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India’s New Soccer Love

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Besides UEFA’s takings, the football craze is believed to have pumped up an additional ¤2 billion (Rs 13,400 crore) in business from hotel bookings, and other tourism-related activity. Though hosts Austria and Switzerland went out early in the league rounds, they seem to have been the main beneficiaries from the two-week football boom.
Interestingly, much of UEFA’s earnings are ploughed back into the development of the game. UEFA General Secretary David Taylor has announced that while ¤600 million was spent on staging the event, as much as ¤450 million would go to UEFA’s member associations to raise football to higher levels.
In India, despite the domination of cricket and a heady IPL season, international football has gradually made inroads and become the second- biggest sports entertainer. The Dubai-based Ten Sports television network, recently bought by Zee, was launched in the Indian subcontinent in 2002 on the back of live telecast of the FIFA World Cup played in Korea and Japan. That year, Ten Sports paid just $3 million for the telecast rights, while FIFA’s 2006 World Cup tourney sold for $9 million. The rapid increase in international football’s popularity can now be gauged from the fact that Ten Sports and ESPN-Star Sports are locked in a close bidding battle for 2010 FIFA telecast rights, wherein the closing bids for India are believed to have exceeded $40 million (Rs 168 crore).
It is still far short of what television networks pay for cricket rights. To put it in perspective, $50 million is what Doordarshan paid for four years of BCCI’s rights in 2000.

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It is not for nothing that television networks are willing to pay so much for the India rights of big international football events. Euro 2004 attracted huge viewership from the country’s football markets, with Kolkata and Kerala notching up 6.48 and 3.71 TVRs (television rating points), respectively. FIFA World Cup 2006 did even better with 9.1 TVR, or a cumulative audience of 627 million, comparable to top soaps and 50-over cricket matches. Though some of the Euro 2008 matches were telecast past midnight in India, the growing football craze has not gone unnoticed by UEFA. Philippe Le Floc’h, marketing director of the European soccer body, went on record to say, “We expect India to be amongst the biggest viewers of Euro 2008 football outside Europe.”
And, it is not just about international football. In the streets, the game has always had a cult following, and many sports commentators acknowledge domestic soccer outperforms domestic cricket in India. A final league match between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal in Kokata’s Salt Lake stadium attracted 130,000 fans.
On the other hand, in quality and standards, the game is as dead as a dodo. Until 1960, India regularly qualified for the Olympics and was invited to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, but the long sea journey and the team’s insistence on playing bare-feet kept them out. Today, India is ranked 143rd in world football, and has not been able to qualify even for the Asia Cup. Sports journalists who have investigated this strange mismatch between the grassroots passion for the game and the abysmal performance on the field, say it is a problem of poor infrastructure.

After ESPN-Star Sports went through a barren patch without international cricket rights, it tried to develop league hockey in India. With too many sports channels chasing few good cricket matches and other sports properties, funding the development and marketing of domestic and league football in India could provide good alternative content and be a long-term investment.
FIFA, which has a toe-hold in India through the All India Football Federation, should plough back some of its huge takings from telecast and sponsorship rights into India. If football standards take a leap, there are a billion eyeballs in the country waiting to be drawn into the game. That is six times the size of football-crazy Brazil.
Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunsi is also a patron of the FIFA-backed football association. The synergy he commands between the ‘visibility’ ministry and the sport should not be wasted.
(Businessworld Issue 15-21 July 2008)

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