Joining the carnival

Everybody’s watching the World Cup. Will that help Indian football?...

Published: June 28, 2010 4:36 am

Missing from the list of teams that are a part of the hoopla,vibrancy,sheer agility and skill,and drama of the FIFA World Cup Finals 2010,at least on paper,is the Indian football team. “Missing”,of course,is a loosely defined term here: Indian football fans have deep loyalties to various European and South American teams,and this is why the viability of football as a potentially lucrative sport is undeniable. This is primarily because the basic revenue streams for any sport are broadcasting,sponsorships,merchandising/ licensing of equipment and apparel,F&B,and of course,gate receipts. And,while the Indian team isn’t likely to set the world of football on fire,over time,if the systems are in place,there is every possibility that the Indian team will improve enough to at least make it to the Cup Finals. And while on its own this wouldn’t have been enough to excite the football pundits to declare football to be the next big sport in India,the WC’s sharp rise in the public’s awareness has been accompanied by a steep fall in terms of viewership,interest levels,and over time,the profitability of ODI cricket,namely the Asia Cup.

It’s true that this compares the world’s most beloved event (staged only once every four years),and an event where only four South Asian nations competed in a dying format of the game,with little to play for. However,for cricket,the facts are somewhat more sinister. Essentially,cricket is a regional sport,and the South Asian region encompasses the normal distribution parameters for cricket’s viewership and fiscal viability. An India-Pakistan ODI,replete with suspense,anger,anguish,superstars,and uber-performances,at an audience-friendly time on a weekend afternoon,should have been the recipe for redemption of international limited-overs matches. It wasn’t. Now with dwindling talent pools in most pockets of the world,cricket is no longer the odds-on eyeballs and sponsorship magnet that it used to be. And any automatic transition to T20 is clearly not a foregone recipe for profitability and critical acclaim. In many ways,cricket has seen unprecedented metamorphosis,in a manner which defies the idea of an organised and sustainable “look and feel” that most global sports possess. No other sport has so many different variants.

Football is the poster child for longevity,sustainability,passion,fervour,and packaging. And profitability. It is played across the world,in every country; it is affordable,requires no infrastructure,equipment,or philanthropy. And,with France’s Les Bleus doing their best impression of the Pakistan cricket team’s patented self-destructive Molotov Cocktail,even the pyrotechnics one expects from the prototypical India-Pakistan cricket match have been usurped. Cricket has reason to fear for its future over time,and the proof lies in the dilemma: reinvent,and get chastised,or stay inert and get fossilised.

A full-strength Indian team won the Asia Cup after 15 years,in the wake of a series of disappointing performances over the last year or so. What’s worrying is that no one seems to care,and indifference is bad news in the business of sports. Contrast that with the approximately 80 million Indians across socio-economic demographics who are following the World Cup,as if the futility of the Indian football team’s future chances is minor.

However,the future of football in India is bright. Corporate sponsorships and professionalism in football leagues and clubs will lead to the inflow of funds,increase in qualitative competitive levels,and,above all,could set the foundation for a professional football league that will attract and feature international football stars,either on a loan basis,or as contracted professionals by the league or clubs. For that to happen,there needs to be a focus on structuring,funding,and monetising the sport to the extent that the market can support a professional football league.

What remains to be seen in following a clearly successful Cup (despite the time difference,and the limitations on F&B options due to the lateness of the matches),and of this woeful four-nation cricket series,is how this moment is leveraged. Priorities,choices,and conscious decision-making will define the future of professional domestic football in India — from the grassroots to the I-league play-offs. There is a huge potential for domestic football,and there needs to be a multi-pronged impetus provided to infrastructure,technical skill development and academies of all kinds,tournaments and amateur leagues,and above all,a focus on making the domestic I-league a professional,high-quality,coveted football league. If all goes according to plan,one has the feeling that Les Bleus might just become the moniker for all other emerging and established sports in India,and not just for the French faux pas. C’est la vie.

The writer is a sports attorney with a national corporate law firm. Views are personal.

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