricket sponsorship allied with ad clutter during matches often makes the effectiveness of such sponsorships questionable. Over the last decade, there has been talk of developing other sports, and although some companies have broken the mould by sponsoring squash (Askari Bank) and snooker (Jubilee Life Insurance), the majority still prefer to hedge their bets and stay with cricket.
Yet, football presents an attractive viable alternative for a number of reasons, not the least among them being the absence of clutter. Moreover, football (like cricket but unlike squash, snooker and other sports) is extremely popular across all segments in Pakistan. As the second most watched sport on TV (Source: Geo Super), international football leagues (such as EPL and La Liga) have huge fan followings – and although when it comes to local football matches, only a small percentage make it to TV, the more popular teams can attract thousands of fans on-ground.
Thus local football has all the right ingredients to become a popular choice for brands. However, in order to attract sustained support from brands, efforts will have to be made in terms of reorganising the game and giving it a much-needed facelift.
The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) is the game’s governing body, responsible for organising tournaments and training camps throughout the year. Two different types of teams are registered with the PFF: departmental teams and football clubs. Departmental teams are the inter-organisational teams of the Army, NBP, WAPDA and other public and private companies. Departmental players are employees of the company they play for and receive a monthly salary ranging from Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000 in addition to match win bonuses and other allowances. The best players from these teams form the national football team and the departmental teams themselves (depending on their ranking) are part of the Pakistan Premier Football League (PFFL) and the PFF League.
The PFFL was established in 2004 as Pakistan’s first professional football league. It has 16 teams and is run according to the international system of promotion and relegation of teams based on matches played and oints earned. One step below is the PFF League (also known as the B-Division). Here, 12 teams battle it out to make it to the Premier League.
The feeding grounds of the departmental teams (that make up the PFFL and the PFF League) are the football clubs that exist in every nook and cranny of Pakistan. Although about 3,000 clubs are registered with the PFF, experts estimate that there are hundreds of unregistered clubs in Pakistan. Only a few of these clubs have the resources to be able to compete in the PFFL or the PFF League; in fact the majority of them are little more than a group of boys getting together to play on a regular basis. Sindh (which has over 700 registered clubs) and Karachi in particular, is a hotbed for the talent that ends up in these clubs. Lyari, known as ‘little Brazil’ packs in many of the best and most passionate football players in Pakistan.
Unlike departmental players, who are assured of a regular income and plenty of opportunities to play because of their influential employers, club players have no such assurance. In an ideal situation, the clubs should rely on the PFF to organise regular rosters of matches and tournaments, however the Federation’s event roster is rather lean due to lack of funds. For context, the PFF is funded by annual grants from the Government of Pakistan (Rs 1.6 million) and FIFA ($250,000). As a result, some of the better structured clubs, such as Karachi United F.C. have taken matters into their own hands and organised their own leagues and tournaments. These events are generally funded by corporate sponsors who come onboard for the duration of the event and pay for the logistics and prize money. In some cases the sponsors may also pay to have one or two matches aired on TV. Unfortunately, barring these exceptions, most of the less well organised clubs are unable to even establish contact with brand sponsors let alone attract the level of sponsorship crucial to their survival. In fact, even the PFF has trouble in this area and apart from one kit sponsor (Forward Sports, producer of the Brazuca) and a handful of sporadic event sponsors, the PFF has no support from brands.
As Pakistan’s first premier league, the PFF should have been able to attract sponsors to the PFFL – and for the first season it managed to attract KASB Bank as a major sponsor. Unfortunately, after an ineffective four months, the bank decided not to renew its contract for the second season.
The structure of the PFFL itself contributes to this ineffectiveness. Each of the 16 teams are expected to play 30 matches over four months making the schedule incredibly packed, tiring the players and leading to poor play quality. As a point of comparison, the EPL expects each of its 20 member teams to play 38 matches over 10 months. Furthermore unlike the EPL matches which are played on weekends to maximise TV audiences, the PFFL fixtures are set at different times and days during the four months, making it impossible for sports channels to establish any kind of broadcast schedule.
