The marketing man behind the success of India’s U17 FIFA World Cup

The 2017 FIFA U17 World Cup saw India earn the benchmark of the most attended FIFA U17 World Cup ever.

The tournament managed to eclipse the total attendance figures of 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup hosted by India, widely considered to be the biggest sporting event in the Indian subcontinent.

Indian football fans know the players who represented India in FIFA U17 World Cup. But there was one more team working days and night to make this event successful,

To make the FIFA U17 world cup successful in India, it has to be marketed in a very unique way and that is what the LOC team did wether you look at the Mission 11 million or releasing the tickets on sale at exactly 19:11.

Mr. Arup Soans was the Head of Marketing for India’s FIFA U17 World Cup. He is the first Indian to have obtained a Master’s degree in Sports Business from New York University, USA.

FIFA U17 World cup
Arup Soans

Excerpts from an exclusive interview Mr. Arup Soans, with Voice of Indian Sports.

Q. How was the experience of hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup and what are you doing since then?

Personally, it was an experience of a lifetime. I can pretty much say the same for all the people that worked on the tournament, not only those part of the LOC but those from FIFA as well. Being part of something that is a first in history will always be special, whatever the outcome.

As an individual, it took a lot of self-confidence and self-belief along with humility to be able to continuously learn as well as bring a very high level of professionalism expected by all the stakeholders. Hearing the Indian national anthem being played before the first match of the tournament was a goosebumps moment and made the years of effort and stress worth it and also gave a boost of energy to power through the rest of the World Cup with a sense of accomplishment and positivity.
Post the World Cup, I continued to work as a consultant for the Asian Football Confederation as well as picked up where I left off before the project i.e.- work as an independent sports business consultant. The focus now going forward will be to work with other international organisations and events who want to find their way into the Indian sports market along with putting in some time towards a charitable trust that I setup in 2013 to help sports NGOs.

Q. What is KiteTalks?

The idea to bridge the gap between the Indian and international sports community came about after multiple discussions with our advisors, Ted Shaker (my professor from the time I spent at NYU) and Joy Bhattacharjya (my boss during the FIFA U-17 World Cup). We realized that there isn’t any truly global sports business conference hosted in India and set out to eventually fill that gap by putting together a first-of-its-kind sports business conference. Aimed at creating an interactive platform both online and offline for exchange of ideas and learnings between the Indian and global sports community, paving way for business decisions and investments leading to industry growth in India and abroad. The goal is to enable sports professionals to experience focussed and curated content as well as learnings from global game-changers. Apart from instilling confidence and sharing knowledge, the community will be equipped to work with a ‘Big Goal’ mindset and international perspective.
Until the time we are able to host an offline conference we will utilize our unique industry access to engage professionals from across the global to share their experiences in sports business. We have over 40 speakers representing organisations like FIFA, NFL, DAZN, FFF, Infront, NBA, DDMC Fortis, MLS and JFA to name a few.

Early access awaits those who take action –

Q. How did you make your way into Sports Business?

My plan after studying management studies at a bachelor’s level was always to do a higher degree. In my initial years of working in varied industries apart from pursuing a master’s of commerce in business practices, I researched avenues in alternate degrees abroad and found a few interesting sports programs in the United States. This was in 2008. My next thought was to work in sports before pursuing a degree and ended up with my first stint in sports as part of the organising committee for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune. I went on to study sports business the following year at New York University giving me opportunities to work at Major League Soccer and Stats Perform (then Perform Group) during the three years I spent outside India.

Q. How do you think Covid 19 will affect Indian and Global Sports?

Sport in its broader role to society is something that promotes a healthy lifestyle starting at a grassroots level to professional athletes being the epitome of what society aspires to be. That being said, in the long run the effect of Covid 19 will be for more people to turn to sport and encourage the youth to do the same. When it comes to sports business, the industry is bound to see a huge correction over at least a 24-month period. Live sport with spectators ought to be last few areas of operation that should come back to normal until a vaccine is produced and widely available. With most professional sport dependent on sponsorship and broadcasting revenue and most broadcasters dependent on advertising revenue, the correction will be evident very soon when brands pull out or negotiate existing contracts, restrict their marketing spends on mainstream media and start to focus purely on their own revenue. Only those events and organisations that have managed to create a large reserve corpus will be able to sustain and ride through this time. The others will have to delay, extend and maybe cancel their plans until there are enough local and global brands able to spend on additional marketing avenues – one of them being sport.

