In a regular feature, our guest NRI columnist talks life, education, technology, culture, career, sport and Brexit from an “almost Indian’s” perspective. Opinions expressed are clearly his own…

February 2003, Durban, South Africa: The ICC Cricket World Cup was in full swing and ahead of India’s much-hyped clash with England, I found myself in the business lounge at the Kingsmead Hilton. The location of the hotel is fantastic as it’s right across the road from the stadium. Indeed, you can see right into the ground from the top floor lounge while sipping a cool drink. Anyway, as I sat there, I noticed a young man, sporting an India fan jersey, beavering away on a PC in the corner. So I wondered over, “Hi, I’m Arup, who are you?” “I’m Raks Patel”, he replied with a raffish grin. “I’m with the Bharat Army.”

Since then, Raks and his colleagues have built the Bharat Army (BA) into the leading Indian cricket fan club in the world, with a following of approximately 200,000 people from across the globe – over half of these from India itself. This summer, as India tours England, many thousand BA members will be converging here, as much to party with other members, as to watch cricket. Here’s the surprise though. Raks Patel and the other founders aren’t from India. They’re all from London, UK. Born and raised. So, why is (probably) the most successful Team India supporters franchise run by a bunch of Brits out of London rather than cricket crazy Indians in, say, Mumbai? Despite burgeoning brand values in both sport and media and a veritable bonanza on offer through sports tourism, merchandising and other fan club services, why doesn’t India have more meaningful fan engagement? Has fandom replaced religion in the West?

“Fandom is Externally Generated Branding” (Zoe Fraade-Blanar): A strong fan base can significantly enhance your brand. However, I believe, Brand India has been completely focused on advertisers and sponsors, applying a least common denominator approach with regard to fan engagement. Fans have hitherto been relegated to a back seat behind corporate interests. But the times, they are changing. With the advent of social media, digitization and augmented reality apps, Fraade Blanar goes on to say there is “a convergence of brand owner and brand consumer; this is the new fandom-based economy”. Fans want more and demand more from the brands they follow. Woe betide you, though, should you fail the faithful. Does Brand India fear the potential “Fandom Menace”?

Fandom or Faith, It’s All Big Business: Anybody who’s been to an India cricket match in the last twenty years, anywhere in the world, will be familiar with the BA. They are the noise! With dhols, whistles and chants they create such a din that even the commentators perched in their lofty cabins often struggle to make themselves heard. Raks says, “we’re like one big family at a big fat Indian wedding!” It’s a riot.

However, the BA has become more than a bunch of boisterous cricket groupies. The BA is a business. They have a growing sports travel franchise, their own line in stylish clothing, arrangements with cricket stadiums for ticketing and dedicated stands, their own TV channel (BA TV) and have even set up an online ticket exchange for fans to counter the scourge of touts. Indeed, the BA has come to be recognized by all the relevant cricketing stakeholders as Team India’s “unofficial-official” fan club.

In India, the largest social gatherings (outside of cricket) still appear to be centred around religious festivals like Dussehra and Diwali. Between the major religions followed in India, there’s almost 60 festivals and a similar number of religious national/ state bank holidays, all supported by substantial amounts of private and corporate sponsorship. Reportedly, The Kumbh Mela attracts over 100 million pilgrims. A pilgrim can spend several thousand US Dollars equivalent to attend. Hajj, another of the great pilgrimages, attracts several million visitors to Mecca annually, again spending on average several thousand US Dollars per head. Add to these the cost of building the support infrastructure and you don’t need a calculator to realize these are meaningful numbers being generated. In comparison, the UK only has a handful of religious events widely celebrated and very few religious holidays.

The western world seems to have replaced religion with fan culture. Sports stars, supermodels, actors and pop idols are the new gods. Global brand value for the sports sector alone is worth in excess of US Dollar 500 billion. Just look at the English football Premier League. Each of the 20 franchises has a well-organized fan club. According to the Business Insider, top clubs Arsenal FC, Liverpool FC and Manchester United have, in aggregation, over 200 million followers (apparently every second Indian supports Manchester United: India Times). All the clubs have a retail presence throughout the world, both online and physical. Visiting Kuala Lumpur over a decade ago, I was surprised to see Manchester United and Liverpool FC merchandise shops in malls.

In sharp contrast, the hugely successful Indian Premier League has no retail presence abroad and online sales are limited largely to the domestic space. While there has been talk of setting up individual franchise fan clubs, apart from fan pages on social media I haven’t seen much other service provision. Moreover, as far as I know, there is no official supporters club for the Indian cricket team. Indeed, a Google search “Indian cricket official supporters club” brought me back to the Bharat Army!

Digitalization is the Enabler: Away from cricket, Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, who boasts a fan base of over one billion followers, doesn’t have an official fan page – not one that works anyway. The only other fan page, I found, offers a product range of one solitary tee shirt. For a country which rates itself as an IT services powerhouse and where the internet has spread like wildfire, it’s usage of tech to develop services and products targeting fandom has been quite meagre. In complete contrast, the Star Wars franchise sold US Dollar 1.4 billion of toys just in the twelve months to July 2017 (much of it online) and it’s licensed merchandise is worth an estimated US Dollar 262.9 billion (source: The Telegraph).

But Domestic Indian Fans Don’t Spend Money: Really? In 1983, an underdog team took the world cricket establishment by storm. Against all odds, India won the World Cup and that victory put Indian cricket dead centre on the world stage. This was prior to the financial reforms that started India on the path to the economic stardom that it enjoys today. Present day India has a fully emerged middle class that loves to dine out, drive foreign cars and travel the world. Yet it seems domestic sport and media franchises still assume the average Indian Joe (or is it Jai?) won’t spend money as a fan, outside of ticketing. The number of Chelsea FC shirts I’ve had to order for friends in India and the number of folks I meet from the subcontinent at Lord’s (many of whom who spend thousands of Pounds on match tickets alone) would suggest otherwise. Indian fans have the cash to splash.

NRIs Bringing Fan Culture Home:  The US and European populations are by and large a melting pot of migrant communities, many from Asia and Africa. BA’s Raks (Rakesh) was born in 1974, a first generation British-Indian. His cricket crazy family migrated here from East Africa, where his father captained the Kenyan national squad in the early 1970s. That certainly explains where the passion comes from, “unfortunately, like a good head of hair, my Dad’s talent skipped a generation, so I focus on supporting and promoting the game I love so much,’’ says Raks humbly, although I’m guessing he’s pretty handy with a bat. “Also, the BA has morphed into a global community platform that enables NRIs, like me, to stay connected with India,” he adds. This is an interesting point. Many migrant Indians, who left the motherland just after independence, have clung on desperately to the culture and belief systems they left behind. Their “Indianess”. Supporting the India cricket team together and organizing other large community events is part and parcel of this clinging on.

I also wonder if migrants, who have experienced the process of moving home, often as part of large groups and sometimes at short notice (e.g. Uganda) have an innate ability to organize tours and galvanize communities. This may partly explain why many first-generation migrants into Europe entered the travel business in the 1970s and 1980s and were very successful in serving the needs of first-generation NRIs who wanted to stay connected to the homeland.

Now, as the Indian cricket team romps all over the world, the BA is facilitating the exact reversal i.e. helping the homeland stay connected to its brand, as it goes global.

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