February 11, 2008

Beware the football threat

The IPL's biggest competition in India may come from an unexpected quarter - the English Premier League

Tottenham v Arsenal: coming soon to a stadium near you © AFP

The biggest sporting contest of the next few years may not be Chelsea v Manchester United, the Yankees v the Sox, Ferrari v McLaren, or Australia and India continuing their titanic cricket battle - it could pit one Premier League against another. The English Premier League's proposal to have its clubs each play one match a season abroad could spark the toughest, and perhaps only, competition for cricket's newest avatar in India.

It's a lot of ifs, buts and coulds, and it sounds fanciful and far-fetched - cricket is so deeply, almost indelibly, entrenched in the national ethos - and whatever happens is plainly several years down the line. But if they don't play their cards right, the men who run Indian cricket risk scoring an own goal. The Indian board has for long ignored the need to broad-base its income streams, focusing on maximising revenues from television rights while overlooking the need for a more holistic view of the game. They do not seem to realise that the relatively tiny constituency of eyeballs that brings in the TV money is also glued to European football, especially the English Premiership. The young, upwardly mobile Indians whom Lalit Modi envisions flocking to his IPL grounds, sitting in his IPL cafes in their IPL jerseys, could just as well spend their money on football.

It's no secret that India is emerging as a lucrative sporting venue. In the past week it hosted its first European Tour golf tournament (there's another at the end of February) and unveiled its first Formula One car. Tennis is big on the agenda: the Williams sisters are due here, even if Sania Mirza won't be playing at home for the next year. The growing power of the Indian economy and the sheer numbers of the audiences involved means that, eventually, all top sporting events will have some connection here, as an article in the London Observer spoofed a few months ago, tongue only half in cheek.

But it is football, the world's most popular sport, the one where the biggest bucks can be found, that is making a serious play for the Indian market. Over the past year India has been visited by football's top boss, Sepp Blatter, and his Asian counterpart; the chief executives of the Barclays Premier League and Chelsea football club; and the men who run Manchester United's youth programmes. Meanwhile Laxmi Mittal, the world's richest Indian (who has not, by the way, bought an IPL franchise) has invested in Queen's Park Rangers; his namesake (but no relation) Sunil Mittal, billionaire owner of the Airtel telecom brand, has forked out an unspecified sum, believed to be at least $25 million, to the All-India Football Federation for development work.

And now Premier League football, which - again, subject to the ifs and buts - could be played outside of England from 2011, a payback of sorts for the $1.2 billion it earned in overseas sale of TV rights for 2007-10. The Premiership's plan is not targeted specifically at India, of course; south-east Asia, Australia, the Gulf states, Africa and South America are all more viable destinations in the first few years of the plan. But India, with its happy confluence of money, masses and market economy, is the prized destination. Nick Massey, managing director of the global sports marketers Octagon, was almost prescient when he told the Observer last November that among the many changes in sport over the next ten years will be "attempts by English football clubs to 'break' the Indian market, starting with pre-season tours to the subcontinent."

India's ties with football are older than those with cricket, and possibly more intrinsic, as Blatter - who called India the "sleeping giant of world football" - noted while on his tour. Addressing India's top businessmen at a meeting organised by the progressive Confederation of Indian Industry, Blatter played the salesman's role to perfection. "We can offer you the platform and it's up to you to decide what you make of the fans", he said. "Football offers you an opportunity not only to be identified locally, regionally and nationally - football can bring India to the knowledge of the world."

In fact, corporate India has been at work on a similar vision for some time now. Telecast rights for India's national football league were bought by Zee, the group behind the Indian Cricket League (ICL), for $70 million in a ten-year deal effective 2005. Vijay Mallya's football connections predate his links with F1 and the IPL's Bangalore franchise - he bought over Kolkata's two traditional rival clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, a decade ago. Sometimes the links are bizarre: the Durand Cup, the oldest football tournament outside Britain, has been sponsored for the past two years by Osian's, the Mumbai-based art dealership and auction house of the swish set, and telecast on one of the news channels - often the specialised business channel - of NDTV, India's most respected news programming television network.

India has always had a football (sub)culture. In Kolkata, where the game took root in the 19th century, the city is sharply divided during every World Cup match between Brazil and Argentina. Goa, the former Portuguese colony, is unambiguous about its affiliations; you can find Portugal jerseys for sale in Fontainhas, the Portuguese quarter of the state's capital. It can safely be said that there are more fans at local football tournaments than there are at domestic cricket games, more even than at the final of the Ranji Trophy.

It is nobody's case that football will supplant cricket overnight in India, if at all. What could happen, though, is that football could improve at several levels. The local club culture - it already exists, with far more loyalty than the Mumbai or Kolkata IPL teams can hope for - could grow, as easier access to the world's best footballers has a knock-on effect

Now that culture is going upmarket. Live broadcast of English/European football began in India in the mid-1990s. Then came the cult film Bend it like Beckham, and soon football was sexy. A current promo for ESPN features John Abraham, star of the Bollywood football-themed film Goal, playing football in an Arsenal jersey; years before this, though, Sachin Tendulkar - yes, you read right - did a similar promo, clad in a Chelsea jersey. Official football merchandise is now available in the bigger cities, and when a senior official of IMG, the sports marketing and management firm, attending Manchester United's camp for kids in Goa said he saw "5000 kids wearing United shirts and all of them pirated", he was only highlighting the potential market.

Which brings us back to the eyeballs. First, for the reader outside India, let it be known that, just as the Indian viewer gets to watch top-class live cricket action from around the world, he can watch the best live European football - the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, the Italian Primera Liga, the Dutch, German, French and Scottish leagues, and the UEFA Champions League - at no extra cost.

Is anyone really watching all that, though? The respected media tracking agency Agencyfaqs says football viewership has been growing continuously in India. In 2006, it says, the English Premier League reached 42.8 million viewers in India, almost 50 per cent of the cable TV-wired homes. The target audience is mostly male, in the age group 15-plus, in the top four socio-economic categories. That is the exact identikit of your potential Twenty20 fan.

Of course, it can be reasonably assumed, as Peter Kenyon, Chelsea's chief executive acknowledged on his trip here, that India is sufficiently big for more than one sport to prosper. Indeed, it is. It is also nobody's case that football will supplant cricket overnight, if at all. What could happen, though, is that football could improve at several levels. The local club culture - it already exists, with far more loyalty than the Mumbai or Kolkata IPL teams can hope for - could grow, as easier access to the world's best footballers has a knock-on effect. At the same time, cricket will be losing its biggest-ever brandname, Sachin Tendulkar, and the average fan will have anyway seen Ricky Ponting and Kevin Pietersen in the flesh several times over.

Ultimately, India's retail economy is booming because it is aspirational; can there be anything more aspirational for the Indian fan than a slice of the world's biggest sport?

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India