Shailesh Kapoor: FIFA 2018: A Big Opportunity for India’s Second Sport

15 Jun,2018

By Shailesh Kapoor


Historically, the amazing sport of football has remained on the fringes of Indian pop culture. While some pockets of the country, like West Bengal, Goa and Kerala have traditionally had bigger fanbases, the mass following has been restricted. The FIFA World Cup, which comes once every four years, gets a larger audience in. But you cannot build a sport’s fan base through an event that comes just once in four years. And that too, often with match timings that are not friendly to India.


Poor Indian performance in the sport removes the patriotic aspect out of it. So, football’s popularity growth in India has to rely on growth in popularity of the major football leagues across the world every year, and of the big superstars who headline these leagues.


Over the last five years, however, there has been a significant upswing in the sport’s popularity, with several factors coming together to make it happen, such as these three:


1. Messi & Ronaldo

All sports fans love their favorite sports stars, and the last few years has seen two big soccer stars gain huge popularity in India. In a country where cricketers can be virtual demi-gods on their days, Messi and Ronaldo’s popularity is astonishing. As per the Ormax Sports Stars report for May 2018, Ronaldo featured at No. 4 and Messi at No. 5, on the list of most popular sportspeople in India, after Kohli, Dhoni and Tendulkar at 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Much-celebrated cricketers like Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, R Ashwin, Hardik Pandya, Ajinkya Rahaneetc lag behind the two soccer giants.


2. ISL

The Indian Super League started in 2013 as a major initiative to build the sport of football in India. The jury is divided on how successful this initiative has been, but the one thing ISL has ensured, across its four editions, is some well-organized football in India. It always helps to get some fans to the stadia once in a while, even if the quality of play is several notches lower than what you get to watch from other parts of the world on TV. ISL also helped Sunil Chhetri emerge as the face of Indian football, after Bhaichung Bhutia retired.


3. A generational change

But the most-significant boost to football has come from the passage of time itself. The sport one gets most fascinated with at the age of 12-16 years typically tends to one’s favourite sport for the rest of their life. Many young people today, who were born around the turn of the millennium, have grown up on football, not cricket, as their sport of fascination. But for IPL, this impact could have been even higher. As a result of this shift, a new generation of football fans has started entering the core sports demographic (15-30 years) over the last 5-10 years. Its impact on viewership of football will increase in the years to come.


Football, then, is firmly placed to multiply its popularity in India and become bigger with each passing year. It cannot match cricket for at least another 20 years. The gap is way too wide and without an Indian football team of International standards, it is unfathomable how that gap can ever be bridged. But if we leave cricket aside, football can be a huge second sport, much bigger than the modest second sport it already is.


FIFA 2018 offers a great opportunity. Apart from the generational change coming into play with stronger force, there are two other reasons why FIFA 2018 can achieve a lot more than FIFA 2014 did for the sport in India. The first one is about the match timings. There cannot be more friendly match timings than those from Russia. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was a late-night affair, in what are television’s graveyard slots. The favorable match timings factor can provide a 3X, even a 5X, multiplier to viewership.


The second one is about the growth of digital video consumption since 2014. There was no Jio in 2014. Data rates were significantly higher and the video entertainment scene was fairly nascent in India. A lot has changed, and Hotstar’s numbers on IPL over the last couple of years bear testimony to that. SonyLIV is sure to latch on to this opportunity, and both the app and the sport will be beneficiaries of a well-executed digital strategy for the tournament.


Now, one has to wait for the numbers to trickle in over the next two weeks, and see how well FIFA 2018 does, on television and on digital. Anything short of spectacular will be a surprise.



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