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'Pausing to restart with right vision and approach': KBFC director Nikhil on closing women's team

Kerala Blasters director Nikhil Bhardwaj reflected on closing down their women's team just 11 months after launching it. He also talked about the club's vision, setting up an independent academy, and ISL title dreams amidst financial challenges.

Pausing to restart with right vision and approach: KBFC director Nikhil on closing womens team

Kerala Blasters Director Nikhil Bhardwaj (Photo credit: KBFC media team)


Aswathy Santhosh

Updated: 25 Feb 2024 10:24 AM GMT

"Looking back, perhaps we would handle it differently'," is a phrase many people find themselves saying at some point in their lives. For Nikhil Bhardwaj, the director of Kerala Blasters, this sentiment arises from the way the club shut their women's team.

The women's team of ISL outfit Kerala Blasters was established in July 2022. Still, exactly 11 months later, the club closed down the operation, citing financial constraints resulting from a fine incurred by the men's team walking off from a playoff match in the ISL. This announcement sparked outrage, with women's footballers also voicing their annoyance.

"Why should the women's team suffer for the actions of the men's team?" was the question they asked predominantly. It brought bad press to the KBFC management and the club's owner, Magnum Sports Private Limited.

"From our perspective, this was probably the most straightforward explanation compared to what else I could explain in a one-on-one conversation where we have a back-and-forth", Nikhil told The Bridge in an exclusive interview.

"While we anticipated a negative reaction to the announcement, we didn't expect it to be this significant. However, we also believe this situation should never have occurred due to a walkout. It's very unfortunate, but from our perspective, that was the one tangible reason we felt comfortable disclosing without going into further detail," he added.

“But, other significant factors resulted in the closure of the women's team. Back in January of last year, or early December, we found out that we wouldn't be part of the men's academy project we were working on in Trivandrum. It was surprising because the club has been around for ten years in the state and contributed immensely to the grassroots development. This news prompted us to reconsider our approach with the women’s team which was started from scratch on the promise of a professional setup, and a platform to showcase local talent. But, these plans are inconsequential if we can’t even give them a chance to train on proper grounds, amidst numerous other grassroots level issues," explained Nikhil.

Initially, the club considered relocating the women's setup from Kochi to another city but logistical hurdles, especially concerning young players' relocation, made it unfeasible.

“The first option wasn't to pause the operation but to consider relocating out of Kochi, maybe to Hyderabad," he revealed.

"However, expecting players to move out of the state didn’t seem feasible, and it didn’t fit into our vision to have an all-Kerala women’s team," he added.

"So, we felt pausing was a better option, to restart with the right vision and approach. Some may argue it's just about money, but it's not just about floating a team with a minimum budget. We invested certain amounts in the first year intending to improve in the following years. There were clear plans for foreign stints abroad similar to what we’re doing with the young boys in reserves. Unfortunately, there were a lot of uncertainties after the walkout, including the revenues, that compounded the situation and we chose to pause temporarily," spelt out Nikhil.

Nikhil also argued that the pause in the women's team's operation is just temporary, but he could not determine the time of the return of the side in the Indian women's football ecosystem.

"Taking a pause doesn't mean giving up; it's about resetting. I can't say when we'll resume, but I hope it aligns with the establishment of our own academy. That way, we're not dependent on anyone else. Unfortunately, there haven't been many interactions between the men's and women's teams. We've done what we could, but ultimately, we want everyone to feel as a part of Kerala Blasters Football Club, regardless of gender," said Nikhil.

Talking about setting up an independent academy, Nikhil said, "The next step in our plans involves establishing our own youth setup. While I hesitate to set a definite timeline, we're looking at anywhere between the next twelve to eighteen months. This facility would serve as a central hub, accommodating training sessions for the first team and extending all the way down to U-10s. "

Mohammed Aimen and Azhar with KBFC coach Ivan Vukomanovic

Nikhil, however, rued the lack of support from the state.

“While we’re incredibly thankful for all the support from the government to date, there is always room for more collaboration. Since the inception of KBFC, more than 50,000 jobs have been created, directly, or indirectly, so there needs to be a greater emphasis that KBFC is Kerala’s team and that KBFC can play a much bigger role in community development," he remarked.

On its part, KBFC is actively involved with developmental work in the state. "We are actively working with many schools, local turf owners, and local academies to uplift the grassroots ecosystem, talent pipeline and coaching education so that the coming generations can benefit. On our own, we can only do so much. There needs to be a collective effort to grow further and quicker," he emphasised.

