ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Home Team versus Local Stars

Franchises in the Indian Premier League

Souvik Naha (souviknaha@gmail.com) is at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. 

The Indian Premiere League’s unwavering support base proves that it is attached not just to its local icons, but also to the local sporting grounds. 

The classic sports supporter has a long-term emotional relationship with one’s club or team. When the Indian Premier League (IPL) started with eight newfangled franchises, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) sought to create their support bases by designating a cricketer from the city/state as the icon player, who would lead the side and draw the highest salary. This was coupled with the condition of including four local cricketers in the playing 11.

Expectedly, Sachin Tendulkar became the marquee player for Mumbai Indians (MI), Rahul Dravid for Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB), Sourav Ganguly for Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and so on.

Divided Loyalties?

Yet, when the tournament began, many fans faced the dilemma of choosing which team to support. Would it be alright for a Tamil to pull her/his weight behind MI because Sachin Tendulkar played for them? Or would it be mandatory to support one’s home team? And who would the people from states without an IPL team follow—their neighboring states or the teams featuring their favourite cricketers or the side owned by their matinee idol?

Jagdeep Singh voiced his indecision on a website: “It is difficult for me to decide where I belong. I am Punjabi. Born in Bengal. Studied in Chennai and working in Hyderabad. And my favourite player is Sachin Tendulkar. I am yet to decide which team I support” (Ghosh 2008). The ideal solution was to accept multiple loyalties, which was easier said than adopted for many.

The icon system fell apart soon as VVS Laxman dropped out of Deccan Chargers owing to his poor performance and Rahul Dravid decided to leave RCB, having fallen out with Vijay Mallya over matters of team selection. Dravid joined Rajasthan Royals (RR) when all the players were again put up on auction in 2011. Dravid’s fans from Bengaluru must have been puzzled as to which team they would support when RR clashed with RCB.

KKR and Sourav Ganguly

However, the definitive moment in crisis of fan loyalty was the case of Sourav Ganguly. KKR sacked him from captaincy in 2010, and did not bid for him in the 2011 auction. Having failed to reach the top four in any season, KKR reorganised its team, eventually replacing most of the Bengal players with those from other states, primarily Delhi. Ganguly’s exclusion polarised public opinion in Kolkata, the majority having turned against the franchise. Tickets remained unsold, protests were organised, and fans disowned KKR as an entity with no right to represent Kolkata or Bengal.

When Pune Warriors purchased Ganguly, a large number of fans and journalists shifted loyalty to the team in which Ganguly played. The discontent persisted till the second half of the fifth season (2012), but transformed into utter celebration by the end of the tournament when KKR lifted the title for the first time that same year. Within a couple of weeks, the city’s honour became more important than its favourite son’s prestige.

If we examine the IPL’s strategies for creating fans, we would notice a drive to target consumers since traditional fandom takes years to be established. Consumer fans are supposedly more market-oriented and linked to the club through consuming products (matches), icons (players) and merchandise. Other ways of buying loyalty included Subroto Roy’s announcement that players from Uttar Pradesh, the state where his business empire was headquartered, would be given preference in his team—Pune Warriors India (PWI) (Press Trust of India 2010).

Roy played the culture card rather astutely by purchasing Ganguly after he went unsold in 2011, and making him the captain in 2012, thereby enlisting colossal support from the people, particularly Bengalis, who had been rooting for their “dada” since his international debut in 1996. While the KKR–Ganguly dispute perfectly illustrated the differentiation of traditional consumer solidarities on the platform of historical, cultural and financial aspects, the quick turnaround of public mood in celebrating KKR’s title victory reflected the limitation of such patterns. There could be no paradigm to explain all forms of identification with a club and participation in its activities, but KKR presented a context in which loyalties were determined by a large subset of social relations.

I was a masters student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) when the dilemma was taking shape, and looked around the hostel to understand the logic of fandom. The Bengalis, from Kolkata or elsewhere, who bothered to watch the matches, were mostly KKR fans. Their thick solidarity reflected what Soumya Bhattacharya wrote in ESPNcricinfo: “The Kolkatan, with his passive-aggressiveness, his implicit assumptions of his own cultural superiority, his bashful-yet-confident love for his own city, his apologetic, ironical view of himself and his hometown's place in the scheme of things, is city-proud in a way no other Indian is” (S Bhattacharya 2008) .

