Sumon K Chakrabarti's entrepreneurial journey kicked off a year ago while he was watching, what else, a football game.
It was on 5 July 2015. Argentina, the South American football powerhouse and home to Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, was playing the perennial underperformer Chile in the final of the Copa America.
The teams couldn't score in the stipulated time and the match went to a penalty shootout where Chile shocked Argentina to win the trophy for the first time since the tournament had begun 99 years before.
At the time, Chakrabarti was leading the digital team at F7 Broadcast Pvt. Ltd's Hindi channel News World India and focusing more on football rather than cricket. Being a Bengali, football is in his blood. But the focus on football was because he thought that, in this cricket-crazy country, he could not do anything different from what everybody was doing.
"On the day of the Copa America final last year, our live page was the fifth-highest live page in the entire Asia Pacific," he recalls. "That's when the idea of foottheball.com came."
Chakrabarti soon ended his 20-year-long journalism career and headed toward entrepreneurship. Foottheball.com, a web platform for football news, views and other information, was launched in January this year. In June, Chakrabarti hired Arijit Banarji, a former colleague at News World India and previously the editor of a publication that targeted the Indian diaspora in Australia, to set up Buffalo Soldiers Media & Strategists LLP to delve into football completely.
Chakrabarti says India is "a sleeping giant" for football and the market is untapped. He is not the only one to realise that, however. Over the past few months leading legacy media firms such as Times Group, HT Media Ltd and Network18 have entered the segment by either acquiring or launching football news and information platforms.
The platform's USP
Foottheball is a digital platform that offers news, commentary, statistics and visuals on football from across the globe. It also provides information beyond the 90 minutes of on-field action by bringing behind-the-scene stories, transfer news, gossips and scandal, and even information on the famous wives and girlfriends of top players.
The startup claims to be working toward building the "first exclusive" social network for football fans globally. "That's where our RoI (return on investment) lies," says Chakrabarti.
He explains how such a social network could work. "In India, the fan base is primarily for foreign players, and that's interesting," he says.
The UK club Chelsea, for instance, will have about 50,000 fans in Delhi-NCR alone, he estimates and adds that there are thousands of WhatsApp groups where these people connect, chat and plan a venue to watch a match.
The limitation of these groups is that these are close-knit circles and beyond these circles many have to go to other groups to interact with. "Our aim is to bring that fan base into 'Foottheball fan zone' where everybody will have their exclusive fan bases. For example, a Chelsea supporter will see the entire Chelsea fan base and what they are discussing and planning but not the Manchester United fan base," he explains.
Foottheball currently has a desktop website. It aims to launch its Android and iOS apps in next two months. The platform claims about 100,000 page views in the first month with a lot of traction from the US, Latin America and India.
The startup is doing a pilot with the Chelsea fan base in Delhi NCR, and will start piloting with the Liverpool fan base this month. "We have commitment from at least 1,000 people. However, the fan zones will start in its right earnest once the app is out," says Chakrabarti.
The startup is targeting one million unique visitors over the next eight months and an equal number of app downloads by the end of this year.
Foottheball is also tying up with a Dutch startup and a Silicon Valley startup via 'zero penny' deals. The Indian and the Dutch companies will intergrate some of each other's features in their respective apps. For example, the app will have a feature where a person watching a match in a stadium can show a video of whatever is happening around him for up to 10 minutes to a friend who isn't present in the stadium but wants to find out.
The tie-up with the US-based firm is an equity swap partnership. In this case, some Foottheball fan zones will be powered by the Silicon Valley startup.
Foottheball aims at becoming the gateway for all football brands and clubs that come to India. Currently, these clubs and brands are tying up with schools and doing a little academic engagement.
Tie-up ads and native ads are the normal monetisation model for any platform, but Footheball's return on investment will come from the fans. "Once the fan zones catch on, we will have those fan bases start talking for us. Even if we get 10,000 fans for the pilot, think about the amount of brands associated with Chelsea or any football brand. They cannot avoid their fan base, that is their market, and they will ultimately come to us," says Chakrabarti.
He adds that the company will monetise the fan base in terms of in-app purchases and pushing merchandise ads, among others.
Funding, expansion plans
The company has been bootstrapped so far. It is looking to raise about $800,000 in return for 10-15% equity. Chakrabarti hopes that what 2015 was for food-tech startups, 2017 will be for sports-tech startups.
The platform is starting from Delhi-NCR and will eventually spread out to Goa, Mumbai and other cities and states . China will be the next goal for Foottheball.
"China has recently committed the biggest ever investment in football with an aim to be the next global footballing superpower. The Chinese Super League, in January, for the first time exceeded any European League, and spent the maximum to buy the players," he says.
He adds that the football fan base is built around footballing superstars, and if some stars move to Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club (first in Chinese Super League), these clubs will get a lot of prominence, across the world, including India.
HT Media in June acquired the Indian rights of football website 90min.com from Minute Media. Times Internet Ltd last year signed a strategic partnership with Perform Group's football portal Goal to deliver content worldwide. Also, Network18's IBNLive.com has launched a new football-focused brand called FootballNext.
"Traditional media venturing into this space is great for us as they are increasing the market volume," says Chakrabarti.
But he claims Foottheball is different. "They are not competing with us directly, our model is completely different," he says. "Those platforms are stuck in the news part. I do not believe that just news will help them survive."
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