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Emerging market targeted as growth at home stagnates

India may not seem the place where you go to learn new things about football.

Cricket, yes. But football? Surely this is one part of the world where the most popular game just does not work. That rather clichéd view needs to be revised. Indeed, India could prove the new frontier of the game.

No, not in terms of what Indian football will do on the field of play. There, India remains a desperately underachieving country, despite the popularity of the game.

However, where India is developing is as a market for English, indeed European, club football, as a recent visit to the country demonstrated. I was there as India were playing the West Indies in cricket. As you would expect, there was much coverage of this in the media.

But despite this, look at what happened when Manchester United lost to Crystal Palace in the League Cup. Now, you would expect that a domestic English Cup competition, where the big teams often field their reserve sides, if mentioned at all, would only make the results section and in small type. Instead, the Times of India, which claims to be, not only India’s, but the world’s, largest circulated English daily, had a strap headline on its front page of how Sir Alex Ferguson was upset about the result.

Not that this was a day of any shortage of news. India is going through several political crises. The decision to highlight this result on the front page illustrated how significant club football, particularly English club football, is seen in India. For a start, its availability is extensive. So on a Saturday, all the Premiership matches being played are shown live on television. This is followed by the Sunday and Monday games.

The games are then repeated in various other forums. It is not unusual for travellers on Kolkata’s Metro to see re-runs of matches played some weeks before. This is also true of Indian airports where, as you wait for a plane, you can see two English teams on the screens dotted round the terminal.

All this has created a vast appetite for the English game. During my visit, David Gill, chief executive of Manchester United was also in Mumbai and he clearly sees India as a market where the club can make money.

What makes India so attractive is that the market is huge and much more accessible than the Chinese market to operate in. True, some 600 million Indians live on two dollars a day, but 400 million are quite well off.

In India, the numbers dwarf everything. There are some 800 million Indians with mobile phones. The mobile phone rates are dirt cheap, but at this level of usage, that is still a lot of money.

Premiership matches would not attract such huge audiences, but are still watched by some 3 or 4 million and what is more, it is a growing market. Contrast this with the UK where the market is mature with not much prospect for growth. Given the Premiership’s need for money to finance players’ wages, markets like India become crucial.

And this has lessons for Fifa. Until a few years ago, international football meant matches between nations. Now club football is televised, at times on a daily basis, giving Indians and many others overseas all the international football they may need. It is this that is giving big clubs a powerful international base, independent of Fifa and Uefa. As it happens, Fifa is trying to get the Indian national team going. But while that is proving a hard slog, English club football is well on its way to seducing the Indians with their brand of the game and making money.

      

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