Some of the young women, none of whom were from Bengal, seemed to be driven by consumerist interests by supporting KKR, since their heartthrob Shah Rukh Khan owned the team. In a forthright, symbolic exchange between fandom and religion, a number of Muslim friends from the team-less northern India states cheered KKR since Khan was supposedly a good Muslim. A certain Muslim student from Kashmir followed KKR too, not because of any religious affinity but because he was in awe of Ganguly. This would have stood him in good stead was he to attend a KKR match in Kolkata, for, as Sid Monga wrote on the back of his sport travels: “If you are not on the side of dada, you are on the wrong side of Kolkata” (Monga 2012). Monga was possibly thinking about the protest rallies, candle light vigils, signature campaigns and circulation of around 1,00,000 leaflets and 6,00,000 SMSes across Kolkata, urging people to boycott KKR matches, in the wake of Ganguly’s omission.

Several online communities were formed, most notably “No DADA No KKR” on Facebook and “No Ganguly… No Eden” on Orkut. “Ganguly is the most successful captain in the history of Indian cricket. We are appalled at the puerile and myopic attitude of the team management of KKR and hence we are organising this peaceful march to show solidarity with the Prince of Calcutta,” a member of the community posted. He added, “We want to drive the message to KKR management that Kolkata Knight Riders is now dead to the cricket fans of the city” (Press Trust of India 2011a).

KKR’s First Home Match

The apprehension became a fact on the day of KKR’s very first home match as the newly refurbished Eden Garden remained nearly empty. Fifty-nine-year-old Somnath Mitra, sitting at the upper tier of the club house, said, “The way KKR treated Ganguly is unacceptable. We hate KKR now. It’s quite obvious that Eden will not get a full house.” The worst hit were vendors selling KKR flags, head bands and caps. One of them admitted to having managed to sell only four out of the 150 flags in his stock (Press Trust of India 2011b).

Leading Bengali newspapers gave as much, if not more, importance to coverage of Pune matches. The PWI vs KKR match was widely billed as a “Ganguly vs Khan” battle. However, they did not face each other in Kolkata till the next season in 2012, when Ganguly was made the captain of PWI, adding more reason for Bengalis to follow the latter.

Tension was palpable in KKR captain Gautam Gambhir’s statement during the pre-match press briefing:

It's just the media that is creating the hype. For me, it's just another game of cricket. Sourav is an individual. We are playing against Pune Warriors and not against Sourav Ganguly. Whoever Kolkata wants to support they are free to support. I have always maintained KKR belongs to Kolkata. There is no other team that belongs to Kolkata. We always play for the pride of Kolkata. We will always do that, whether we get the support or not. We go out there to make people happy and bring joy to them. Our job will be the same whether we would be the away or home team tomorrow. We will keep playing for Kolkata be it tomorrow or near future (Press Trust of India 2012).

As the match was about to begin, social networks buzzed with activity. The usual mood could be surmised from what Ashok Mukherjee, from New Delhi, posted on Facebook, “Always Sourav. Knight Riders can go to hell.” Bengali newspapers termed the match as? one of the most important events in the history of Bengal. Ganguly was upheld as the symbol of “Bengali nationalism” after independence. A historian apparently compared the prevalent sentiment with what had transpired in Kolkata after Gandhi had ousted Subhas Bose at the Haripura Congress in 1938 (G Bhattacharya 2012).

There were rumours that the newly empowered Trinamool Congress would ensure support for KKR since Ganguly was reportedly close to the former communist government. The stage was set for PWI to garner huge support at the stadium but things turned out differently. They lost narrowly and KKR was cheered throughout the match except for while Ganguly batted. KKR went all the way to the final for the first time and won spectacularly. The team that was criticised as an interloper in Bengali identity came home to a huge celebration led by the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

Fan Base Rebuilt

The team travelled to Eden Gardens in an open-top bus. People thronged both sides of the road across the journey. An employee of an advertising agency admitted that her colleagues rushed to the streets while the team was passing in front of their office, which remained empty for an hour (Chattopadhyay 2012). Seventy thousand-odd people attended the felicitation at the stadium, while another 30,000, many among them beaten by the police, were refused entry because of overcrowding. Banerjee sang the team anthem, lamented the media’s hostility to the present government and KKR, joined the team’s victory lap and dictated who should do what.

