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Football is the new cricket
Besides juggling the motley stresses of teenage life, 16-year old Gautam Talwar spends much of his waking hours obsessed with the fortunes of a sporting team. But that team isn't India's cricket XI or an IPL squad, it's Arsenal FC, a top English club football side. What makes him typical in India today is his keen interest in the 'Beautiful Game, ' even to the point of feigning utter disinterest in cricket. "It's just not as exciting as football, whether to play or watch (on TV), " the Delhi boy shrugs. Like Gautam, thousands of other kids across the nation appear to be ditching their spikes for cleats.
Lata Vaidyanathan, principal of Delhi's Modern School Barakhamba Road, agrees "There is certainly a huge move, and I see it in both girls and boys. In fact they're often to be found discussing games they've seen on television. And they're raring to go and play football tournaments and matches now, " she says.
Mukul Choudhari, director of the Manchester United Soccer School in Mumbai, feels this trend could be a game changer in many ways. "Over 50 per cent of kids who enroll here are in the 10-14 age bracket. They'll be in their twenties in a few years, " he says, "and will change attitudes in India. They really want to learn how to play properly. " Vaidyanathan echoes the sentiment: "kids look to train in disciplined ways, and hire coaches. Schools are happy to encourage this, as football is a faster sport with better fitness levels, and certainly easier to organise. "
Corporate India is paying close attention. Cola giant Pepsi's latest advertising campaign has Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor slyly urging audiences to 'Change the Game, ' football in hand, while a telecom major has just launched a talent hunt for children in association with Manchester United, England's biggest club.
As branding consultant Nitish Verghese puts it, "with cricket advertising becoming cluttered and expensive, its natural for brands to gravitate towards sports which offer higher returns on the margin. Besides, cricket viewership drops sharply when India is not playing, but interest in football is more evenly spread across teams - this makes media planning less challenging. " This is probably why marketers are now beginning to hedge their bets. But such is cricket's hold over our imagination, and marketing strategy, that executives are loath to admit a big shift, at least on the record.
Sportswear giant Adidas, which finds itself smack dab in the middle of mapping such change, reveals that football and cricket are "neck and neck" in terms of sales of sporting items over a cumulative four or five-year period. "But we should be careful, " says Tushar Goculdas, brand director, Adidas India, "because at the mass level cricket still dominates. This is an urban trend. Viewership of European club football has been steadily growing, while in commercial terms there's been big growth in the sale of merchandise and gear to young people. And football overtakes cricket in years when big events like the FIFA World Cup occur. "
Homi Battiwalla, Category Director, Colas, PepsiCo India, is also cautious when asked if his company has made a radical departure in now pushing football over cricket. "We believe football is an emerging youth passion and the objective behind our campaign was to give it the scale it deserves. We see huge interest reflected in the high viewership of football across media platforms. It's also exciting to see the interest shown by leading clubs in India. " he says. "We decided to build on the philosophy of 'Change the Game' and extend it to football. This does not mean that football has 'replaced' cricket. We will continue to build our association with both sports in the country. "
Corporate reticence aside, young football buffs in India can expect a slew of activities in the near future. Like Pepsi's 'T20 Football' tourney, which it says attracted over 3, 000 players, and featured a team from Ludhiana in the final, cheered on by Chelsea FC superstar Didier Drogba. Expert 'clinics' for kids, training camps in European academies and big exhibition matches are all likely to become commonplace soon. "We're virtually the last frontier, outside of the US, for big football clubs, in terms of fanbases" says Goculdas, "they will show a lot of commitment to India now. "
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