Welsh great John Charles had famously said that 'the fans are the heart of football' but the 1950s icon would have surely said the same about cricket if he had seen a billion Indians celebrate the World Cup win in 2011. Fans, aficionados, supporters or fanatics whatever you want to call them, they started emerging across the nation only after the 1983 World Cup.
That makes the phenomenon only about 30 years old. For six years now the Indian domestic T20 league has given these fans a different option. It has given way for an intense inter-city battle as was the intention with which the league was started but the craze still trails the European football clubs by quite some distance.
Steep learning curve
Which has led to the teams emphasising more on fan interaction of late. But it has been a difficult learning curve for the teams. "The first year the tournament happened at such short time's notice that the teams had very little time to focus on building a fan base. It was only in the second year that all teams began
working towards it, including launching their own websites again," said a Mumbai Indians spokesperson.
Mumbai Indians for example, have capitalised on their diversity, Bollywood and Sachin Tendulkar. They have recently launched Smash, a sports lounge where fans, in full MI gear, can face a virtual Lasith Malinga hurling his slingers at him.
All team websites have dedicated fan zones but with varying degree of popularity. Most trendy though has been the Chennai 'Whistle podu' Super Kings who have a fan zone on their website where they can upload whistle videos filmed by themselves.
Teams like the Rajsthan Royals have come up with interactive team blogs but most initiatives have mostly been social media driven till now. The real numbers though are in merchandising. Till date most Indian domestic T20 teams still don't have dedicated merchandise stores unlike say a Manchester United who have merchandising outlets across the nation. And while teams like RCB make sure that every fan finds a team flag on his seat, sale of their team jerseys is generally limited only to the period of the tournament. The emphasis on fan connect however has been strengthened in the last two years. KKR have launched a Knight Club membership for fans but such initiatives are a long way from even being talked about in the same league as that of what Barcelona or Bayern Munich have in place.
Direct comparison is unfair though. Football club culture is entrenched in Europe while cricket club culture is still in its infancy in India. While the Premier League or the La Liga is a year round phenomenon that gives clubs more time to create a niche for their fans, the Indian T20 league is still essentially a hasty two-month jamboree.
Change will come slowly but hopefully steadily.