Not just about brands and Zeebras

ONE of the most poignant private narratives about the globalization of sport can be found in the book Amateurism in Sport. The author — English academic Lincoln Allison — is walking on the streets of Thailand with his Nottingham Forest-supporting son (who is wearing the club shirt) while on holiday in 1995. A local hails them with the song, `He's got a pineapple on his head' — a parody of the song, `He's got the whole world in his hands' — that evolved in English football grounds to mock Forest striker Jason Lee for the peculiar way in which he tied his dreadlocks. The song, as Allison writes, moved from grounds via television to a distant land where domestic football was struggling for resources and players were virtually anonymous. Mind you, Jason Lee was no high-flying Eric Cantona — nor was Nottingham Forest, in 1995, Manchester United — and yet the man who accosted the author and son knew as small a detail as the `pineapple' song though he hardly knew any details about his country's football players.

European club football may not be as big a draw in India as in China, Japan and South East Asia but a BBC News South Asia report in 2004 said that children of the middle class and the upper middle class brackets in Mumbai and New Delhi are fast abandoning their favourite game, cricket, for football due to the increasing popularity of the English Premiership, which reaches them every Saturday evening as part of the global satellite revolution. The same is the case with regard to children of the same class group in Kolkata, the traditional bastion of Indian football along with Goa and Kerala.

The catch here is that 20 years ago, when goalkeeper Atanu Bhattacharya figured in an Asian All Stars Eleven, teenagers in the `football capital' of India would have been hooked on to the fortunes of Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting rather than worrying about the latest from the Merseyside, Manchester or North London derbies.

Cut to Goa, the venue of the recently held Federation Cup Football tournament, India's version of the FA Cup. The biggest crowd in the first week was in the Churchill Brothers-East Bengal game — a modest 15,000 when the city has always seen crowds of 30,000 on average not long ago. Compare this to the football frenzy in Goa in June 2004, when its residents, as one, congregated, shouted and prayed for Portugal's success in Euro 2004. And, went back crying when Figo, Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. lost to Greece in the final.

Some would argue that last season's National Football League, which saw a record number of Goan clubs and consequently a large number of matches in the state, was responsible for a football overkill, which resulted in the low crowd turnout for the Federation Cup. But, the full picture is that Indians, these days, prefer the drawing room sofa than the seat behind the goalpost to watch football action.

The logical corollary to this is that Zee Sport's revolutionary television coverage of the tournament — with 12 cameras, an English chief operating officer who has produced FIFA World Cups, renowned English commentators and, of course, the colour added to the proceedings by the cheergirls or Zeebras — as well as its 10-year Rs 500 crore television contract with AIFF would improve Indian football by creating an Indian football brand and consequently bring in more crowds.

Though the channel deserves praise for coming to the forefront to promote a cash and quality starved Indian sport, it is early days yet to be excited about such a sequence of events. For the success of every television event such as the Premier Hockey League (PHL), in which leading Indian and Pakistani players participated, there is the abysmal lack of interest in the Ranji Trophy, the Duleep Trophy and the Irani Trophy, the leading domestic competitions of the sport that rules the country, unless, of course, the matches feature a clutch of branded names — the presence of just one, Sourav Ganguly, was not good enough to bring in a few hundreds to a recent Duleep Trophy match in Rajkot.

Sport, of course, is a television and marketing product now. But, marketing men must realise that unless the product is extraordinarily good, it cannot be developed into a brand. Sport is a site where visible and tangible excellence are the only reference points. It is fostered by strong links to the community. BSkyB made a brand out of the English Premiership because English football, even before the dawn of the television age, was a product of quality nursed by a strong civil society. The success of the PHL can be explained similarly, and not just with marketing indices.

To make sure that it has not selected the wrong product, Zee Sports will have to coax the AIFF into instituting major structural changes and launching a massive grassroots and elite development drive. For the good of Indian football, it is time to be optimistic about the channel's chances.