Q. Do you think there will be lesser people to invest in Indian Sports as fall out of this pandemic and consequent losses that companies have been suffering from?

I feel that there will be enough of people to invest in Indian sports though the existing ones might not have the wherewithal to continue to invest and may need to find other partners or sell their businesses altogether. The industry as a whole will need to find more people to invest in it and collaborate with each other to find innovative solutions to keep things going. The Government will need to play a pivotal role in a time like this, much like it will need to do in other industries.

Q. The FIFA U17 World Cup in India was the best ever in terms of in stadia turnout. What was the planning that went in to making the tournament such a success considering it was only an age group tournament?

When we started out as the Local Organising Committee (LOC) with just five people, we were very clear from the start that every decision we made would resonate the underlying thought of making sure the stadiums are full. To put down the entire planning that went in to it could be a published book, though I’m happy to share some key points that ensured we eventually saw success. We knew that the biggest advantage we had was the fact that this was going to be India’s first ever FIFA tournament and also the first time the Indian football team would be playing in a World Cup. We used that leverage everywhere. When I say everywhere, I mean with all the stakeholders we had to deal with starting with our primary ones: FIFA, All India Football Federation, Government of India and all six state Governments for each host city. The secondary ones were media, global partners, local sponsors, local broadcaster, state football associations, venue management along with all the first hand vendors we needed to engage with leading up to the tournament. The overall stakeholder list was long but understanding the list and ensuring everyone in the LOC knew the priority that needed to be given to each stakeholder was of utmost importance. When delivering an event of this scale, knowing the difference between what is important and what is urgent could truly make or break the time spent by each individual to complete a task and could either be detrimental overall or simply put, efficient.

Our plan was simple. First, make a overarching promotion timeline that included all the possible events like the Draw, Mascot Launch, Ticketing Launch, etc. Second, use every stakeholder we have to amplify those promotions using their own assets and resources to do so. Easier said than done, but in a nutshell that is exactly what we did. We helped everyone involved believe in the eventual outcome and made sure our professionalism towards that cause held good to see that outcome through until the final game.

Q. After the huge success of FIFA U17 World Cup and India was to host the U17 Women’s FIFA World Cup but has been postponed to a later date due to the worsening Covid 19 pandemic, also submitted bid to host AFC Asian Cup in 2027. What do you think is there any possibilities of India hosting FIFA World Cup in near future?

Having been to the last two World Cups and having organized a youth World Cup myself, I can tell you that we are a long way off from hosting one in India. That being said, it might be a distant dream but should not be the reason to not try to host smaller tournaments in the near future. When people asked me about our Indian U-17 team going into the World Cup in 2017, my thoughts were always the same. ‘If we draw a match, that would be a success.’ But we didn’t. Without being too hard on our boys on the pitch, we failed. As a system we failed. At a senior level, the expectation is even higher and quality of play many decades ahead of where we are now. We should not even think of hosting a World Cup until we as a nation are able to compete with other Asian powerhouses like South Korea, Japan, Iran and others.

Infrastructure to host an event of that scale can always be built. We have already proved that we can put together the personnel to deliver what is required. But the day we say our national team is ready to compete at that level, I say compete meaning to beat the best and not just qualify for a tournament, then we should start to consider the thought of hosting an event of that scale. In short, time and effort in the short and long term should be on grassroots development across the nation.

Q. The Indian Super League has had a boom in Indian Football as far as viewership is concerned. We now see much improved attendance figure, bigger TV audience and increased fan activity on social media. What do you think led to such a success?

