Nirmal Shekar

India’s fascinating EPL obsession

THE WAY WE WERE: We were about to enter a suburban train station in Chennai in late June or early July 1970, when I tapped a friend’s shoulder and said I’d be back in a minute and then rushed to the nearby newspaper vendor on the road to buy a sports magazine.

The moment I saw the cover and the photograph with the words Viva Pele, Bravo Brazil emblazoned across the photo which captured Pele doing a victory lap on the shoulders of his teammates, I simply screamed WOW!

My friend, who knew that this columnist was not the type to wear his emotions on his sleeve, stood a few feet away being pestered by a pair of beggars.

I rolled the magazine and shoved it into my pocket and gestured that we may carry on. For well over half an hour on the journey, I did not say a word to my pal.

“You must be part of a very thin minority in India to celebrate Brazil’s victory in the World Cup with such passion,” said my friend after silently accompanying me home.

Well, thin or thick, we were very much a minority 46 years ago. Even then, cricket evoked much more response here than did football, the world game.

THE WAY WE ARE: Two boys, aged about 13 or 14, and a pair of girls in the same age group, were vigorously arguing over something in the dining room of the Madras Cricket Club a couple of weeks ago.

From a distance, from where you could hear the sounds coming across but you couldn’t really grasp what the conversation was all about, you could be excused if you believed that the kids were arguing over a major incident or issue.

But once you got closer, you realised that the kids were in the middle of an explosive debate on the English Premier League a day after Leicester City (a 5000-1 outsider) had won the championship after the fairytale ending which nobody would have predicted at the start of the season.

At that moment, what struck you was not the content of the Great Debate. And I was even more fascinated during that short time because not a single team’s name was mentioned throughout the blazing war of words.

It was all about ‘we,’ ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘us.’ It was a manner of speaking that gave you more than a mere inclination of the passion and emotion each participant brought to the debate.

But a friend accompanying me brought me back down to earth. A teacher in an elite school, she said: “Half my classes are consumed by this sort of verbal warfare,” she said. “They will switch quickly to the EPL from cricket’s IPL (Indian Premier League).”

While it would be ridiculous to conclude that the EPL has overtaken or even matched the country’s ultimate sporting spectacle in fan following, it is clear that a quiet revolution is taking place — or is it loud? — in sports following in India.

Not long ago, the Brits lost their empire and its crown jewel — India. In the not-too-distant future, they might lose the Kohinoor Diamond of their favourite sport to India, in terms of fan following.

Conquering India Given the money and the time on hand, there is no doubt that the English Premier League is conquering India in a sporting fashion like Robert Clive’s men did with lethal weapons all those years ago.

But as an Indian, I could see the flip side. It is actually India taking over Britain’s best ever and most valuable sporting brand! What was true of cricket in the previous generation is true of football now.

An Arsenal source told the Daily Star not long ago: “India is seen very much as an untapped market in terms of revenue streams. There are more than a billion people in the country, [a] nd lot of opportunities as yet unearthed in that part of the world,” writes Samindra Kundi.

“Indian Arsenal fans were driven to manic delirium on seeing the sight of the formal Arsenal star Robert Pires in India. The 41-year-old was greeted by an unbelievably thrilled crowd at the airport by the Gunners’s fans when his team arrived,” says S. Sudarshan, an Assistant Editor in the sports department and as fanatical an EPL fan as you might know.

But in the universe of football, can anyone beat Manchester United for prosperity and popularity? A phenomenal 27 per cent of Manchester United’s fan following is from India. Fans living abroad vociferously support the Indian cricket team, but what is happening with Manchester United is something unprecedented. Of course, this doesn’t mean Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are far behind.

WHERE WE ARE HEADED: The reasons for EPL’s success are clear. The League has benefited from the fact that the television revenue is distributed equally among the teams and this offers a side such as Leicester to match the top teams. This apart, the matches are scheduled in such a way that most of them are played in prime time in India.

But it is the identification of the fans with the team that is astonishing. So many millions of Indians are glued to TV screens for the big ticket matches.

There will be bidding wars too; and imagine what a team such as Manchester United, with $625m as its annual revenues can do with the money on hand.

But the All India Football Association has sadly failed to take advantage of the fan following at home.

Then again, it may not be too late. Soon India will have over 2.5 million fans and for them the gods are not in heaven — they are on the English football fields. But to me, the best part of the championship is the Matchday analysis with experts — coaches and former players.

And in England, it can only get better. With Leicester City winning this year, other teams might have come to believe they can do it too. So, it is not all about Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.

It may sound preposterous now, but may be there will come a day when the top eight EPL teams find time during the off-season to play in a week-long knockout tournament in India.

“The first thing you should do as a foreigner when you choose a club is to learn about the history. You should take the world of the oldies and match-going fans,” wrote Albert Moran and Michael Keane in their book Cultural Adaptation .

May be a major brand of cultural adaptation is not too far in the world of sport in India and the country may become more than a one-sport (cricket) nation.

Surely, the 14 or 15-year-old kids who I secretly listened to briefly at the Madras Cricket Club will not be complaining if this does happen.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2022 4:41:36 pm |