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'Either implement a salary cap or embrace a free market': Odisha FC owner Rohan Sharma

Reflecting on recent upheavals, including the financial entanglement of ISL clubs, Rohan Sharma, the owner of Odisha FC, discussed his vision and philosophy of managing the club.

Either implement a salary cap or embrace a free market: Odisha FC owner Rohan Sharma

Odisha FC owner Rohan Sharma and club's president Raj Athwal at an event. (Photo credit: Odisha FC)


Aswathy Santhosh

Published: 25 Feb 2024 9:51 AM GMT

The perpetual challenge of financial stability looms large over Indian football, with clubs perennially grappling with economic uncertainties. Reflecting on recent upheavals, including the financial entanglement of ISL clubs, Rohan Sharma, the owner of Odisha FC, articulated a universal truth prevalent in team management.

"In most sports teams, it's about how much you're comfortable losing," said Rohan. But, it is a fact that is hard to digest.

"The spending issue is how you allocate your funds. Of course, there's always going to be some degree of loss. We've had a good sponsorship portfolio this year, attracting sponsors due to connections and reputation. Mumbai City has a good profile in their sponsorships. That helps a lot, having good sponsors who pay on time," stated Rohan.

But the lack of clarity on the salary cap in the Indian Super League is an issue, Rohan asserted. "It's crucial to either implement a salary cap with proper auditing or embrace a free market. Increasing the salary cap while maintaining auditing could benefit clubs. But the initial salary cap has been too low, and we found out. I prefer now to have a way if we can somehow increase it. But you maintain auditing of it. That would help the clubs a lot," opined Rohan, a businessman.

The Indian players' market being saturated is another puzzle that needs to be addressed. As the players' prices are high and the talent pool is small, Rohan laid out a plan to address the problem at Odisha FC by signing more young talent.

"'We are focusing on developing young players rather than expensive acquisitions. Because the players are expensive and the price is going higher, I'm trying to focus on more young players into the club and get more of these young U-19 players, U-18 players coming in," revealed Rohan.

Seconding Rohan, Raj Athwal, the club's United Kingdom-based president, said, "With the youth players, there's embedded value, and that's something looked upon very highly across all Western countries, especially in most of the leagues, if you want to become sustainable."

"Clubs are now trying to develop their youth systems; some clubs have already been operational for a while. In our case, Odisha FC are a pretty new club. It's not an excuse, as you know. For two years, it was Covid-19, and now this is our second proper season in Bhubaneswar. So we are in the process of executing many plans, and there's quite a lot going on at the moment. But I guess until you see it physically, it's difficult to convince people," said Raj.

Talking about youth development in India, Rohan said, "Every year, new talent emerges in Indian football, whether in the I-League or the ISL, which is great for youth development. This year, for us players like Isak and Thoiba have shown promise, despite challenges. The competitiveness has increased with six teams going to playoffs in the ISL, making every match exciting. Despite the negativity, there's positivity with the growth of academies and efforts to improve Indian football's legacy."

When there are talks of progress in youth development, the same does not reflect on the national team's performances, the ultimate parameter of understanding any country's forward march in the game.

While Rohan admitted to the problems, he also underlined the positive occurrences around Indian football.

"While national team performance may fluctuate, clubs like Goa, Mumbai, Kerala and Bangalore are working hard to elevate the sport. Additionally, initiatives like the Reliance Foundation's academies contribute to youth development, ensuring a brighter future for Indian football. We acknowledge that there have been shortcomings behind the scenes in terms of youth development. However, we are fully aware of these issues and are actively striving to improve them," stated the 35-year-old.

Unhappy with broadcasting

There have always been some positives about the Indian Super League despite all the negativity surrounding the league, Rohan stated. "The league has brought professionalism to Indian football, enhancing the presentation of matches on TV and improving the overall product," he observed.

Rohan, however, rued the lack of cooperation among the clubs, and that is one of the reasons that made him disappointed.

"As an owner, I'm somewhat disappointed that we're not working together more effectively. It seems strange to me because, in every successful league, collaboration is key to improvement. I can't even recall the last time we had a league meeting, perhaps around the 2019 season. It's perplexing that there's a lack of unity among owners," opened up Rohan.

Star Sports, the private broadcaster, snapped its nine-year-long relationship with ISL this year, and Rohan is unhappy with the way Sports 18 is managing the broadcasting to the league.

"I also find it somewhat amusing that the league's marketing efforts seem to have dwindled lately. In the initial years, marketing was quite prominent, with celebrities gracing TV screens on Star Sports. However, now that we're on Sports 18, it feels like a step back," observed Rohan.

Sustainability over extravaganza

The state of Odisha is probably the best support system any sports team could ask for. Praising the sports ecosystem of Odisha, he said, "When it comes to sustainability and success in football, there's a delicate balance to maintain. I've never been one to pour exorbitant amounts of money into the club. Unlike Delhi, in Odisha, where the government helps with maintenance, my costs have been reduced significantly. Infrastructure costs often weigh heavily on clubs, but with smart investments and state support, these burdens can be mitigated,"

Raj Athwal also emphasised the importance of increasing the brand value of clubs. "Additionally, expanding the fan base globally, as we've seen with Sky Sports promoting Indian clubs, enhances the marketability of Indian football. Coming from England, I can attest to the genuine interest in Indian football. There's immense potential to capitalize on this interest and truly elevate the sport in India. However, this requires collaboration among all stakeholders."

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