April 30, 2013

The Kohli-Mumbai spat, and the lure of sports tribalism

Those who run the IPL will hope that ties to a franchise are uppermost on everyone's minds when the tournament is on

Virat Kohli: Indian player who plays the IPL or Royal Challenger who plays for India? © AFP

In Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, in a section titled "If You Build a Franchise, They Will Come", I wrote:

[O]ne straightforward difficulty faced by the IPL is of generating a loyal, committed and passionate fan base. This is not an insurmountable barrier for a lavishly promoted league. But neither are its challenges to be discounted...

In such a fledgling league, now five years old, rivalry between clubs and their fans is often tenuous, artificially propped up by the excessively contrived franchise advertisements that start doing the rounds well in advance of the season. But the IPL needs to attract the kind of loyal committed fan whose constant passion has enabled cricket to weather times of economic penury. It cannot hope to survive on the drive-by fan. A fan reared on international cricket, who thinks cheering for large professional franchises is a bit like cheering for Ford vs Chrysler, might find the IPL's inter-city rivalry contrived and fail to engage emotionally. IPL franchises will have to convince such a fan that his attention is fruitfully diverted to their offerings. It will be cricket that will do the trick, and not just the IPL's stadium entertainment package…

But the generation of a team's fan base in the Indian context is not entirely unproblematic because it would thrive on the construction of inter-city rivalries in a country where 'regionalism', that delightful Indian word like 'communalism', which has a special meaning in the Indian context, is not an idle worry. Jocular remarks made by north Indians about 'Madrasis' or by Punjabis about 'Bongs' are not innocent in the Indian context for this lot. Would the harnessing of advertising with sport along 'regional' lines be benign, for club marketing thrives on contriving differences between cities, teams and fans? Would the Mumbai Indians be happy to receive public, vocal support from the Shiv Sena, which might suddenly decide to project it as a visible symbol - in whatever imagined dimension - of Mumbai's superiority?

… The IPL could breed, most promisingly, rivalries similar to that of the Yankees-Red Sox where, despite the apparent rabidity, or the occasional story of beer poured on Yankees fans at Fenway Park, the odd brawl between Red Sox and Yankees fans at Yankees Stadium, and the expectedly edgy clashes between fans online, there has always seemed to be an implicit, unspoken understanding that it was all a bit of a lark (well, at least among the more sober fans). Or, more worryingly, intemperate IPL marketing could generate the vicious tribalism of the Rangers-Celtics football rivalry.

Virat Kohli's passionate outburst in response to the booing by the Mumbai crowd has sparked plenty of commentary. Those most likely to be enthused by both the Mumbai crowd's response and by Kohli's reaction are, I suspect, in light of the above considerations: the IPL's marketing mavens, the folks who own the television rights, and franchise owners.

Some obvious questions have emerged. Are Indian fans riled up enough to boo a national player even as he plays for an opposing franchise? Why is a player known for his on-field passion airing his grievances to the press? Why is a West Indian star coming to his support and suggesting that football-style fandom might not be appropriate for cricket? It sounds like the cricket is getting pretty serious in the IPL. Not the sort of thing you'd associate with a league dismissed as a pure tamasha, or a carnival. Football-style loyalty in the IPL? Be still, my beating heart.

The Kohli-Mumbai fracas is especially interesting in the context of affiliation to the national team. A central point in Kohli's and Gayle's pleas for tolerance was that the Mumbai crowd should employ the principle of charity with Kohli precisely because he plays for India, a long-term affiliation that they thought should trump the transient, season-long connection with his franchise. These words are not likely to be viewed kindly by those who market the IPL; they would like nothing more than for Kohli's ties to his franchise to be uppermost on everyone's minds when the season is on.

Continuing with the excerpt above:

Thus far, fan rivalry in the IPL remains benign, for the atmosphere at IPL games is still more carnivalesque than gladiatorial. Older rivalries with their greater emotional hold will take over; the Delhi Daredevils fan returns to hoping David Warner will fail when he plays India. Perhaps this is unsurprising because such a fan is easily diverted by the cricket world's other offerings once the short IPL season ends. This tenuous hold of the IPL franchise could prevent rabid fanhood, a blessing for the concerned Indian patriot and a curse for the IPL marketer.

Now in its sixth season, the IPL is still grappling with the problem of how to ensure a dedicated fan base, a problem made trickier given the transfer and auction rules, and the short season (by the standards of other sports leagues). But at least one city's crowd has indicated that, for the length of the IPL, they are sufficiently committed to "their" franchise, even at the expense of those who do "national duty" on "their behalf" when the season comes to an end. Those who run the IPL and profit from it will be hoping that for the sake of the league's long-term fortunes, more fans will join in this suspension of loyalties to the national team, thus succumbing to the lure of "sports tribalism" for eight weeks in April and May every year.

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

Comments