Nevertheless, brands may be able to overlook the absence of large TV audience numbers if the PFFL matches were able to draw in large on-ground crowds to the matches. Yet this too is problematic because of the location where these matches are played. As the PFF has no stadium of its own, many matches are played on the home grounds of the five department teams that have the luxury of owning such a facility: the Air Force, the Army, Karachi Port Trust (KPT), Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) and the Navy. With the exception of the KPT Stadium which is open to the general public, all the other grounds have restricted access because of security concerns.
If these reasons were not enough to drive corporate sponsors away from professional football in Pakistan, the structure of the departmental teams further aggravates the issue. By virtue of the fact that the departmental teams are supported by the company’s sports budget and that the players are regarded as permanent employees rather than professional footballers, there is a great sense of apathy among the management and players.
As Ali Ahsan, Chief Editor, FootballPakistan.com wrote in DAWN in January 2013, “The departments have no reason to be visionary or even professional in their treatment of football. They have no reason to give competitive contracts to their players, groom young talent properly in academies, train coaches, etc.”
These factors have also contributed to the national football team’s inability to win too many international matches, as well as their low international ranking (as of June 2014, the Pakistani football team was ranked as 164th according to FIFA).
FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) believe that many of these problems can be resolved by converting the department teams into professional football clubs with corporate backers. This would mean that the club would be accountable to the sponsor and there would be pressure on both the management nd the players to perform well. So far, nothing has been done to implement the idea.
Given that professional football in Pakistan is unlikely to attract substantive and long-term corporate sponsors unless the structure is completely overhauled, smaller football clubs have a unique opportunity to draw brands to football.
Unlike the self-sufficient department teams, football clubs need corporate sponsors to survive and retain players and therefore have a stake in improving the overall quality and visibility of the game by organising their own leagues and tournaments – particularly in the absence of such initiatives by the PFF. This is something that the Karachi United Football Club understood well when it established the Karachi Premier League in 2003 and the School Championships in 2005. Both tournaments have managed to secure sponsors every year, the most recent ones being Coca-Cola and HBL respectively.
Imran Ali, Director, Karachi United, attributes his Club’s ability to attract sponsorships to the fact that “we are in a good position to show the value that developing football offers to corporate sponsors. Large organisations have sponsored us because we have built up a brand name which people are amenable to support.”
Turning a football club into a brand name that sponsors will be comfortable supporting is the challenge for the less organised clubs whose players generally play barefoot in katchi abaadi grounds due to their inability to buy shoes and lack of access to the few football stadiums in the country (and even these are badly maintained).
The above factors make the football club-corporate sponsor relationship chicken and egg in nature. The clubs need corporate money to obtain a better kit and access to better playing facilities and coaches, whereas brands want to sponsor clubs which already have all these elements in place so that they get the most value out of their sport sponsorships budgets.
Umaid Wasim, Sports Reporter, DAWN, puts the issue into perspective:
“If football matches are organised in Lyari, it doesn’t matter how many spectators they draw because these people are not the target market for most brands and are unlikely to buy their products.”
Revealing though this statement is of the short sighted approach by brands to sponsorship, it is both accurate and points to a bigger problem, which is that football simply doesn’t get the visibility (read: media coverage) that could make it worthwhile for sponsors to support it.
Unlike cricket where sports channels pay the organisers to secure airing rights to tournaments and matches, with local football the situation is reversed and the organisers have to pay the TV channels to broadcast a match. This is an added burden for the sponsor who wants the event to garner publicity but doesn’t necessarily want to spend extra money.
As Ali explains it: “If a brand is investing a million rupees to sponsor an event for three months, it will have to pay an extra million on top of this to televise even a couple of matches from the event. So, from the sponsor’s perspective it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The sports channels make an equally solid case for not paying to secure football airing rights.
“When we buy rights for cricket matches we are able to recover the money from advertisers who place their ads during the matches. Unfortunately we don’t get the level of advertising for football matches to make this viable for us,” says Karim Barolia, Associate Director Marketing, Geo Super.
Barolia adds that Geo Super has been approached by the PFF and football clubs in the past to subsidise the cost of airing matches and while the channel has done so – even occasionally airing matches free of cost, “our pockets are not deep enough to do this on a sustained basis. Even if we subsidise the cost by 30 to 40%, the organisers will still have to come up with the rest of the money; they have to market their own product because that is how awareness is built.”
