Following sport is one of the world’s favourite leisure activities with the most popular events having fan attendances in the millions and reaching audiences in the billions. This fuels a global sports market reportedly valued at $600-700 billion, of which sports events alone are worth $80 billion annually, and continues an upward trend of growth that is outpacing the overall economy in most countries.
This presents a huge opportunity for those sports that can capture even a small share of this lucrative but competitive market. Until now, futsal hasn’t been able to achieve this to any significant degree and remains on the fringes.
Match attendances, TV viewing figures and overall media attention of the four professional futsal leagues in Brazil, Italy, Russia and Spain are insignificant compared to other sports. Outside of these countries there are probably no more than 50 clubs, spread across Asia and Europe, that can support a professional setup.
Even in those professional leagues, the situation has not been so healthy and stable. Far too frequently historic clubs have disappeared or at least had a sudden downfall due to financial problems. Just in the last year this has happened to Russian Champions Dinamo Moscow and Runners-up Dina Moscow who had won 21 of the last 26 League Championships between them. 2015 Italian champions Pescara recently retired from Serie A whilst in 5th place before all their fixtures had been fulfilled. Brazil and Spain each have their own list of casualties. As a result the credibility of the competitions have been damaged.
Professional sports leagues and clubs have been largely financed by the seemingly forever increasing value of the broadcast rights to their games. For futsal the audience interest hasn’t been there so far to capitalise on this substantial revenue generator.
The domestic TV rights for those professional leagues are sold for very little or nothing at all (and leagues have paid to be shown on TV). International rights agreements don’t even exist except for Spain who has a couple. As a fan myself it is still a challenge to follow the best leagues from abroad. Progress in streaming offerings has improved this recently and the advancement in technology could be key for spreading futsal to a wider audience.
What might the future bring?
This presents a depressing picture for the elite game that has led to a fear that the future is not so bright and progress uncertain. I do not share that opinion. In fact, I am immensely excited and optimistic for the outlook of the sport.
I envisage a time where futsal competitions regularly achieve what I have seen with tennis at The O2 in London or basketball in the USA, with over 15,000 people inside the arena enjoying the game in spectacular surroundings and followed by millions on screens across the world.
I foresee the idols of our game earning the recognition and rewards they deserve for their spectacular talent. I look forward to a level of interest that will generate a whole industry around the sport such as having a dedicated video game, books detailing the game’s history and teams touring internationally.
The benefits of thriving top level competitions are not limited to enabling millions more to enjoy the sport as fans. It will provide funding for grassroots development and promotional campaigns leading to more people playing the game. The elite and grassroots games benefit each other as those that play become the most dedicated and loyal fans.
Another important impact of having an attractive top level is inspiring young players with the opportunities it offers. I regularly hear youth players say they prioritise football over futsal, with the transferable skills between the two, even though they enjoy or love futsal more because of the difference in rewards a career at the top can provide.
Futsal often promotes and celebrates stars of football that reached the top through playing futsal as children but this is also talent lost from our game. Fortunately, we have benefited from players moving in the other direction such as 5-time World Player of The Year Ricardinho. He switched to futsal after being released from FC Porto. As a career in futsal becomes more attractive, this will occur more frequently.
Can Professional Futsal Be Commercially Successful & Sustainable?
I believe in this vision for elite futsal but recognise it will require significant investment to arrive there.
Until now most of the investment has been provided by the football governing bodies who oversee futsal. Partly this funding is because futsal has evidenced how it can help achieve football’s objectives, such as helping develop better football players or increasing participation, and that is where the funding has been directed.
The level of support contributed has received criticism but I am not sure futsal would be even at its current stage of development without this help provided by football to drive its expansion (Just look at futsal under AMF). We could have received more but we could have also received less as investment into futsal hasn’t generated further funds that federations can reinvest.
Of course, we want and need more resources, as well as the responsibility to take decisions for the benefit of the game, but their priority is and must be football. Women’s football has faced the same issues over the years as it has also been funded by the men’s game.
The only way to get the required level of investment and to be able to take the actions needed to develop futsal is to become self-sustainable by earning from the elite competitions as happens in football. The FIFA Futsal World Cup, UEFA Futsal Euro and soon to be reformed UEFA Futsal Champions League are currently not profitable and are funded by their highly lucrative football equivalents.
To do this we must increase the number of futsal fans as there are currently too few to generate sufficient income. Elite competitions and clubs principally generate their revenue in the areas of TV broadcasting, commercial (sponsorships & merchandising) and matchday. These all positively correlate with fan interest.
This long held status quo has naturally led to questions on whether futsal possesses the potential to become self-sufficient or is forever destined to survive on handouts from football. I think this overlooks the fundamental qualities and characteristics that form the essence of this absurdly entertaining game.
Futsal is an enthralling, fast-paced and emotive aport that creates an exhilarating atmosphere. It leaves many of those who experience it hooked, so much so that they feel an obligation to preach to others how incredible it is (I hold my hands up!).
Futsal as an elite sport is still relatively new in many regions. Any sport takes time to become embedded in society and culture. For football this took place through word of mouth by British migrants and traders as they traveled the world around the turn of the 19th century. In today’s more connected world, it will be digital technology that provides the quickest means for spreading awareness.
The level of passion of those involved in futsal, even if they are relatively few, is a crucial indication of the potential scale of the sport. New products and services are first used by a few innovators and early adopters before spreading to a wider audience, but the key indicator of the potential to have mass appeal are these early users devotion to this new creation.
“I believe it’s more important to have 100 people who LOVE your product than one million who just sort of like it…….Many great scale stories begin with a tiny kernel of die hard fans, no more than 100 strong — who are almost zealous in their passion for your work…… They can’t believe they ever lived without you.”
(Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn & early investor in Paypal, Flickr & Groupon)
“If you look at the companies that have gone to become super important and valuable, and shaped the world in a big way, they tend to have fairly fanatical early users. If you think about how you first came across Facebook or Google, it’s very likely because a friend told you how great it was.”
(Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator which helped companies such as AirBnb & Dropbox succeed)
Another reason to believe it can grow is that it shares many similarities with the most popular sport worldwide. This close likeness to the already established and entrenched 11-a-side game could be said to overshadow it and create a perception of being an inferior variant. However, it doesn’t seem to have hindered the success of higher scoring and simpler derivatives of some of the other most popular sports globally.
These include twenty20 cricket, or both rugby sevens and 3×3 basketball which recently became Olympic Sports after rapidly growing interest and participation worldwide to the delight of their federations. They all have origins like futsal as easily accessible recreational formats derived from other sports but are now perfectly suited for what a 21st century sport should be and the trends in how fans are consuming sport.
High level, competitive futsal has enormous entertainment value and should not be mistaken for how the game is used for developing football players, in street football or for exhibitions with retired football legends.
I experienced the latter as part of the management of the first season of the Premier Futsal League in India back in 2016. I was persuaded that the use of ex-football legends was essential to gain attention initially for the sport in a new market.
It certainly did gather widespread attention, so that opinion could have been correct, but I felt their presence on court diluted the entertainment value to a certain extent. Despite this, the innate spectacular nature of our sport still meant it captured a lot of attention and had outstanding viewing numbers.
What is stopping top level futsal taking off?
So, if we have a highly entertaining “product” in a huge market why hasn’t futsal already got a bigger following?
My answer to this would be in the past futsal hasn’t been presented and promoted in a way to fully capitalise and highlight its value. The fan experience, both in the stadium and for those watching at home, needs to be improved.
The promotion needs to focus on it being a fiercely competitive sport played by specialised and highly skilled technicians. Our stars, teams and their backstories needs to be widely promoted as people are entertained by narratives and sport offers some of the most dramatic, emotive and captivating.
Twenty20 cricket competitions such as the IPL or Big Bash have been successful because they present a fast and exciting format within a show and carnival atmosphere. I believe its very rapid rise is partly because it used the same players (and teams at international level) who the audience were already familiar with.
Usually that process takes a lot of time, effort and promotional work and partly explains the mystery behind futsal having not yet taken off. The unbelievable talents of characters such as Ricardinho, Dyego, Abramov, Hassenzadeh, Leandro Lino and company in action-packed and fierce contests are unmissable. The tactical and strategic approaches used by teams is fascinating. The wider public just don’t have the awareness of all this yet.
This can be achieved in innovative ways. UFC grew the awareness of the characters, rivalries and technical nuances of mixed martial arts through a reality TV show. It led to an over 1,250% increase in revenue in the two years after it was launched and was key in its rapid shift from the fringes to become a mainstream success. MMA is now said to be the fastest growing sport on earth and UFC was sold for $4.2 billion in 2016 after being worth just $2 million only 15 years earlier.
How can elite futsal be transformed?
Expertise from the sport industry is required to deliver the necessary transformation in the fan experience and promotion in areas such as event organisation, media production, marketing, social media, arena management and sponsorship among other aspects. Again, to bring this in it comes down to investment to offer rewarding careers.
This gets at the dilemma for futsal. To attract more fans, it needs outside investment in the game but this comes from there being an expected return that is generated from having more fans. This is an impasse that will be overcome once its potential is recognised, injecting momentum into this virtuous cycle to set the sport on a rapid upward trajectory.
Signs of high level futsal’s potential are already starting to emerge. The recent UEFA Futsal Euro was another outstanding success with over 100,000 aggregate attendance across the ten matchdays for the second edition running, even though it was in a small country without a strong futsal heritage.
The final of the tournament was watched by over 3 million which adds to the nearly 40% increase in TV viewing numbers at the 2016 event. It will not be unprofitable for much longer.
— Doug Reed (@DougReedFutsal) February 14, 2018
There has also been positive developments in arguably the world’s number one league, Spain, where the recent Spanish Cup was the biggest ever having over 40,000 fans attend the four match days and over half a million watch the final on TV. This reflects a longer trend of increasing attendances and viewing figures in the country where Eurosport has come on board to show games, to add to the public service broadcaster and several regional channels.
Progress in futsal may have been slow until now but it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been considerable. I have been involved in futsal well over a decade and even in this relatively short time the sport has grown immensely.
At the beginning in England people hadn’t even heard of the term futsal but now many children play it regularly and people far beyond the football community are taking an interest in the game. This is being replicated in many regions. The countries participating in the World Cup has risen by over 40% during the same period, highlighting the global spread and potential audience futsal now holds.
Whilst awaiting future developments, we should not take the present for granted. Futsal has a close-knit and supportive community that are driven by a shared passion for the game. In its own way, this is a golden era for the sport that we should appreciate and enjoy. Eventually futsal will be a huge industry and, unfortunately but inevitably, some of that will be lost along the way as much as we try to preserve it.
Many currently carry out roles developing the sport tirelessly on a voluntary or discounted basis due to their love of the game. To get to where futsal deserves to be and have more people able to enjoy this wonderful game, our community must continue to build, collaborate and spread the sport.
In the future futsal will benefit from their invaluable dedication and experience when more opportunities appear for full-time careers in areas as varied as playing, coaching, refereeing, medicine and sport science, marketing, media, sponsorship, event and competition organisation, club administration and so on.
Futsal will be an overnight success that took a huge amount of time and effort by many to achieve.