Many years ago I had expressed the thought that the gloomier the front pages became, the more inspiring the back pages would seem. There is now competition for gloom, occasionally anger seems the more appropriate sentiment amongst those that watch the news a lot! Maybe as an outcome of that, and doubtlessly it is one of many reasons, there is greater interest in sport now than ever before. A far more important reason though is the growth in television and more sophisticated packaging and indeed, a more wired generation that sees the best in sport from around the world.
It is a benefit, and a challenge, to Indian sport as I suspect the new football league (the Indian Super League, ISL) is going to discover. More people than ever before are watching sport but more critically, they are supporting teams as well. As team loyalties grow, and as sport is placed in a context, the need to watch the very best, while still important, no longer becomes the only reason to watch sport. The ISL will hope that is true.
Every day the football fan in India has the opportunity to see the very best in action. He, and increasingly she, can see Barcelona and Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus and of course the English Premiership. Almost every top player is on view, television brings quality presentation and commentary, social media creates fan groups, forums for discussion, there is a whole world in itself out there. In such a situation, can football go local? Will fans, used to the very best, be willing to watch a completely different standard of football?
While you cannot force anybody, especially where so many options are available, I believe they will. And they must. And the key to attract the fan lies in the creation of localised competition and support. In many countries in the world, the fans throng stadiums to express support for a club even when aware that they are nowhere near the best in the world. They come to watch for a different reason. South Africa is a good example where they struggle to make an impression even in the African Cup of Nations but have a very decently supported local league. The Kaiser Chiefs are big without being a Real Madrid. That is what I hope the Indian Super League will achieve.
There is a wider reason I want the ISL to do very well, which is the same reason I wanted the Hockey League to do well and was delighted with the response to the first edition of the Kabaddi League. While I make a living from cricket, and I love the sport dearly, I cannot accept India being a single sport country. When the Olympics and the Asian Games come around we find heroes in Abhinav Bindra, in Sushil Kumar and, to my great joy, in Mary Kom. It tells me that India can be competitive if the right infrastructure and the platform is provided. Each of those three has had to overcome apathy in administration to succeed but if they, and many others like them, were provided a vibrant platform, where their achievements were taken to the public more often and more dramatically, we could have many more sporting stars. Sport could become a profession for many more.
National federations, armed over the years with arrogance and apathy, can hardly do that. If they cared, they would have done it long ago. And so, private enterprise must do the job of providing the platform, creating the buzz and producing stars. Once people see stars, they want to follow. As more people follow, the chance of finding the best increases. But the best will emerge as a by-product of creating a popular, competitive platform.
Sport is about watching the best. But sport is also about watching what is yours. When people watch the Chennai Super Kings or the Kolkata Knight Riders they are not always watching the best in the world. But they turn up in numbers because they think the team is theirs. We have seen the beginning of that in kabaddi. I thought we missed out on a great opportunity in the early years of the Premier Hockey League but hopefully local football will create the “my team” culture.
Eventually, sporting leagues must create local sporting cultures and live in proximity with the best in the world. Australia, Japan and South Africa have done it. Now India must aspire to do it. I believe the time is right for India to move strongly towards becoming a multi-sport nation.