Indian Super League – a tale of Improved Viewer Experience

Kaushik Saha talks about his experience of watching an Indian Super League (ISL) match live and compares it to football viewing otherwise in India

By the time I stepped inside the stadium to watch the ISL match on 18th October 2014 at DY Patil Stadium at Nerul, Navi Mumbai already all the teams had played at least one match, there have been Indian scorers, goalless draws and red cards. The tournament has picked up momentum and got people hooked on to football. People who so far had stayed away from anything to do with Indian football and never visited a stadium in India hosting a football match have come out in droves and enjoyed quality football with friends and family.

Let's Football
Let’s Football

There has also been a debate as to whether ISL will actually improve Indian football. So far the success of the tournament has swept all such debates under carpet, with footballers like Borja Fernandez, Alessandro Del Piero,  Elano Blumer and David Trezeguet mesmerizing the audience with their skills that saw them win Euro Cups and World Cups, in the process also snatching the spotlights from Bollywood stars. Some of the lesser known international players like Fikru Lemessa and some domestic players like Balwant Singh and Baljit Singh Sahni have also shone in their roles.

One of the crowds favorite : Alessandro Del Piero
One of the crowd favorites : Alessandro Del Piero

So far I have watched a significant number of football matches in stadiums – 90% of them in and around Kolkata, while a few in Goa, Guwahati, Delhi and Pune. Once Cooperage stadium in Mumbai was used to host the now defunct Rovers Cup, but with teams from Mumbai playing their I-league  matches at Pune, I have not had the opportunity to watch my favourite sport in my adopted city of Mumbai. But ISL changed all that and converted a stadium used to play cricket (IPL and Celebrity Cricket League matches besides inter-University cricket is played at the DY Patil stadium) now hosted the Maharashtra Derby – Mumbai FC vs. FC Pune on its opening night. DY Patil is in itself a wonderful stadium, built in the backdrop of a scenic hill and has facilities that cannot be imagined at the Yuva Bharati Stadium, Kolkata or even the Balewadi Sports Complex at Pune.

Now that the ISL has got in a slush of funds to upgrade the stadiums, the DY Patil stadium has been redone even better than before. The toilets are clean, the eating spaces are separated by enclosures and there are adequate leg and arm rests in the stadium. The tickets are priced low and the weather is good – maybe reasons a lot of people turned up to watch the matches with friends and family. Saying that is a big understatement, and let me explain.

So far across the country in stadiums that do not host East Bengal vs. Mohun Bagan, there has hardly been more than 10000 people watching the matches – even matches of consequence like the Federation Cup final. This trend includes the national team when it plays friendlies or even qualifiers. Exceptions are those matches which involve international stars like the Argentina vs. Venezuela match which was played at Yuva Bharati Stadium, Kolkata in 2011.

A moment from the astonishing opening ceremony at Yuva Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata
A moment from the astonishing opening ceremony at Yuva Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata

In the ISL match I saw a crowd of around 30,000 people (which is slightly less that the capacity of the stadium), and perhaps the largest gathering of women I have ever seen at a football ground. Wearing jerseys of Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney and other popular footballers as well as their favourite clubs, the predominant group of people were people in their teens and early 20s. These young men and women, fed on a steady diet of European football and desperate to watch some good football in their own backyard turned up in large number with banners, face paint and enthusiasm usually reserved for cricket matches. The sponsors and organizers seemed to indulge them as well, with contests, playing chartbusters from movies and getting a few of the popular names among the players to display their skills a few minutes before the match started.

The presence of celebrities like Bollywood star Ranbir Kapoor (and his entourage),  one of the owners of Mumbai FC, seemed to have a electric effect on the crowd, who jostled over each other to catch a closer view of him. A considerable section of the ladies admitted the sole purpose of their coming to the match was to get a closer view of the matinee idol.

Leaving the distractions aside, when the football started- at a level not seen on Indian grounds in the last two decades – the people were hooked. It helped the home team was winning and winning big (they won 5-0), and the crowds went into a tizzy everytime the DJ announced the scoreline over the PA systems. Mumbai as a city is known for appreciating sports like tennis and cricket, but here it came to cheer for their football team. The team united the disparate sections of the crowd whether they were football fans or had just come for the entertainment.

When the match ended, the crowd stood up in one disciplined lot and cheered the victor home team as they disappeared into the tunnel. It was a sight worth seeing – the entire spectacle of long lines, over crowded eateries and pubs near the stadium, well dressed young men and women cheering on for a football match in India – the entire scene was reminiscent of big shot football matches in European countries when crowds gather in public squares and celebrate the team’s victory or weep at their loss

And then I realized the effect the Indian Super League had on the Indian masses. It has bridged the gap that exists between the people who love Indian football and people who love watching European leagues and FIFA / UEFA tournaments on TV. And the improved facilities coupled with affordable viewing means the two worlds can meet, and celebrate together. The league is here to stay and one can definitely put up a hand to say the viewer experience has undergone a sea change.


Image Courtesy : Debopam Roy and Subhashis Biswas