With the HBLPSL, all is sorted for the Babar Azams of Pakistan. But what about our Messis?

A case study of what could be the potential of football as a league-sport in Pakistan

An almost fairytale-like redemption story unfolded for the global football star Lionel Messi, and his men in the Lusail Stadium. Waves of joy ran over the economically trouble-stricken streets of Buenos Aires as the proverbial GOAT lifted the most coveted trophy in the sport. As dreamy as the scenes were in Lusail Stadium, a mere dream is what that trophy is, for a majority of the countries in the world. 

For example, Pakistan. Apart from their mutual love for the IMF and a recurring economic turmoil, there are not a lot of similarities between Pakistan and the current champions Argentina. And then there is football. It would be no short of an obnoxious claim, to say that the passion for football that the Argentinians have is even comparable to that of Pakistanis. It is also important to note here, that the population of the entire nation of Argentina is north of 45 million. That is almost 20% of the population of Pakistan. 

Pakistan’s performances have been mediocre at the global level of football. FIFA also suspended the licence of Pakistan Football Federation in April 2021, following the undue interference of third parties. The suspension was taken back in June 2022, but for football fans of Pakistan, the future of national football has always been considered unpromising. 

We have seen how the PCB created a cricket league in tough times and turned it into a brand. The HBL PSL has successfully become, not only self-sustaining, but also a highly profitable entity. But it is like comparing apples and oranges if one compares football with cricket. What then, is the future of football?

The sheer passion that exists for cricket is unmatched. In a country where a cricketing career can be grounds for political candidacy, no other sport can be as famous. And that polarity between cricket and other sports is also translated in numbers. Most of the olympics sports in Pakistan are currently in shambles, be it hockey, football or athletics. Apart from the obvious management lapses and incompetences, a big reason that is often stated for this, is the lack of interest from the sponsors’ side.

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What then, makes a sport interesting from a sponsorship perspective? Does football have that potential? This scribe makes the case that it does, by looking at the holy trinity for commercial sporting success. The talent, the viewership and the sponsors.

The talent

At the risk of resounding an age-old cliche, there is (presumably) a lot of talent within Pakistan. Almost every Pakistani wholeheartedly believes in this fact and the same is the case with football.

In October 2022, a month before the official FIFA world cup 2022, a small tournament called the Street Child Football World Cup also took place in Qatar. The number of people following the event was small however, a young team of boys, from lyari, defeated the Brazilian team in the semi finals to secure their place in the finals. The Pakistan team eventually stood second in the tournament out of 26 other countries. This was the second time that a young Pakistani team was able to shine amongst their counterparts at the global stage.

However, between this period of raw talent up till athletic development, Pakistan drops from the second place globally, all the way down to 190th. Talking to Profit, blogger and journalist, Bilal Hassan said that, It is almost criminal that the kids from Lyari have not made it big. There is a sheer lack of resources and platforms. And then there is also a class factor. If a team of boys from the central/urban Karachi had achieved such accolades, it would have gotten a much better recognition.

Talking on the subject of talent, Mr. Hassan said that, “There is no question about the presence of this talent. We have various communities like Lyari, Hazara and other cultures, of which football is an integral part. Not to mention the footprint of the sport in Urban areas. It is almost the second most popular sport in Pakistan after cricket.”

Why is the Pakistan Football Federation unable to tap into this talent? Why is it unable to develop these players? It is difficult to narrow it down to one factor, but thanks to free markets, we don’t have to. Anything that offers money, brings in a great number of people. It is a question of incentive, which increases when money gets involved. 

It is simpler for a child. A child is able to play because he doesn’t need to earn money. When grown up, that very child’s passion for the sport is bound to erode, provided that money is not a part of the equation. And such a burden is almost too big for the national exchequer to bear. The whole world has come around the fact that public engagement in sports is better observed through commercial channels. The board doesn’t need to get peanuts approved in funds, when corporate entities are willing to pay for the upscaling of talent. No matter the intention of the bureaucracy, the modern sport requires resources that Prime Minister Youth Initiatives might be able to facilitate, but simply cannot fulfil.

The viewership

A simple incidence of the ARY digital becoming a licensee of the broadcasting rights of the FIFA world cup through viacom18, is enough to indicate that there is a market. FIFA sold broadcasting rights for the Indian subcontinent in excess of 4.5 billion INR to Viacom 18.

