As India take on New Zealand in the World Cup semifinal at Manchester Tuesday, the question that is most likely to pop up, once again, in the minds of millions watching on TV is this: Why are there so many Indians fans at the stadium in England?
The answer, possibly, lies in a meeting at Lord’s two years ago, just before the Champions Trophy, when Indian cricket fan group Bharat Army’s founder Rakesh Patel met Steve Elworthy, the ICC’s in-charge for fan experience. Patel recalls telling Elworthy that his group can offer that “experience” at the stadiums. “We can do it, none of your current partners can offer it,” Patel says he told the ICC official.
Elworthy was interested and the Bharat Army mustered 1,500 fans for that tournament. At this World Cup, the Bharat Army was drafted as the official travelling and tours partners — along with the other big Indian group, Fanatics, which even sponsors the official broadcasters’ jerseys. Both have sold at least 11,000 tickets each in the league stages.
There is a ballot system in the ticketing process, and any fan can apply, although luck plays a part. But for official fan groups, who are the ICC’s partners, the benefit is a “priority link”. ”It is a URL that we send to our members. We get better chances in the ballot. This link is also available for football games in sporting events in the UK,” says Patel.
The first wave of fans that came through these organised groups was for India’s first four matches that culminated with the game against Pakistan. The second wave began with the match against England the previous weekend.
”The ballot is opened for us roughly at the same time as it is for the rest,” says Patel. But the advantage is obvious if you are with organised groups that have tied up with the ICC — their fans are virtually ahead in the queue.
This, however, comes with a condition. “We have to sell the ticket with a travel element — it could be flights from fan-countries to England, or hotel accommodation, or inter-city travel,” says Patel. “One of these three is enough.”
The Bharat Army alone has at least five buses moving fans between venues. “Our fans have come from 22 countries. Those from the US and India form the largest group, covering at least two-thirds of our sales, but we have also had people from Mexico and Cambodia.”
The other factor, of course, is that English fans haven’t been so desperate. Pranav, from Ahmedabad, has attended four India games so far. And here is how, he says, he cracked the system. “I asked my entire extended family and friends to apply for a ticket… about 25 of them. Only I was going to travel to England but all 25 applied,” he says.
Patel says that’s the common modus operandi: “One English guy might be applying for a ticket. Here, 25 do. Who has got more chances at the ballot?”
”Then, there are other avenues,” says Patel. “Indians scour social media for tickets and are ready to pay far more than actual prices.”
Factor the rise in disposable income available to many Indians, he says, and the answer is obvious — even with ticket prices ranging from Rs 15,000-33,000. “A rise in disposable income among the upper middle class, a rise in aspiration to be at world sporting events, and the spread of sporting culture….plus, Indians are doing well at cricket. So it makes sense for the fans to travel. They see people from other countries do it for football and that spirit has caught on,” says Patel.
”For us, the toughest part is to meet the demand. London, and the UK, is convenient and great as a holiday destination. But I never expected this demand. That has been our biggest task, to move people around the country. We have coaches, we block-booked hotels well in advance but we still have had teething problems,” he says.
Summing it up, Patel says, it boils down primarily to “sheer desperation”. “Secondly, tours and travels partners like us… and thirdly, the sponsors are nearly all Indian companies, which means they would be getting tickets that they pass on to their people and clients,” he says.
Patel now plans to extend his reach to other sporting events, such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. The Bharat Army, meanwhile, has been named as official partners for the T20 World Cup in Australia next year-end — and, Patel says, the planning has already begun.