This is not your father’s football. A bigger, richer and far more visible avatar of the sport is fast emerging in New India.
The otherwise cricket-crazy India is steadily catching up with the planet’s favourite game — both as a sporting nation and as a market for advertisers seeking a fan base.
Clear signs loomed last week as India captain Sunil Chhetri signed up for Sporting Clube de Portugal (Sporting Lisbon) to show the small but symbolic rise of new local heroes on the global soccer stage.
For many Indians, Roja is no longer a Mani Ratnam movie but the name of the Spanish national team.
Viewership for Euro Cup grew by 28% from the 2008 World Cup till the close of the semi-finals, according to TAM Media Research.
Neo Prime was joined by Neo Sports, Star Sports, ESPN and DD in beaming the matches viewed by as many as 19 million Indians, up from 15 million in 2008. Affluent 15 to 34-year-old urban male customers — whom marketers love — were the core audience.
Prasana Krishnan, chief operating officer, Neo Sports Broadcast, sees consumer brands being joined by banks and auto makers in courting football.
“We started with 10 advertisers, including five broadcast sponsors. By the close of the series, we had 18 advertisers,” he told HT.
Sponsors for the Euro Cup included Carlsberg, Cadbury, Reliance, DHL and Intel, while advertisers included Airtel, Coca Cola, Samsung, Nokia, Hero Moto, Sony, Titan and Vodafone.
Chhetri, Portugal’s Ronaldo and Argentina’s Lionel Messi are now part of an urban Indian sports banter which shows the global journey of the tepid version of the game nurtured for decades in the backyards of Bengal without even national attention. Football is now cool and hip for many youngsters — a far cry from the parochial East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan version.
Chhetri’s predecessor as a soccer hottie, Bhaichung Bhutia, has since made waves as a star on Bollywood-style TV dance show.
“I think it is great that the football audience in India is increasing,” Bhutia told HT. “The audience following cricket increases in India only when the national team is playing. I would be keen on finding out what TRPs (television rating points) in India are when Australia is playing, say New Zealand.”
Bhaswar Goswami of Kolkata’s Celebrity Management Group, which brought in Messi’s Argentina to play Venezuela in Kolkata last September, says India had 155 million football viewers last year, not far behind cricket’s 176 million, though the intensity may vary.
“I think this has happened because of a combination of cricket fatigue and aggressive positioning of European football as a product in India,” he said.
Goswami is also signing up Brazilian Ronaldinho’s Atletico Mineiro club to play three matches in Asia including one in India.
Corporate interest is growing. Little-known chicken breeder Venky’s from Pune made waves when it acquired in 2010 England’s Blackburn Rovers club for 23 million pounds (nearly Rs. 200 crore now), showing that corporate India is not lagging behind in flagging football ambitions— though it has faced fan protests on its management style.
Football trackers say things changed in the 1990s with the arrival of satellite television that helped Indians taste a zippier, smarter version of the game. World Cup matches have steadily raised the appetite, which has been fed by European league telecasts.
England, where both cricket and football are popular, has helped India connect more with the game. A clincher could come if a plan by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to buy the Dempo Sports Club comes through, though Dempo, India’s most successful club this century, has no real fan base.
“Be it Dempo or United Sikkim, whichever team he aligns with will definitely gain. Also, the moment SRK associates himself with a club, he gives the corporate world confidence about Indian football,” said Bhutia.
There’s a who’s who of brands backing football in India.
It makes sense for advertisers, because air time is a lot cheaper than it is for cricket. Ten-second ad spots sold at Rs. 1.5 lakh towards the end of the Euro Cup compared with the typical Rs. 3 to Rs. 5 lakh for cricket.
Subrata Dutta, senior vice-president of the All India Football Federation, said young boys in urban India were now more keen on football and the AIFF was building 10 academies with help from FIFA, the world football body — complete with foreign coaches.
“I would go to the extent of saying more people in India watch the EPL than in England, simply because we have so many more people,” Dutta said.
“While the sport has always enjoyed near fanatical following in certain pockets of India, we see huge interest among the urban youth as reflected by the high viewership across popular football platforms on TV,” said Homi Battiwalla, Category Director at PepsiCo, whose ground-level initiative for the game has drawn in 448 teams and 3,136 amateur players in the past few months.
Pepsi even has an ad slogan, “Change the game”. Economically it might also be of help to the brand to lower per-fan costs worldwide if it were to woo Indians into a larger global fold.
Like Pepsi, Nokia has its own freestyle football — futsal — challenge involving players from Brazil and local hero Bhutia, who runs football schools in Delhi and Mumbai.
Coca Cola India vice-president Deepak Jolly said the inexpensive nature of football was a big pull for a large mass of youth.
“We are putting in lots of investments to develop football at the grassroots level in India,” he said, without giving figures.
At the upper end, overseas club loyalties can be simply spotted on Twitter profiles of Indians that carry Arsenal, Barcelona or Manchester United tags.
But cricket still rules for the better part.
Navin Khemka, managing partner of media agency Zenith Optimedia, pointed out: “While advertising has gone up on non-cricket events on TV, it is certainly not taking away from cricket.”
(With inputs from Vivek Sinha and Rachit Vats)