Every year, Pakistani sports channels race each other to get the broadcasting rights of major football leagues, including the Premier League and La Liga to name a few. Fans from gilgit baltistan, down to the streets of Makran and Lyari tune in to watch their favourite teams in action. But is this viewership comparable to what it could be for a home grown league? Afterall, apart from all the hue and cry of fandom, it is mostly the quality of the games that attracts the fans.

That is probably the most tricky part of this question, and that is where different rivalries can be salvaged. Lahore Qalandars, an established HBL PSL franchise, recently announced that they will sponsor a hockey series between Karachi and Lahore determining which side is better. The effort was in line with restoring the national game’s lost spark. Hence, established HBL PSL franchises which already have profound histories of being rivals, face off, this time in a different sport. 

And that is just one of the examples. The already prevalent departmental football is a no brainer. The current Pakistan Premier League under the PFF has 16 department level teams under it. The league’s structure is equivalent to the Quaid e Azam trophy or the FC trophy in cricket. It was barely successful in cricket for the number of years that it was followed. But the structure lacks the vitality that sparks commercial interest. And it is time the PFF, much like the PCB in 2016, realises that there is far more on offer than departmental employment and a rank on the BPS-scale.

The sponsorship

Sponsors go where the eyeballs go. The demographic of people that follow football, is a target market for a lot of products and companies. Not to mention the modality of the boards and franchises play the biggest roles in this regard. Pakistan houses most of the brands that are the official partners of FIFA itself. And mostly the sponsorships are synonymous to the brand of a league, at inception. 

When asked about the possibility of sponsorships, the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at HBL, Mr. Ali Habib said that, “What HBL has done is that it has set a template for corporate Pakistan to step up, there is a future. And there is ROI if some of these organisations want to calculate ROIs. And this is a global phenomenon. Many big corporate entities/brands are associated with sport. This nexus of sports and business is a global phenomenon, whether you look at soccer, the NBA, or F1 racing, each of those cars is blazing with corporate logos. The template is there, the legacy is there, and all that is required is faith.” 

He claimed that there is Return on Investment also if someone wants to calculate it, but that ROI is not obtained in the short term. Corporates have to have faith and come in with at least a medium term goal, if not a long term goal.

The Indian model

Shortly after the Pakistan Football Federation was suspended from FIFA, The Indian Federation was also suspended . But their board could not care less. During the last 8 years, the Indian team has jumped more than 60 places in the international rankings. The reason, Indian Super League, or rather, the Hero Indian Super League. After the commercial success of IPL, India realised that leagues were the place where the big bucks were at. That is when they started this league in 2014.

As of today, the cumulative valuation of all the Hero ISL teams is more than €48 million or around 4 billion Indian Rupees. Leading brands in India compete for a spot on the Jerseys of ISL players and the Hero Indian Super League is a profitable league, despite the Indian national football being the 106th ranked in the world. All of the Indian National players are a part of the league and new prospects follow closely in their footsteps. Not only has it helped build an appetite, it has built stardom for some of these players, improving the sport as a by-product. 

The Indian example is perfect to explain how the sport is good business, despite international suspensions and an apparent lack in quality. Eventually, they will get to “the big leagues”. Currently players of diverse nationalities are playing in the ISL, from Moroccan to Greek to Scottish players. If Al-Nasser can buy Cristiano Ronaldo today, there is nothing stopping Mumbai City FC to reel in, say, a Mo Salah, in the next 10 years.


Pakistan is a sports loving nation. On top of that, there is a great shortfall of entertainment. The diverse gene pools across provinces also affords Pakistan the luxury to produce sportsmen. And even though cricket is a good sport, diversity in sports is always desirable for any country that aims to project a soft international image.

There is a long road to be travelled if one talks about the possibility of commercial football in Pakistan, if not a league, maybe tournaments? If not that, then maybe talent hunts? But to discard the possibility of football being a commercial sport, is not a choice. Afterall, it is the largest commercial sport in the world.

There is a lot of blame to be placed on the state institutions in this regard, and there is a widespread consensus on that. To begin with, it is almost impossible to communicate with the PFF, even for the purpose of this scribe. And it is not that the people have not come up with non-centralized solutions before. The effort however, has never been a collaborative one. 

Never have the market forces looked at football with the same interest. If a team from the Swindon Town Football Club in the UK can sponsor some boys from Lyari to train them, if India can make a league out of football, and if the US can use the little amount of Indians and Pakistanis, as a big enough fanbase, to make a cricket league of its own, then Pakistan can most definitely tap into the commercial potential of football.

Shahnawaz Ali
Shahnawaz Ali
The author is a Finance journalist at Profit and can be reached via email at [email protected] and via twitter @shahnawaz_ali1



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