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Can Tech Lead To Football Fever in India?

On a visit to India in 2007 FIFA president Sepp Blatter referred to the country as a “sleeping giant” of world football. This month, India will embark on a new chapter in its sporting history and attempt to awaken that sleeping giant when the Indian Super League (ISL) kicks off on the 12th October in the West Bengal city of Kolkata. The inaugural match between Atletico de Kolkata and Mumbai City FC will feature players such as Nicolas Anelka, Luis Garcia and Freddie Ljungberg and will be broadcast across eight channels, covering five languages and potentially reaching 85% of India’s TV audience.

Clearly an attempt to replicate the success of the IPL, India’s annual cash-rich cricket league, the ISL is also trying to take advantage of the growing local interest in the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga. Interest in football is on a high in India, fuelled by the recent World Cup in Brazil and the new fascination level hasn’t escaped the notice of some technology and games companies.

EA Sports had already re-introduced the India national team to its FIFA 13 game last year - the first time it has been included in the game franchise since 1998 but more recently mobile fantasy league company Play It Interactive claims to have seen a rapid rise in interest in its fantasy football league app Play It Football in India. The app was released in time for June’s World Cup and “experienced huge traffic”, says the company, “gaining just under 12 million page views in less than a month”. According to Play It Interactive president and co-founder Cory Cleveland, there were over 500,000 active users and 10,000 fantasy teams entered during the World Cup. Interestingly, average user time on the game was over 15 minutes - quite a long time for a mobile app.

So does this bode well for the ISL? Can mobile games be a yardstick for the league’s potential success? And what role will technology have in helping to engage fans and promote the game on the subcontinent?

“You only have to look at the recent World Cup to see the potential opportunities for franchises, brands and sponsors to reach Indian fans during the new ISL,” comments Tim Lunn, a sales manager at sports data and analysis firm Prozone Sports. “Despite not even having a team at the tournament, India had the fifth most World Cup-related tweets during the final between Germany and Argentina – more than Brazil itself.”

To be fair to Brazil, its supporters were probably still reeling from the crushing loss to Germany. But you’d think that in a country of 1.2 billion people, the idea that quite a lot of Indians might enjoy football and express that pleasure on social media shouldn’t be a surprise. It is though. This is a country that is currently ranked 158 by FIFA, has never played at a World Cup final and cannot boast any players playing in the world’s top leagues. But mainly, this is a cricket-obsessed country, 24/7, all year round.

“Social media activity illustrates the huge passion for football in the country,” adds Lunn. “The next challenge is to harness technology to serve the needs of the socially engaged, and surround it with unique, quality content.”

Not as easy as it sounds, although the organisers are doing their best at getting some recognisable existing and former world players through the gates. In addition to Anelka, Luis Garcia and Ljungberg, there is Del Piero, Capdevila, Trezeguet, Pires, Simeone, Zico, Materazzi and even the English striker Michael Chopra, who is relinquishing his British passport to be eligible to play for India.  Spanish champions Atletico Madrid also co-own the Kolkata team but perhaps the biggest coup is the involvement of cricketing legend and superstar of Indian sport Sachin Tendulkar. The ‘Little Master’, as he was nicknamed, co-owns Kerala Blasters, one of the eight ISL teams. When Tendulkar throws his weight behind something, people in India usually sit up and take notice.

"There is a lot of sporting talent in the country, but no platform to showcase the talent. Perhaps ISL is the answer,” Tendulkar said in Mumbai at the launch of the tournament. He makes a good point. Ultimately this is about finding and developing Indian footballing talent. It has been tried before of course, somewhat artificially via scouting schemes run by western teams, such as the one featured in the documentary film Sleeping Giant: An Indian Football Story.  

But this is surely different. The marketing behind the ISL will endure that and waiting in the wings is a host of technology companies, eager to see how the league is received and whether or not it will be a viable market to launch football-related mobile games and products.

Currently there are not many mobile apps for football in India. Sportskeeda is probably the most prolific, offering news on the I-League, India’s main football league before the ISL, but more will surely emerge. There are apps covering football in other leagues of course such as OneFootball and games such as London-based Squawka, but in such a large mobile, sports-loving market there must be opportunities.

For Christian Jochnick from Fanmode, a platform for real-time expressions of fan emotions that can be integrated into a stadium, it’s all about fan engagement. He cites Tom Fox, former chief commercial officer at Arsenal and now chief executive at Aston Villa, who once said that Arsenal’s community culture has to be transferrable to global supporters to ensure a sense of belonging and identity with the club. Jochnick’s point here is that Fanmode is an answer to that conundrum. But while he recognises the potential for football in India, he is not convinced by the ISL and believes that as far as Fanmode is concerned, IPL cricket is the only tournament in which it’s worth investing time and effort.

Sohail Godall from Ultimate Fan Live, a real-time fantasy football game for mobiles, is, like Jochnick, more sold on the idea that the Premier League is the all-powerful platform to engage with football fans in India but Godall is also aware that for Ultimate Fan Live, a successful ISL could mean a future, ready-built market for the company.

Clearly, the ISL is not the hugely successful IPL cricket competition and it probably never will be, but it does have potential. If anything it will be intriguing to follow its progress on social media to see how it is received and how supporters identify with newly created teams. It will take time and the consensus is certainly that social media more than anything will play a major role in broadening interest in the sport across the country and internationally.

The hunger for sports and in particular technology – India is one of the fastest growing mobile phone nations with over 900 million mobile users – suggests that technology will have a role to play but not yet. It seems too early but surely that means an opportunity too? Perhaps what India needs above all else is for a Rajib Roy - the barefoot footballer from Kolkata that trained with Manchester United in April – to succeed and become the poster boy for the sport? Then he too can have millions of followers on Twitter, pose in GQ and launch an aftershave. Until then, India will have to make the most of the ISL, using every resource it can to inspire a new generation of footballers and finally go some way to removing the sleeping giant moniker… if only to stop people like me regurgitating Sepp Blatter quotes.

 

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a freelance writer and communications consultant that has written about technology trends and issues for over 24 years for national newspapers, consumer and business magazines. He can be found on Twitter @mambjo

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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