There was a deafening cheer when legendary FIFA World player Ronaldinho entered the NSCI stadium in Mumbai. And when Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs joined in, the crowd went berserk. The second edition of Premier Futsal had all the fervour of an international tournament; except, it was being played on a smaller turf, for a shorter time and between domestic teams. Given the popularity of football in India, and the love for short-format sports, futsal has hit a home run. The inaugural edition of the tournament was watched by 13 million viewers. And the passion is spreading on the ground, too.
"The futsal trend really picked up pace three-four years ago as the Indian Super League (ISL) and the Premier Futsal League started getting popular," says Sudhakar Raja, CEO of Chennai-based Howdy Ventures, a sports networking platform. These global football superstars signing up for such created a buzz among football enthusiasts in India. "The extra glamour helped futsal grab attention nationwide," Raja adds.
Futsal has become a convenient sport for football enthusiasts who are hard-pressed for time, space and players. For the uninitiated, futsal simply is mini-football. It is played five-a-side as against the 11-a-side format of football. A futsal turf (or arena) typically measures 5,000 sq ft or more (going upto 10,000 sq ft), as against a football pitch that measures between 45,000 to 1,17,000 sq ft, and is made of synthetic grass that resembles the turf of a football stadium. Also, futsal is usually played indoors.
Football enthusiasts, such as Delhi-based media professional Dyutiman Basu, who are miffed at the lack of large playgrounds, requisite for the game, are pleased. Whether in Chennai, where he moved for higher studies two years ago, or Mumbai, where he works presently, Basu has found a futsal turf in "every nook and corner."
Unlike the big football stadiums or public grounds, futsal turfs are easier to access; a turf can be built even in a bustling urban neighbourhood. Besides, thanks to the small format, players do not have to scout for team mates to start playing. The game is not governed by too many rules either. These are some of the factors that have lured students and professionals to the game, kicking off a new sports market in India. Not just them, futsal is drawing in investors and entrepreneurs, too.
"It is a low-infrastructure sport; like a T20 version of football," says Nithyasree Subban, Co-founder, Premier Futsal League, a popular futsal league in India. It is usually played for 40 minutes with lesser number of people in futsal turfs; thus, ball contact for each player is very high. A lot of amateur players are taking to the game these days," she adds.
The futsal arenas (turfs), too, are a brisk business. These compact artificial grass turfs with security nets on all sides, with amenities such as drinking water, locker rooms and changing rooms, are mushrooming in the metro cities of Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi. Many are strategically located near business parks, IT hubs, commercial properties, malls and rooftops of residential buildings.
The game is particularly popular among youngsters. And that, says Raja of Howdy, is where the moolah is. "While school and college-going youngsters are joining futsal academies to get trained, working professionals are taking to it as a recreation activity after office," he says.
K.K. Subeesh, a Bangalore-based IT professional, who regularly hits futsal arenas in the city after office hours, says that most big playgrounds in cities are inaccessible to the generic public. "Most of them are either owned by schools and colleges or are perennially crowded," he says.
Rakshith Mohan, founder of Bangalore-based Krieda Sports Infrastructure, a company that builds futsal turfs, says, "When we built our first futsal turf in 2014, there were only around eight turfs in Bangalore. Today, the city has more than 150 such grounds and most of them are doing good business."
Futsal arenas are profitable, compared to other sports ventures, because the initial investment is much lower. "Building an arena costs around Rs 30-35 lakh, depending on the quality of artificial grass and the land. With approximately 35 hours occupancy per week, you can break even in about 16 months," says Mohan of Krieda.
The arenas require low maintenance as they are made of synthetic grass. "We just need to brush the court to level the rubber granules filled in between the grass," Mohan says. A Chennai-based futsal court that sees occupancy of seven to eight hours per day, on average, earns around Rs 3 lakh per month in revenue. And with occupancy only slated to rise, there's money to be made here.
These turfs also double up as venues for multi-sports activities and corporate events. "Corporates use these turfs for conducting gatherings after which they might play futsal on the ground," says Aniketh Nair, Co-founder of Mumbai-based A Team Sports that has five turfs in the city. Its revenue stands at Rs 4 crore, out of which around 65 per cent comes from futsal.
