Hill road in Bandra, Mumbai is famous for shopping — throngs of stalls lined in a row on both sides of the road. However, it had a different feel on 21 July — this Tuesday saw the area filled with loud chants emanating from outside the famous Mehboob Studios.
This sort of atmosphere is generally witnessed during cricket matches — but this wasn't a cricket match — this was the Arsenal 2015/16 kit launch organised by Puma. It had rained incessantly since morning; trains were delayed and transportation had been affected across the city — but nothing affected the Arsenal fans who had come in numbers to watch their heroes Sol Campbell and Ray Parlour.
Campbell and Parlour were members of the Arsenal 'Invincibles' — the side which went unbeaten for 49 matches on a trot: from May 2003 to October 2004 — no doubt the duo attracted so many fans — chants of "we love you Arsenal, we do. We love you Arsenal, we do; We love you Arsenal, we do; Oooh, Arsenal we love you" to "49, 49, undefeated; 49, 49, I'll say; 49, 49 undefeated, playing football the Arsenal way," reverberated in the area. It was as if the Emirates had descended in Mumbai.
If you believe that India doesn't have a football culture — then this event would have shattered your belief.
Broken leg? "Doesn't matter — I have two friends to support me," said a fan. What if the boss calls? "Doesn't matter, I have switched off the phone since last night," said another. What about transport? "Doesn't matter, I've come down walking," chirped a third Gunner. Fanatics, truly.
But more than just a kit launch, this event was also a lesson for Indian football (and other sport) clubs on how to increase their fan base and engagement. If a club 11,505 kms away — playing in a different league and in a different country — can pull off such an event in India, then there is every reason to believe that Indian clubs can also make it happen.
"This is where we come to know the number of fans that Arsenal has got. It gives you pleasure and joy to see there are so many of us. It shows that there is so much support for the club and we love it," Asawari D'souza, a teacher based in Borivili, told Firstpost. D'souza brought her two kids - 8-yr-old Karan and 9-yr-old Max - to the event in Arsenal jerseys.
The scenes at the event was a consolidated show of passion: not just for a club, but for a game — and this is what I-League and Indian Super League clubs can tap into (the latter already did, to much success, last season — in terms of stadium attendance). The All India Football Federation should learn too — to create awareness about India's national matches, most of which go unnoticed.
The ISL is just a season old. Clubs are bringing in the stars but they need to create player awareness — especially in the regions where football is not very popular. Kerala, Kolkata and Goa have tremendous football following and are passionate for their teams — but India is a massive country and for a sport to prosper, it needs to spread across the nation.
These kind of strategies need to be employed as soon as possible for rapid growth — not only are these marketing events, but also allow fans to interact with players. And this will bring fans closer to the club (and themselves) and convert them into loyalists. That's the starting point.
"The good thing about Arsenal is they realise that India is very big fan base for them. On some of their social media pages -- almost 10 percent of the following is from India -- which is fantastic. And, we're called a non-footballing country, right? That’s what the assumption is. But that’s proven wrong by Arsenal fans in India," Puma India MD Abhishek Ganguly told Firstpost.
Along with the kit launch, Puma also organised the first ever live screening of the 'Invincibles' documentary — and nearly 2000 Arsenal fans attended the event and the documentary caught their imagination. They had arranged special 'Arsenal branded' buses from Bangalore and Pune along with accommodation and food for the fans for the event.
Cricketer Aditya Tare, Mumbai captain and Arsenal fan, was in attendance too and told Firstpost that these kind of events indeed help in growing the fan base: "Yes, (it helps increase the fan base) when you have all the EPL stars coming and with a big fan-base already in India, with lots of supporters and football-lovers following the Premier League. It's great for the fans to have these greats who have played for various big clubs and especially for us Arsenal fans, to have someone like Sol Campbell and Ray Parlour who have been legends for the club. To have them here in Mumbai, it's unbelievable for the fans."
Of course, Arsenal is a 129-year-old club. Their matches are beamed throughout the world to hundreds of millions of fans. But Mohun Bagan - four time national champions of India and 22-time IFA Shield winners are just four years younger. That they've failed to capture the imagination of the nation is down to a combination of the lack of broadcast Indian football gets in the country, their continental performances and finally, a certain lack of commitment of the club to market itself.
"Arsenal are being very supportive, for example, the very fact by sending two players from the Invincibles team, two legends of this kind of a stature -- Sol Campbell and Ray Parlour -- shows that Arsenal themselves are very committed to it," adds Ganguly.
It's also not just up to the clubs. The leagues also have a responsibility to spread the club.
Late last year, Barclays Premier League had conducted live screening of matches in Mumbai and it got a fantastic response with around 20,000 people attending the event. What these events have showed is that India clearly has a huge football following — and an English super club like Arsenal have realised it and are trying their best to reach out to the fans.
"Earlier, India was not an important market since football as a sport was very native then. But in the last two-three years, Arsenal has taken great initiative to reach out to us on all possible occasions and try to offer us the best fan experience that is possible," Arsenal Mumbai told Firstpost.
Arsenal Mumbai is India's first official football supporters club and has been conducting match screenings in Mumbai. Pictures of their weekly meets have gone up on the Emirates lounge at Arsenal's home stadium. They also have special access to tickets of all Arsenal games — in fact, many of their members have gone to watch some of the biggest games Arsenal has played in 'spectacular seats'.
"When we started out back in 2006, we used get a crowd of 100-150 passionate gooners. But over the years because of our social media activities, word of mouth via fans and the official status, we now get a crowd over 700 Arsenal fans for our screenings. Every season we have had a growth of over 7-8 % in total numbers of new fans," they said.
There are supporters' groups of Indian clubs also — Atletico de Kolkata (ISL) and FC Bengaluru (I-League) are especially active on social media. The latter has already incorporated a marketing mechanism modeled on clubs like Arsenal and are one of the most ardently followed sides in India — one I-League title in two years has helped their cause.
As the fans made it inside the auditorium for the screening, chants of "If you hate Tottemhan stand up" and "If you hate Tottenham, sit down," went up — and the whole room would react accordingly. Parlour and Campbell also joined in with some fun.
At one point, Parlour asked the crowd: "What do you think of Tottenham?" Of course the fans said "They are s***." Campbell who received a lot of flak by crossing over from Tottenham to Arsenal rubbed it in by saying, "Winning the 2003-04 title at White Hart Lane was the pinnacle of my career, unbelievable."
The setup replicated the entrance of Emirates Stadium with a tunnel and inspirational quotes from Arsenal players along with photos and defining moments of the Invincibles era on the walls. The atmosphere during the screening of the documentary was as if they were watching a live match — 'oohs', 'aahs' and claps and cheers echoed throughout.
Some events may work and some may not — but it would be heartening to see Indian sports clubs and franchises take a note and strategise — because at the end of the day, where would sport be without the fans.
Updated Date: Jul 23, 2015 10:48 AM