Travancore Royals FC: A Sustainable Model In Indian Football

Running a football club in India is considered a non-profitable business, despite an increase in popularity of the game in the past decade. Clubs shutting down is not uncommon, especially the ones who ply their trade in I-league. The richer ones who contest in ISL get the maximum media coverage and nevertheless they are forced to shut their operations or relocate to another city. When such a situation exists, it requires meticulous planning to run a club without landing up in a financial crisis. A group of students at Sports Management and Research Institute (SMRI) studied how clubs are being run in India and they formed a club which is India’s first-ever fan-owned club, Travancore Royals FC.

Although a fan-owned system is not a new concept, it is new in our country. Giant clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are fan-owned clubs and they are hugely successful. We got an opportunity to discuss various aspects of the functioning of Travancore Royals with Jibu Gibson, the secretary of TRFC. Here are the excerpts of the interview:

It is not an easy job to start and sustain a football club in India. Still, your team decided to take that risk. Could you explain why?

“Unlike other football clubs in India which are owned by corporates, we are a club run by fans. The owners of the other clubs are very passionate about football but that model has been a failure in India and we have learned lessons from it. The elite clubs of Europe like Borussia Dortmund, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, etc. are fan-owned clubs where fans select the administrators of the club. Success stories of European clubs inspired us to form Travancore Royals FC and the initial framework of the clubs was formed at Sports Management and Research Institute (SMRI).”

Trivandrum is not as popular as Malappuram for football but still, your group chose Trivandrum as the home of Travancore Royals. Any reasons for that?

“You are wrong, mate; Trivandrum is a hotbed for football. In the yesteryears, Trivandrum used to host big tournaments. Trivandrum super division had the maximum number of teams, KSEB, SBT, and AG’s Office to quote a few. FC Cochin and other clubs of Kerala are late entrants. Chandrasekharan Nair stadium had seen capacity crowds for tournaments and unfortunately somewhere in the late 90s and early 2000s, we lost that fan buzz. We are trying to recreate that football culture in Ananthapuri. The coastal region of Trivandrum is a hub for football talent, notwithstanding that we don’t have enough clubs to tap it. That’s why we started a club to give a platform for the youngsters to showcase their talent.

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Many football fans of India may not be aware of the administrative structure of a fan-owned club. So, could you please explain how the club is being run?

“The first executive committee of this club had only 5 members. More interested people were gathered through social media campaigns and the number rose to 150. Our office is located at Greenfield stadium. We have an executive committee and core committee to decide on the club operations and we use WhatsApp to connect with the members. Core committee meeting happens once a month where we plan our future activities.

We are transparent about club operations and expenses. We have even published details of our income and expenditure. We also provide a presentation to all our new members about the structure, functioning, and goals of the club.

What are the goals that you have set for the club to achieve?

“We aim for the sky but we know our limitations as well. We want to take one step at a time instead of placing a foot in a bigger league without proper planning. Our first plan is to build strong youth and senior teams along with creating a strong fan base. Only then we will try our luck at bigger tournaments like Kerala Premier League and I League second division. We have richer individuals in our group who can contribute but we want to develop a sustainable model. One-time huge investment for a short-term gain will not fetch a favorable outcome.

We did enquire about the tournament format of this year’s KPL and still, there is a lack of clarity. If it continues to be a home-away tournament, we may not participate this year but if it happens at a single venue, we will consider participating.”

As TRFC is a movement by football fans, many of our readers might be interested in joining TRFC as a member. So, how can someone be a member of the Travancore Royals?

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“There are two kinds of memberships that we offer. One is a lifetime membership which you can earn by paying an amount of 10,000 INR. All lifetime members get voting rights and can stand as a candidate for the board of members. You can be an active member by paying 2,000 INR per year and active members can also vote for elections but they can stand for elections only if they continue as active members for 5 years.”

It’s been two years since the inception of your club. Have you ever faced any financial crisis in these two years?

“Never, because we are taking a very cautious approach. We have studied the clubs which shut down and we have gained insights from that. We run mainly from membership fees and we do have some sponsors. Big sponsors can be roped in only if we participate in a big league and we are taking one step at a time to reach there. Recently we started a campaign called Travancore Biz, where we give a platform for the corporates/firms to advertise (through our social media handles) in a return for their sponsorships, which is a win-win situation for both parties.

Take us through your age category teams and scouting system.

“We have U-13, U-15, U-18, senior men’s, and women’s teams. We aim to build a strong youth system through which the youngsters can grow as a footballer and reach teams like Indian Arrows. We started our women’s team last year itself and they are training at All Saints’ College. We have now 20 players on the women’s team. We do have ambitions about women’s football as well but we can’t spend 25 lakhs on the women’s team itself just like Gokulam Kerala did last year for IWL. We want development but not at the cost of financial instability.

We conducted a talent hunt at greenfield stadium last year, however, due to the COVID pandemic we couldn’t conduct it again since then. Hence, we proceeded with online scouting this year and surprisingly, we got 480+ applications for various age categories, most of them from Malabar, and we have shortlisted 80. Ranjit Bajaj is our honorary owner whom we roped in through personal contacts. He can guide us as they have a strong youth system at Minerva. We have plans to bring him to Trivandrum for scouting so that our players may get an opportunity to play for his teams.

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You have already talked enough about the football talent in Trivandrum. Yet, we rarely see talent from this region representing top-level clubs in India. Why is it so?

“It is a fact that the majority of football players from Kerala hail from the Malabar region. But there is no lack of depth for talent at Trivandrum. The coastal community of Trivandrum is an untapped resource as far as football skill is concerned. These kids will give blood and sweat to their team. Notwithstanding all this, Trivandrum now doesn’t have a community culture that supports sports. Parents want their children to perform more in academics rather than in sports. Also, what I have observed is that players leave the field forever if they ever suffer an injury which is not the case in the Malabar region where they come back again after recovery. To tackle injuries, we have purchased 20 gadgets from First Beat technologies which can also be used for performance analysis. Usage of such gadgets at the academy level will be something new in Indian football.

Your club is just two years old and your club already has an e-sports team. Why did you decide to start an e-sports team in the initial stages itself?

Football is all about marketing and we have to use all the available options to be the best in the business. We have to provide all possible platforms for the sponsors to generate revenue and we consider e-sports as a growing business with a lot of potential. We have conducted small tournaments for talent identification and once the restrictions of COVID are released, we will conduct offline tournaments on a bigger scale and choose the players for our team.

He also added that they have ambitious plans for the near future which are put on hold due to the COVID pandemic. Travancore Royals will resume their on-field operations as soon as the COVID restrictions are taken back.