June 06, 2014

The latest news has the Indian Super League kicking off in October for 3 months with the likes of Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia making headlines with their commitments. The ISL organizers have done a fantastic job roping in these former superstars, who while a little older, will still bring enough glamour to the event to draw in the crowds. Football in India is poised to take off dramatically and the timing of the ISL launch could not be better with the likes of PSG, Barcelona and Arsenal providing a grassroots impetus and the Under-17 World Cup to be hosted in India poised to be a watershed moment in the history of Indian football, with what promises to be a talented group of Indian youngsters participating.

There is a lot riding on the ISL in terms of football development in India. If successful, it could lay the platform for an Indian team participating in the FIFA World Cup by 2026 as the experience of playing on these teams will provide young talent with the mental, physical and tactical expertise to grow their skills in a systematic and sustainable way. Failure could doom football to fate that befalls hockey currently - a beloved sport that is destined for the niche now that multiple attempts to revive it have failed to enthuse the general public. Engaging this group, known as 'fan engagement' is a key consideration in the popularity of sport and they are as critical to the long-term success of a sport as engaging with athletes, sponsors or administrators. Counterintuitively, many people within this segment are also generally ignored by administrators, which seems strange considering that it should be obvious to any administrator to consider engaging the fans. To help our administrators, let us understand who these are fans really. There are 3 broad categories of fans who consume sport:

1. Die-hards: These fans consume the sport on a daily basis and are usually highly engaged with a specific team or individual athlete who they follow on a constant basis. A 'healthy obsession' as some believe it to be, these fans will make it through multiple obstacles to connect with their sport and can counted upon to support their game irrespective of the environmental or financial barriers. A good example, are Indian F1 enthusiasts who travel to Abu Dhabi and Singapore to view races, and for whom Delhi one weekend a year is a pilgrimage that no wedding date, birthday or vacation can come close to usurping. The sport has done a great job selling itself to these fans and it takes something pretty uniquely ignorant to alienate them to the point of disengagement

2. Casual Fans: These fans understand the basics of the sport they are watching and are aware of the superstars but only watch the so-called important events. Tennis for example thrives upon such fans who consume majors such as Wimbledon while dispensing forehand advice to Roger Federer but would be hard-pressed to actually name all 4 tennis majors in the year. These fans are also known as bandwagon fans by the die-hards and over the last month they were easily spotted during the football World Cup. They are a crucial segment to the success of any sport as their support drives TV money, event attendance and media coverage. This is mainly because there is no distinction between the actual love of the game when it comes to the economics of sport that measures success based purely off numbers.

3. Fans by Association:The third group is not really a fan per se but still consumes a sport because, well, they have to. Mothers who take their 8 year olds to Test cricket game, girlfriends who stay up 3:00 am to watch football round-robin matches, sons who sit quietly through a 4 hour round of golf or husbands who watch synchronised swimming during the Olympics because 'it looks pretty'. They therefore end up watching a sport by association but this segment is also usually the future of any sport as they are most likely to start experiencing the innate excellence of the athletes participating as well as the drama and emotion of the competition they are watching. Given the right set of circumstances, these fans progress to become casual fans and then up the chain to die-hards over a period of year. Given the wrong set of circumstances they become critics of the sport and can eventually cause their counterparts to pursue past-times more amenable to domestic serenity.

In the past, Groups 2 and 3 here have not been appropriately provided enough incentive in India to convert up the fan value chain when it came to sports such as hockey, golf or badminton who have all tried their own leagues. My contention is that organisers have not been able to make much headway in the creating a memorable experience for those who actually attend games cutting across the three categories of fan bases we have just outlined.

When I say memorable experience, let me provide you with a benchmark that I would love the ISL to compare itself to. The Phoenix Open is a golf event played in Arizona, and they realised they would eventually lose their event to more marquee events on the golfing calendar if they did not do something to drive attendance. Lets remember this is golf - not the most TV friendly sport for any casual fan to watch and more difficult to watch in person since you watch a shot played every few minutes rather seconds as there is a gap between each set of players who reach a spot on the golf course. It takes less than a second for a golf swing - so 2 seconds of action* every 10 minutes is a pretty difficult barrier to overcome when targeting casual fans. So how did the guys at Phoenix shake things up? Well they took one entire golf hole and converted it into well, essentially a stadium by building stands around the entire golf hole - all 162 yards of it - and essentially created an amphitheatre in the middle of the course. Then, they allowed fans who made it inside to cheer while golfers were hitting instantly making it the loudest hole in golf. In addition, amongst other things they started outdoor concerts post the golf round with massive bands headlining the show. The result - blowing past golf records it has become one of the most attended sports events in the world with over 550,000 people attending last year over 4 days and over 180,000 attending just on Saturday alone. As someone, who has has the fortune of being there I can truly say it is one of the most remarkable sporting experiences one could have. There is another column of learnings from everything the Phoenix Open but I am convinced that by providing fans across the three categories, a defining experience that they can take home with them, the Phoenix Open not only saved itself but resurrected golf in southwest America.

The ISL needs to learn from that and want to aspire to engage those moms who bring their kids to watch football by getting the difficult things right - parking, security, access to seats, in-stadia replays, refreshments, half-time shows, toilets, souvenirs, post-game traffic and all the other things those easy to please die-hard fans see as minor road bumps on their journey to the view Pires and Ljungberg perform a step-over live. If the ISL can get groups of families, school kids, college friends, office colleagues, retirees to take a few hours out every month to experience something that they can go home and smile, brag, fight, and ultimately bond over then they will actually change the Indian footballing landscape. It has been done time and again across other sports and there is no reason believe it cannot be done now. There are plenty of ideas to improve the soft aspects of the in-game experience - hopefully someone will have the will to implement them.

There are 2-3 players a group depending upon the day