The journey of ISL’s defending champions ATK has not been the one that the people related to the franchise would have expected at the start of the campaign. The most successful franchise in Indian Super League has in a word ‘underperformed’ this season. But rather than problems on-the-field, ATK has probably more been haunted with issues off-the-field. And not surprisingly enough the issues with the fans of the two traditional powerhouses East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have been quite prominent.
In an interesting juncture of the season, TalkSports 24X7 caught up with ATK’s ‘Fan Engagement Manager’ Saptarshi Bakshi, the man upon whose shoulders the important responsibility of building and expanding the fanbase of the club lies.
- TS 24X7: Saptarshi, first thing first. ATK has been one of the most followed franchises since the inception of ISL. But the attendance has not been upto the mark this season. Do you think the performance of the team had a major role to play behind this?
●Bakshi: Of course the performance of the team is a major factor. Despite all hurdles, we had nearly 32000 spectators in our opening home game. The numbers slipped with the performance. And that’s something that we see all across the world. But the fact that despite us being ruled out of the top 4 slot quite early, we haven’t gone into a state where we’re hosting games in an empty stadium. As little as 19293 sounds, at 10:30PM on a Wednesday at Salt Lake at 9 degrees, we still believe with better performances, we can keep our hopes higher for upcoming seasons.
- TS 24X7: There is a prevalent notions among a group of people who believe that this dip in attendance was bound to happen as two top flight leagues are running parallelly and the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans who used to come to attend ATK’s games would no more come. What’s your take on this?
●Bakshi: As I’ve already stated, the attendance dropped majorly because of our performance this season. When we say something like this, we need to keep in mind that even the biggest clubs in the world don’t play in front of ALL club loyalists. The stadiums across Europe and other major leagues are often occupied vastly by people who come to love and appreciate the beautiful game. With spreading hatred over social media, I believe that section of the crowd, who came to our matches previously to watch international superstars go shoulder to shoulder with top Indian players, took a hit. Maybe anticipatory safety, maybe the performances, but I don’t think it’s club loyalism that affected the attendance count.
- TS 24X7: Tell us about the functioning about how this ‘Fan engagement’ process occurs and what role do the fanclubs of ATK play behind this?
●Bakshi: This answer’s a little long, because it’s a little personal. I’ve been watching European football for nearly 13 years, and I’m an ardent Chelsea fan. I’d only started watching Indian football after the ISL came around, and I’d been a fan of ATK since the first season. The disparity that struck me most, was the lack of unison amongst fans of the same club. When I got this responsibility last year, about a month before the season started, I set off to correct that. The club allowed me the opportunity to run this campaign on my own, and I’d like to thank them for placing this immense trust in me. Throughout the season, we’ve made about 3200 season ticket holding members, gathered fan appreciation from away venues of Mumbai and Pune, and have felt loved in a small group of fans. We of course hope to reach much larger numbers in coming years, but we do believe we can carry the same spirit of Sport over Colour and share the same spirit of love, support and hope for the best results for the club.
- TS 24X7: There was a case this season when a picture went viral in social media which portrayed that ATK covered the seats of the middle tier of VYBK with scarfs or flags to make it look on TV that they gallery is full while in reality it was not. Even Mohun Bagan’s chief Official Srinjoy Bose posted the picture on his timeline citing it negatively. What will you say on this?
●Bakshi: Talking about the picture first, one of our fan club members, alongside about 25 more of them took the picture and posted it on facebook 3 hours before the game. This was after they’d spent 6 hours to place 37000 flags at the stadium. To the second aspect, why the flags. As you know, VYBK is the only stadium as a part of ISL that doesn’t allow flagsticks inside the premises. We had ordered flags as a part of merchandise to be shared with spectators before the tournament. We just let our fans decide how they wanted to make it available to the crowd. Thirdly, talking about the club official, with all due respect to him, I really feel he should have quoted the time of the picture before making the frivolous allegation.
