Premier League CEO Richard Scudamore and Star India COO Sanjay Gupta have eamed up to bring the most-watched football league in the world deeper into the Indian midfield. And they’re already scoring
It’s not every day that you get the CEO of the English Premier League giving you a post-match report of the previ ous evening’s game after he’s made his way from the Emirates Stadium in north London via Heathrow Airport to the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai. “The game was quite even, until Giroud scored again to put Arsenal 3-1 up. It was pretty much done by then.“
The 55-year-old Richard Scudamore looks less like the top man of the world’s mostwatched football league and more in the mould of Arsene Wenger. Taking another sip of his coffee, he tells me what has changed in the 23-year-old brand that he has been in charge of for the last 16 years. “The big difference is the global interest. When I started, we had one international contract. An agency distributed to various countries in the world.Now the internationalisation, both in terms of players and the viewership, of the league is the big change.“
The Premier League now sells its prime content of England’s top 20 clubs battling it out for supremacy in 212 territories. Even if Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga are considered qualitatively superior, nothing can match EPL’s sheer popularity across the globe.Of its current £5.5 billion TV deal, around £2.1 billion is contributed by overseas broadcasters. To drive home the point, Star India COO Sanjay Gupta is sitting next to Scudamore.
“In India, we know that cricket is cricket, football is football,“ Scudamore says, looking at Gupta for reassurance. What matters for him is where football sits in relation to other sports -and where football is prevalent, other leagues. “We don’t really have to be No 1. You don’t need to be No. 1 in the US, for instance.In a mature market like that being, say, fifth would be very attractive.“
Which is where India comes into the picture. “Till a decade back, football was largely followed by an older audience,“ says Gupta, “But with change, especially in the way the Internet has come in, the awareness of youngsters about football and Premier League in particular has grown astronomically. Earlier, apart from pockets in Bengal, Goa and Kerala, football essentially interna tional football -was followed only by the affluent. Now you see SEC A to SEC E kids following it.“
Apart from language and media coverage ad vantages, the Premier League appeal for the Indian football fan lies Indian football fan lies also in it being the most competitive of all major football leagues. If La Liga has its duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich owns the Bundesliga, EPL is a truly open contest. “As CEO that’s my No. 1 objective: to keep the league competitive and open.It’s not about making sure that every team wins it, but about having competitive matches. Look at Southampton being the form team this season. We want the big teams to be sometimes be beaten by the smaller teams. Then the league becomes intense.“ The Premier League is the most redistributive among all the major leagues, when it comes to earnings. And it shows.
It also makes for legions of fans following a multitude of clubs. “It’s hard to say what the top four, five, six Premier League clubs are nowadays. When you look at last year’s league table and this year’s, it doesn’t line up neatly,“ says Scudamore with an evangelical zeal. “As I travel the world, what surprises me the most is the amount of different EPL club jerseys you see. That shows the kind of exposure the clubs and not just Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, but others as well -have got from our collective model.“
What about Game 39, the controversial plan of hosting an `international round’ of the EPL to be played on a neutral ground outside England? Scudamore first made the proposal some seven years ago. With the criticism he got, it’s still in the cold storage. “The scars are still on my back,“ he just about jokes.“Well, there are people who have literally been to every club game of their side for the last 20 years. Suddenly to see a game taken away from them can be seen as unfair. The league has to, at some point, decide whether the interests of its international audience are worth Game 39. There is also the question of keeping stadia in the UK full, which has its own challenges,“ says Scudamore.
Which is where Gupta makes a pitch to bring the EPL out of its `comfort zone’.“Fundamentally, India has not hosted an event of this kind. I think organising the ISL (Indian Super League), we now have the confidence to go back and say we can host such a game in the near future.“
So is ISL a sort of plate-warmer for EPL? “No, no. It’s quite the opposite,“ says the EPL boss vociferously. “The strategic partnership with ISL is as much about us helping them as it is about us learning from them. And it’s never an either-or situation.“ Gupta lists what the EPL brings in with its greater India involvement: “As ISL becomes bigger, EPL should become even bigger. But whether it’s coaching referees, how to develop a competitive league, organisation, workshops, these are things that the Premier League with its immense expertise and experience is teaching us.“
So is local talent important to make football truly popular in India? “It’s not as important as it was 20 years ago,“ says Scudamore, “But it’s still a gem if you can find it. Steven Gerrard o f L iver p o ol , f r om Liverpool, that sort of thing is still important for the fan base. It’ll be great for the ISL if it has a proper sprinkling of homegrown talent. It’s not essential but it’s absolutely desirable.“
That evening, I witness a sea of Manchester United and Liverpool supporters cheering on their clubs from the nearby MMRDA Grounds, It’s the kind of fan-involving event Scudamore is planning to unleash on the desi Premier League fan across cities in India.Robin van Persie has just scored and a major portion of the young, flag-waving, boisterous crowd could well have been at New Trafford. “This is amazing, really,“ Scudamore says, having exchanged his morning coffee cup for an evening pint of beer. A smaller screen at a less crowded part of the grounds is showing the ongoing FC Goa-Athletico de Kolkata match. “Wonder what the score there is,“ and proceeds to tell me how he’s a Bristol City supporter. “No, it’s not in the Premier League,“ he tells me with a wan smile. “There’s hope for my Mohun Bagan AC still, I reckon“, I tell him as we watch the merriment below.