I look at it a little differently. The success has been the fact that football has been given a boost across the country and now even has some names as household names. The football audience in India exists and always has from a generation ago. The increased attendance and TV audience is a natural progression for the sport unless something terribly wrong is done. The intention of the league and the teams is to build an audience and be as consistent as possible on and off the pitch. Each team is inherently hoping to get better as the league moves ahead which should automatically see a spike in numbers each year.

Q. What potential do you see in the I league? Can it be marketed to become as much of a commercial success as the ISL? Considering that it is not based on a city based model and is participated in by traditional clubs running budget?

A league like the I League has a lot of strong assets especially teams with a long history in the sport. The one strong asset it hasn’t had over the years is broadcasting quality and reach. Globally all of the leagues that thrive at a national level are those that have a good broadcaster to be able to truly nationalize the offering which in turn makes it much more commercially viable. The potential definitely exists though it will need to be a concerted effort by all the clubs to find a more viable model to give the league the importance it deserves. The new Indian football roadmap will only help some of the clubs move to the top tier but the league itself does not get the boost. The way the current world of communication and marketing works, there will have to me newer, more innovative and yet cost effective methods used to build the marketability of the league and turn it into a commercial success in the years to come. All stakeholders including the ISL should be part of this plan to boost the success of the I League, only then will it really work and grow Indian football as a whole. Personally, I feel an under-utilized asset are the players. We need to learn from examples globally how teams are helping and using their own players to build their personal presence online which will help the teams as well as the sport in the long run.

Indian sports in general has benefited from franchise based leagues. Mainly from a consumer education and communication point of view by pushing different sports in a nicely packaged manner into the homes of an audience unaware of the idea of sport being presented in this manner. Parents now are slowly understanding that there is a possible avenue for their children to pursue professional sport other than cricket.

They could be the way forward from a professional level point of view but do they need to start from a scale similar to the IPL, probably not. Given that each sport is different and requires a different set of infrastructure it is important to note that the franchise based model is not a one size fits all model and must be adapted to the market but also to the lifecycle of the sport itself. The mighty IPL as we know is only twelve years old, which as compared to leagues in other countries is very very young.

The current project I am working on has been setup to allow our sports professionals and enthusiasts in India to understand and learn from best practices and case studies from outside the country. The idea is to be able to use experiences from across the world and adapt them to our Indian sporting system and setup organisations or leagues with long-term sustainability in mind. Can read up more on

Q. Do you think sports leagues apart from IPL can survive in Indian Present Sports Eco-system?

Firstly, no league is immune to failure. Secondly, it is tough to say if the leagues will survive or not. Whether we like it or not, all the leagues are businesses and if they have been setup with the right foundations they will find a way not only to survive but thrive. India’s present sports eco-system is a not so easy to maneuver one, and if the leagues are not able to find a middle ground that makes it a win-win for not only the league and the players but for the Government as well then it will be hard to survive. Now more than ever, is the time to find the right mix of public and private entities to get involved in promoting sport at all levels.

Q. The success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) has boosted the launch of several sports league in India. However, most of these non-cricket tournaments have failed to garner a positive response on the sponsorship front. What do you think what are the reasons behind it?

Most of the non-cricket tournaments have actually managed to find sponsors but have failed to sustain that engagement for probably different reasons. One common one is trying to go too big too soon. IPL being a unique event and one that promotes a sport revered in this part of the world cannot really be replicated by any other sport. Planning a league needs careful consideration and understanding to be able to setup the right business model along with making sure that all the controllable elements are making up for most of the plan along with having all the right stakeholders onboard. I’m not saying a league needs to be profitable from day one but it should have a plan that can be anticipated as to when it could be profitable and also not depending on any one such avenue like sponsorship to do so. The league or tournaments that have not been able to garner a positive response on the sponsorship front are those that have not been able to set themselves up well enough to be able to attract the right kind of sponsors. The Indian market when it comes to sponsorship is at a very nascent stage, which means selling a sponsorship is that much harder but when a property is setup in a way to check all the boxes for the brand manager sitting at the other end of the table, the convincing is a lot easier.


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