Samir Chopra March 14, 2010

The IPL and fan loyalty


Who says no one would ever care about teams whose name consisted of a pairing of an Indian city and some other noun? © AFP

The IPL attracts, as it should, given its prominence and importance in the world of cricket, a lot of commentary. Some critical, some adulatory. In the former dimension, one finds well-meaning worries about its influence on Test cricket, aesthetic discomfort at the crass commercialisation on display (and the prominence afforded to the grinning visage of Mr. Modi). In the latter, admiration for its delivery of an exciting assemblage of players, the broadening of the appeal of cricket, and an entertainment package neatly wrapped up for the post-work hours.

I've handed out my share of brickbats to the IPL. But I always found one particular line of criticism (or scepticism) directed at the IPL to be utterly baffling. That this strain has almost died down is adequate testimony to just how strange (and revelatory of an almost knee-jerk dismissive mindset) it always was.

For this scepticism about the IPL centered almost exclusively on expressing doubt about whether anyone in their right minds would ever care about teams whose name consisted of a pairing of an Indian city and some other noun. Our cricketing pundit would thus proclaim in a tone of almost pitch-perfect incredulity, "Who is going to care about some outfit called the Jaipur Whatchmacallits or the Rajasthan Rovers or the Landikotal Lotharios"?

What was the basis of this particular rhetorical pitch? As far as I could make out, it was the evocation of two moods: one, a sad post-colonial hangover that associated the names of Indian towns with distance, remoteness, a peripheral existence; the second, a faux-genteel distaste for the in-bad-taste excess of marketing mavens.

Has there ever been a more incoherent basis for scepticism? When I cast my eyes over the names of teams in the English Premier League or the National Basketball Association, I see teams named after English and American towns that very few could locate on a map, often paired with just as unlikely monikers.

The Utah Jazz? (Right, this makes sense, because when I think of Mormons, I think of jazz music). The Orlando Magic (Oh, I get the Disney reference; do you?) Is Aston Villa a city? Where is Fulham? I always thought Arsenal was the name of a quarter in Paris or a place where anarchists went to load up for the revolution. Turns out it's a club based in North London.

A good Vietnamese friend of mine always wore an Arsenal shirt when he could. He didn't know it was based in North London. I'm not sure he cared. He cared about the players that brought it glory. (In those days he obsessed about Thierry Henry). And in the end that's all that mattered to him. He had succumbed to the marketing, to the creation of a sustained fantasy.

Teams in professional leagues don't acquire auras or brand-value instantaneously. It takes them time, especially, if as in the case of the IPL, they start with a brand-new league as well. Very few teams have the privilege of tapping into a well-established league or an already created market (as in the case of NBA, NFL and MLB expansion teams).

That cricket pundits even imagined this was going to be a semi-coherent basis for dissing the IPL says a great deal about an entrenched mindset that prevailed then (and in some quarters even persists now). It's one thing to express a lack of personal interest (for instance, as I've been reared on international cricket I find it hard to be too invested in any particular IPL team). It's another thing to suggest that no loyal fan base could be built up over a period of time by such a well-marketed, lavishly promoted league.

This is the third season of the IPL. Whatever the particular strains of criticism that will be directed at the IPL this season, I'm pretty confident that the version I've mentioned above will be a fast-vanishing one.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here