India has in recent years become an important market for the development of the Premier League as the world’s most popular team sports competition. The growth of the league has been remarkable throughout Asia and here in South India it is aided by knowledge of the English language and a certain amount of Anglophilia and western sympathy that has developed among India’s younger generation who do not remember the independence struggles against the British.
The English language factor in the development of 21st century Indian culture and economic development cannot be overstated. With Independence firmly in the rear view mirror, Indians identify more strongly with Britain than other large western societies primarily because of language and the large Indian diaspora in the UK. (the number of British businesses left behind in India contributes as well). Most Indians of decent economic means either have family or friends who live or have lived in England. Despite a troubled history, the ties between the nations and people are seemingly unbreakable.
India has several different indigenous languages, and my family which hails from the south speak different languages based on where they live. In Chennai, we speak Tamil, while the significant portion of the family in Kerala speak Malayalam. Thus, even within families, English becomes the link language.
Boxing day in Chennai featured wall-to-wall Premier League coverage. This is the second Boxing Day that I have spent in India. My previous experience was ruined by a Tsunami in 2004, thus I did not watch any football while visiting Chennai that day. But at the time the coverage was more limited: they’d show the international feed of matches and then move on to Cricket or NBA coverage. For example, in 2003, I had to scramble when I was visiting at the end of the transfer window to find any news on City’s signings as Kevin Keegan was bolstering the side (in retrospect, given those signings which included overaged big names Michael Tarnat and Steve McManaman, I wish I had remained in the dark).
ESPN and Star Sports both go beyond the typical coverage of football we see on the television back home in the States. Several original Premier League shows air during the week on ESPN and Star Sports that feature local pundits from South Asia and Oceania as well as recognizable faces Paul Parker and Joe Royle. After the matches, a full review show on both channels was aired with highlights and analysis. The studio used was reminiscent of the flavor of ESPN in the US during the 1990s, when an emphasis on content and analysis trumped star building and loud music. Being given a full rundown on Steve Sidwell and Carlton Cole’s possible moves showed the depth of coverage and thoughtful analysis.
Time in between games is spent previewing the next set of kickoffs rather than airing informercials or giving updates on baseball or the NFL as is common in the United States. Halftime is spent dissecting tactically the first half and predicting potential changes for the second half. In other words, Premier League coverage in South Asia is much like the coverage of other team sports in the United States.
Manchester United and Arsenal are the two most popular teams in the area. Wayne Rooney is visible on a large number of local advertisements and billboards. Everything possibly related to Man United and Arsenal are available in Chennai. But it is much more difficult to find merchandise for teams outside the big four. In past visits, I’ve worn Manchester City polos and kits in the city only to be asked what team it was and what league/country they played in.
During prior Boxing Days, my concern as a Blues supporter was simply gathering points to avoid relegation. Just two years ago, following a dreadful loss to relegation bound West Brom, City sat 18th at Christmas. I recall in 2003 and 2006 entering the Christmas period with trepidation that by New Years’ we’d be dead and buried.
This Christmas was to be different. From being greeted at the airport by Jo’s picture and the headline “Jo goal gives City top spot” (Europa League) to the newspaper articles about Carlos Tevez and Roberto Mancini, I realized my club had finally arrived. The Abu Dhabi project is in full force and due to the proximity both geographically and economically of the wealthy emirate to South India, City now matters here. We haven’t gained any noticeable fans, but locals now know the club I was so obstinate in promoting on my previous visits.
Alas, our continued misery against Everton (which I refer to as the curse of Joey Barton’s behind, but that is a discussion for another day) was widely reported in the papers and we missed a chance to be top at Christmas for the first time since 1929. Still, my pride in City’s emergence as a relevant force in English football is even greater thanks to my visit to South India.
The worst part of my visit is being forced to return home to where football and the Premier League are an afterthought outside our relatively small American soccer community. But with this experience comes incentive to continue the growth of the sport in the US, and hope someday the Premier League and football in general will be as big as it is has become here.
Kartik Krishnaiyer is the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League and a longtime to contributor to the EPL Talk website and podcast.