While chicken and egg complexities – improving the game to get brand support or getting corporate support to improve the game – plague professional and club football alike, brand support is growing at the grassroots level. In this area, many companies, clubs and NGOs are using football as a means to both promote their own business agenda and as a way to give young boys and men a healthy activity to indulge in.
One example of a company trying to accomplish both goals through football is K-Electric (KE). According to Zehra Mehdi Aneek, Deputy Director, ESG and Sustainability Management, K-Electric, since 2009 (when Abraaj Capital took over) the company has actively supported football in Lyari and other low-income communities from Karachi as a means of embedding itself in these previously no-go areas. Another objective is to support a sport that underprivileged children of the area could afford to play.
These objectives resulted in the establishment of KE’s Lyari League and the Youth League. The Lyari League is contested by teams from the 12 districts of Lyari, while the Youth League draws teams from the 18 districts of Karachi. Additionally KE runs football training camps across the city. KE currently spends 80% of its sports sponsorship budget on football and Mehdi says that while these initiatives have a commercial motive, “we don’t just provide these kids with a platform for football, we give them life skills.”
Karachi United is another example of an entity trying to promote grassroots level football. The Club has a Karachi United Football Foundation which works in underprivileged areas (Baldia, Korangi, Lyari, Malir and Mauripur) and provides free football coaching, medical facilities, education and vocational training. The Foundation works with over 2000 children every week and has managed to garner support from Barclays, British Council, Lotte Pakistan and UNICEF.
Yet another example is the Azad Foundation which works with street children. For the Foundation football is part of a multi-pronged sports strategy to reach out to these children and as a result of sustained efforts, it managed to put together a team of street children for the Street Child World Cup held in Brazil in April. The Pakistan team surprised even the organisers by winning a Bronze and brands have been quick on the uptake. Following the win, Azad Foundation was contacted by several corporations and it eventually decided to join hands with HBL.
Aman Aziz Siddiqui, Head – Strategy and Investment, HBL, says the bank has been active in promoting football at the school level and has also tried to organise a countrywide tournament in association with the PFF, although this did not pan out for a variety of reasons. In looking for other football related opportunities, the bank came across the Street Child World Cup win in the media, and Siddiqui says, “This was the perfect symbol with which to motivate young footballers.”
He admits that the project has a commercial motive in that HBL wants “to teach children about banking and give them happy memories associated with both football and HBL. But there is also the higher purpose of providing an enabling environment and to promote sport as a diversion from criminal activities.”
Aziz says that with all the efforts brands are putting into promoting grassroots level football he sees no reason why local football will not be as big as cricket in the next 10 to 15 years.
But there is a catch. Grassroots level football may well thrive and produce excellent players but the fact remains that football will never be as big as cricket unless the PFF makes some big changes. What is the point of producing good club level players when they will only get stuck in the bureaucracy of the department teams and the PFF once they move up the ladder and start playing professional football?
In an email to Aurora, the PFF provided several reasons for its inability to attract sponsorship. These included the fact that budgets are allocated to cricket, Pakistan’s low FIFA ranking, very few international wins for the local football team and inadequate TV coverage. What is interesting is that the solution to practically all these issues lies within the control of the PFF.
Although brands are often reluctant to step into uncharted territory, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a good quality product is never ignored, and if the PFF were to make the effort to overhaul the structure of the game and improve the quality of the players, then there is every likelihood that brands will see the value of investing in it.
This does not mean that brands are completely off the hook either, and if they are willing to spend a few hundred thousand rupees to sponsor the tournaments of those local football clubs which are able to deliver in terms of quality, they need to start thinking long term.
As Ali puts it: “If sponsors want to improve the state of Pakistani football, they need to make a three- to five-year commitment, so that we are then able to think in visionary terms instead of just thinking about execution.”
If just a few brands were to take a long-term approach to sponsoring football, the quality of the game could be vastly improved. Once this happens, visibility in the media and increased brand support will follow. If this could then be matched by structural changes within the departmental teams and the PFFL, then football has a bright future in Pakistan. As Siddiqui says, “the success of a sport will self command exposure.”
Marylou Andrew is Head of Product Excellence at Hobnob. firstname.lastname@example.org