Ganguly was invited for the felicitation ceremony but he left for London the same day. A few among the twitterati still remained unconvinced. “Has anyone noticed how the only Bengali on the KKR team is Mamata and she’s forced herself into the picture?,” posted @lindsaypereira. “Mamata Di and Kolkata are doing the same for stand-up comedians, what lalu and Bihar did in the ‘90s’,” wrote @SnowLeopard (Agencies 2012).

Critics, however, were far outnumbered both in the physical space of the city and in virtual forums. With the Chief Minister presenting the 25 cricketers in the team with gold chains and lockets inscribed with “Bengal Loves You,” cricket proved itself to be the game of uncertainties even off the field.

Hence, fans who were temporarily swayed by Ganguly’s departure returned to their old team’s support. Performance and Shah Rukh Khan’s ability to draw fans proved to be decisive, which deflated the opposition posed by lack of local affection for the team’s members and adverse image generated by media and advertising[i]. The turnaround also shattered the myth of Ganguly’s inextricable link with contemporary Bengali identity. The Kolkata fans’ topophilic attachment to Eden Gardens underpinned their identity and constructed a reciprocal relation with the home team.

The intensity in Dravid vs RCB or Yuvraj vs Kings XI Punjab clashes dwarfed in comparison to the Ganguly–KKR matches, which conveyed significantly the difference in local excitement with their icon. Ties of fandom are produced as much by local history as by commercial integration efforts. The fans in this analysis consisted of a motley group who recognise the value of performance and are affected by sensation too. This assimilation has sustained the IPL support base despite the performative overkill over the years.

Notes

[i] Dentsu India conducted a study involving 2,099 respondents across 30 Indian cities and came up with these four factors, a combination of which create fan following. See Sharan, Anita (2009): “Dentsu deconstructs IPL brand mystique,” Hindustan Times, 22 April, accessed on 21 May 2015, http://www.hindustantimes.com/business-news/dentsu-deconstructs-ipl-brand-mystique/article1-403206.aspx.

References

[All links were accessed on 20 May 2015]

Agencies (2012): “Mamata Takes Over Show at KKR's Victory Party; Fans Lathi Charged,” Hindustan Times, 29 May, http://www.hindustantimes.com/specials/cricket/ipl/chunk-ht-ui-ipl2012-topstories/mamata-takes-over-show-at-kkr-s-victory-party-fans-lathicharged/sp-article10-862816.aspx.

Bhattacharya, Goutam (2012): “Nijer Bhohorer Joye Gola Phatiyeu Souravke ‘Biday’ Shombordhona Eden’e (Sourav given a farewell despite Eden cheering for Kolkata),” Anandabaz?ar Patrika, 5 May, http://archives.anandabazar.com/archive/1120505/index.html.

Bhattacharya, Soumya (2008): “A Fan's dilemma,” ESPNcricinfo, 7 May, http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/350140.html.

Chattopadhyay, Kuntak et al (2012): “Oi Je Tara, Oi Je Pothe (The stars are there, we are on the road),” Anandabazar Patrika, 30 May, http://archives.anandabazar.com/archive/1120530/30cal2.html.

Ghosh, Abhijit (2008): “It Will Take Time to Fructify,” Times of India, 21 April, http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Repository/ml.asp?Ref=VE9JTS8yMDA4LzA0LzIxI0FyMDI0MDE=&Mode=HTML&Locale=english-skin-custom.

Monga, Sidharth (2012): “If You're Not for Dada, You're against Kolkata,” ESPNcricinfo, 7 May, http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/563979.html.

Press Trust of India (2010): “Pune IPL Team Appoints Geoff Marsh as Coach,” NDTV Sports, 5 July, http://sports.ndtv.com/cricket/news/145693-pune-ipl-team-appoints-geoff-marsh-as-coach.

-- (2011a): “Facebook's Ganguly Fans Plan Protest March,” Times of India, 14 January, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/off-the-field/Facebooks-Ganguly-fans-plan-protest-march/articleshow/7285749.cms?referral=PM.

-- (2011b): “Without Ganguly, Eden Gets Poor Response,” NDTVSports, 12 April, http://sports.ndtv.com/indian-premier-league-2013/news/172022-ipl-without-ganguly-eden-gets-poor-response.

-- (2012): “It's not KKR vs Sourav Ganguly match: Gautam Gambhir,” Times of India, 4 May, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/icc-world-cup-2015/ipl/news/Its-not-KKR-vs-Sourav-Ganguly-match-Gautam-Gambhir/articleshow/12997572.cms.

 

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top