Title dreams and more

For a club that used to finish consistently at the bottom half of the table three years ago, the immediate goal for Kerala Blasters over the next seasons is to consistently maintain a position in the top four of the league, with the ultimate objective being to win the title.

“The minimum expectation is to be in the top four, consistently. We don't want to be a club that ever falls below. We want to be there at the top every single year. Then it's a question of immediate short-term goals. I would say, look, a title is very much up there in terms of importance. This summer's investment has allowed us to set the core structure of our team. There were a lot of outs, but there were a lot of ins as well. And sometimes that's a good thing because you need to replace not only the quality of players but also, the mindset of players," said Nikhil.

"I know that the fans have been incredibly patient, but don't let the impatience define your views about what the club is doing because it is a matter of time before the title comes, continue to ask us questions to the management and we're here to keep the communication open. Hopefully, sooner than later, we will be celebrating that much-wanted trophy altogether," he added.

With as many as 17 different injuries this season it was the young players from the academy who stepped up to carry the club on their shoulders. But Nikhil feels it is also a period of slow adaption.

"Normally, when a young player is coming through, there is an adaptation period. There's a phase where they play extremely fearlessly, but there's also a period where you have to nurture and look after them because they'll experience various thoughts, especially after a poor performance, and they're introduced to social media for the first time," he noted.

Sustainability over success?

Kerala Blasters has always been under the knife due to the 'sustainability over success' policy the club takes, but Nikhil disagrees with the opinion. "I think the idea of sustainability is misunderstood in the sense of us trying to save money. It is not true. Because in the summer window, for example, we may not have been the highest spenders, but we spent reasonably high, it's happening now because we're doing a sufficient amount of planning and we're building a strategy which is centred around player transfer revenues. Every player has a sort of timeline. We absolutely back our players to the core when we believe they're absolutely committed to the team. But the moment we feel that commitment is wavering, then we're equally dispassionate."

This summer has been especially hard for the faithful of Kerala Blasters with their local boy Sahal Abdul Samad leaving the club to Mohun Bagan, some of the exits are crucial for the team to stay on top.

"If tomorrow any player feels they're getting a better offer, they will not hesitate to come and tell us. So we also want to think of it in the same manner. But also in that process, because a club is invested in you, we also want to benefit from it. So player transfers are one aspect, but it doesn't mean we're just in the process of selling every player after every successful year, it's done with a certain amount of planning, which is why we've been able to consistently be among the top teams for three years," he added.

Profit ratio

The Kochi-based ISL outfit is also one of the clubs that profits from sponsors in the league. But according to Nikhil that has not been easy.

"The kind of sponsors we had five or six years ago, it was all regional. Today, we have national and even international sponsors, which signifies the growth of our brand. It was a conscious decision to start holding preseason in Dubai because, we have a fan base there, as well as in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, which are also part of our plans going forward. But it also appeals to a different market. Different kinds of brands become aware and might think that between the UAE and India, they have common interests. That's really been the reason why we've been able to attract more international brands as well," he added.

However, not having consistent attendance for the home matches is an issue. "From a stadium point of view, we don't make money even when we conduct matches; we're losing more money than we make from a ticketing perspective. We're not yet in a mature market where that can happen. But despite being ahead of all other ISL teams in terms of revenues, is still burning a tremendous amount of money," said Nikhil.

There have been accusations that the club is investing the profit in their sister club, Pro Kabaddi League side Tamil Thalaivas.

Nikhil categorically denied that allegation.

"We're a family-funded club, unlike some other clubs that enjoy the backing of big corporations. We don’t make any profits or money in sports. Everything we do stems from a passion for grassroots development. In Tamil Thalaivas as well, our approach is exactly the same. It's not like we're doing something here and then lying about things there and doing something different there.

In the last three years, the vision has been exactly the same. It's about backing youngsters, creating national team players, and starting from the pipeline. With the Gopichand Nimmagadda Foundation Badminton Academy as well, we were supporting badminton at a time when no one was.

It took many years to win our first Olympic medal but today, you see the impact it has created. The number of people signing up to play the sport and the number of academies that have opened around the country since. We do what we do because there is a strong passion and commitment to contribute to the sports ecosystem in India," he added.

The 27-year-old, however, is optimistic about his club's earning prospects.

"I'm hoping that sooner rather than later, the day will come when we're actually making money in this sport as well. And then you'll see, we're not focused on driving profits or taking them home. The moment that happens, we're even more incentivized to come back and develop other things that can ultimately benefit this ecosystem," said Nikhil.

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