- TS 24X7: Being a franchise from Kolkata where there are already traditional powerhouses like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan SC, building a committed fanbase is the toughest challenge. As the ‘Fan Engagement Manager’ what difficulties did you or your team have to face?
●Bakshi: Hatred, to be very specific, became our problem. We were slandered and abused across multiple social media platforms. But I personally understand club rivalries, having watched European football for years, but I somehow never understood the logic behind threats and abuses from one set of football fans to another set of fans, of a team not even competing in the same league at the moment. But I’ve had the privilege of working with a fan club made of some very energetic and dedicated people, who loved the team to no end. We managed to reach out to faraway areas, collect members, create a decorative spectacle at the stadium, attempted a 2800 people mosaic, witnessed a near 20000 crowd for a game that kicked off at 10:30 PM. Given the circumstances, I’d say we had a fantastic season in terms of fan outreach.
- TS 24X7: It is often said that the major fanbase of ATK is centralised to the city of Kolkata and it’s suburbs while in villages or in Northern and Western part of Bengal the following is not so prominent. What plans do you have to expand the following of ATK in these territories to create a uniform supporters’ base all over the state?
●Bakshi: To answer this, I’ll state a small instance. Approximately 40 people from Sandeshkhali had travelled for the ATK Goa game, again, the one that kicked off at 10:30. After the game got over past midnight, several of them spent a night at the station, before going back the next morning. They were adorned in ATK colours when they got there nearly 5 hours before kickoff, and left with the same cheer, 7 hours later. I personally am a part of 9 fan groups on whatsapp with our members from almost every district of south bengal. I believe with our planned grassroot program, we can reach out to many more in the next few years.
- TS 24X7: A Super Cup is going to take place where if ATK qualifies they may face East Bengal or Mohun Bagan or maybe both. After 2-3 years as it seems, fixtures against these two clubs would be a regularity for ATK in Kolkata. As ‘Fan Engagement Manager’ how do you look upto the challenge?
●Bakshi: I absolutely am excited at the possibility of these encounters. Our fans have graciously welcomed travelling West Block Blues and Manjappada to VYBK. In a similar spirit, on our home games, we’d like to welcome East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans to be at the stadium, cheer their team in the correct spirit of the game, and be witness to what promises to be a massively competitive game.
- TS 24X7: ATK in the previous seasons had tie-ups with Atletico de Madrid but at the start of this campaign the partnership got diluted. It was rumoured that Sourav Ganguly also met with Spurs and Liverpool officials but nothing concrete took place. Is ATK looking for a tie-up ahead of the next season?
●Bakshi: Honestly, that is something the senior officials of the club should answer. Yes, the fans are disappointed when they compare previous three seasons to this one, but we all know that even the best of teams have worst of times in global football.
- TS 24X7: Mohun Bagan’s I-League winning coach Sanjoy Sen has been roped in as the person in-charge of ATK’s youth system and also for recruiting Indian players. How significant do you feel is the arrival of Sanjoy Sen?
●Bakshi: Personally, I believe Mr. Sen is one of the best Indian coaches at the current time. With him at the helm of our grassroot programs, and knowing his history in bringing up some of the countries top footballer, I believe he’s an asset to any club, especially to one like ours, which is looking to shape a strong Indian player base at all age groups.
- TS 24X7: Fanclub culture is slowly getting a shape in India Indian football. As a person who works at the grassroots with the fans, how do you feel a conglomerative effort by the fanclubs can change the perspective of people in upcoming years regarding Indian football?
●Bakshi: When you look at it in a broad aspect, the biggest of fan clubs can be broadly segregated into two types. It could be some of the raging ultras you see in turkish, south american or indonesian football. Or it could be the surreal beauty of the Liverpool KoP or the Yellow Wall at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. I believe the love that Indian people, especially those in Kolkata share for football, a proper fan club culture can eventually really be a more beautiful replication of the latter type. The one thing that every fan club does need to realise, is that the best fan clubs and fan ambiences in the world, are based out of love for the sport or the team, not hatred for the rivals and abuse over social media.
- TS 24X7: Thanks for your time Saptarshi!