Several football academies, too, are leasing out futsal turfs on a yearly basis for a fixed number of hours to train their students. Chennai-based Mahogany Football Club, which has been training children for the past 12 years, has many of its centres on futsal turfs. "Out of our 13 centres across Chennai, eight are on futsal turfs. We see that a lot of children are interested in the game and are joining the training centres; this enthusiasm was reserved only for cricket earlier," says Joseph Vaz, Partner, Mahogany Football Club.
The distinct advantage in training on futsal turfs, according to Vaz, is that the risk of injury is low since they are made of artificial grass. Hence, children can try out different styles of defence without any safety concerns.
Futsal vs Other Sports
Sports enthusiasts are of the opinion that the interest in futsal will compel fans and businesses to look beyond cricket. In India, even though it is still early days, the revenue potential is promising. "The many sports leagues in the country and the growing penetration of futsal indicate how the Indian sports ecosystem is maturing to foster more creativity. With an 800+ million youth base, the opportunities for monetisation are ample," says Raman Kalra, Partner, PwC India - Entertainment & Media Sector Advisory Leader.
The Indian sports sponsorship market was valued at Rs 7,300 crore in 2017 according to ESP Properties, the entertainment and sports arm of GroupM and Sportzpower. Although cricket claims a lion's share of this, the sponsorship for football grew by a considerable 64 per cent in 2017. In its report The Business of Sports, released in 2016, KPMG states: 'Even if cricket continues to lead with 51 per cent share of sponsorships, leagues such as ISL are increasingly attracting sponsors and helping India become a multi-sports nation'.
The futsal "craze", sports aficionados believe, is here to stay. "It has gained much traction among children, as it allows them to develop better football skills - better leg skills and improve ball control," says Bhupesh Kumar, Secretary General, Futsal Association Delhi. More than 2,500 young players under its wing are waiting to play at state-level futsal leagues.
The coming together of sports and entertainment with relatively much lesser pressure on infra development also makes the financial viability of the sport relatively better, according to Kalra of PwC. "Like how IPL added the element of entertainment to cricket, making it faster, leaner and appealing, futsal, too, merges sports and entertainment," he says.
With rising popularity, futsal is also eyeing more investment. "Currently, the investment in the sector is privately driven," says Subban of Premier Futsal. The company claims to have invested around `120 crore in the past two seasons. Subban is hopeful that in the coming years, as the sport sees technical advancement and consolidation, the investment scenario will be upbeat.
According to Benu Dasgupta, Owner, Leisure Sports, a Kolkata-based sports management company, the game will be able to create a different market from football, if the ecosystem evolves. "Authorities and national bodies should come in and the franchise model has to develop," he says.
Premier Futsal, started in 2016, currently has six franchise teams. "Our team owners and investors are building the IP now and will start reaping benefits in the next three to five years," Subban adds.
Several business groups and companies are taking interest in entering the futsal market, according to industry sources. The All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body of football in India is, reportedly, planning to organise coach education programmes, futsal workshops and a Futsal Championship with the support of the Asian Football Confederation. In fact, it has informed FIFA that the Premier Futsal League is not recognised by AIFF and instructed all its affiliate units and registered players not to play in the league.
VCs and angel investors are eyeing the futsal infrastructure market in Mumbai, informs Nair of A Team Sports. Franchises of turf parks are expanding across metros - Pune-based Hotfut, which started in 2012, now has its franchises in Mumbai and Hyderabad, among other cities; Bangalore-based Gamechanger is planning to open facilities in Chennai, Hyderabad and Kerala soon; Mumbai-based Dreamsports is expanding to 16 turfs across the country.
"Currently only three to four per cent of our almost $5-billion sports industry is occupied by football. Football and futsal together have the capability of occupying 25 per cent of this market in 10 years, if things go well," says Raja of Howdy.
While the buzz around the sport has certainly kicked off, driving fan engagement by promoting the sport, the way IPL has, will be crucial for futsal to attract investments in the long term.