Let’s Football India

The rise of a footballing nation

The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi, packed to capacity, reverberates with the roar of 37,000 voices counting down in unison. 21 million more are watching the live broadcast from the comfort of their living rooms.

 A feisty drum roll, struggling to be heard over the noise of the crowd, announces the grand opening of season 4 of the Hero Indian Super League. Over the next four months, millions of Indian viewers will watch ten teams from across the country battle it out for top honours in India’s unrivalled football championship. There will be tales of loss and heartbreak, but there will also be stories of redemption and overcoming the odds. New footballing heroes will emerge and take their rightful place alongside the legends of Indian football.

For many Indians, this will be their first taste of the rollercoaster that is football fandom. They will finally know the depths of emotion that this game evokes, emotions that once compelled Scottish footballing legend Sir Alex Ferguson to exclaim the iconic phrase… “football, bloody hell!”

“We believe that the future is football and Hero ISL is a bridge to that future”
Sanjay Gupta, MD, Star India

Big dreams, bigger realities

Football first made its way onto Indian shores in the 1880s, when the first clubs in the country were founded in the then imperial capital of Kolkata.

The Durand Cup, founded in 1888, is actually the third oldest football competition in the world after the English and Scottish FA Cup. There have been some impressive highs for Indian football over the years - Mohun Bagan’s 1911 victory over the East Yorkshire regiment, a gold medal in the inaugural 1951 Asian Games, Mohammedan Sporting Club’s 1960 win in the Aga Khan Cup. But, even as football grew to become the most popular sport in the world, in cricket-crazy India, it was relegated to the margins. India’s century-old footballing culture teetered on the brink of extinction, its illustrious history and traditions kept alive by a small core of die-hard fans in West Bengal, Kerala and the North Eastern states.

In 2013, as part of our mission to turn India into a multi-sports nation, Star Sports set out to make Indian football great again. We partnered with IMG Reliance to launch the Hero India Super League, a professionally run, world-class footballing competition that aims to help transform India from a perennial also-ran to a rising Asian footballing power. “We at Star believe that the future is football and Hero Indian Super League is a bridge to that future,” says Sanjay Gupta, Managing Director, Star India. “I dream that in ten years, children of our country will stick posters of ISL players on their walls alongside those of international stars such as Wayne Rooney.”

From the beginning, the Hero Indian Super League has brought glamour, prestige and respect to the game in India. Over 10 stadiums across the country were refurbished to international standards, with all the amenities you could want for both players and fans. We gave the best Indian footballers the opportunity to play alongside hand-picked global footballing stars, under the watchful eyes of international coaches, raising the quality of competition and giving them a chance to learn new skills along the way. The visibility Hero ISL provided to the sport has also brought in investment by brands like Hero, DHL and Maruti Suzuki, providing much-needed money for infrastructure and grassroots development. “There’s been a 103% rise in player fees over the past four years, and elite football players in India can earn more than some VIVO IPL players now,” says Akshat Sahu, Head of Football Marketing, Star India. “We’ve also seen the number of professional footballers go from less than a 100 to over 600. So you have a better competitive scenario, you have a better career path. Today, a 15-year-old kid can look forward to having a career in football, because he knows he has a chance to join an ISL team and earn 30-40 lakh a year.”

Let’s Play Ball

But investment into infrastructure and salaries can only take you so far. If India is to become a true footballing power, we need to get more and more Indians involved, both as players and as fans. So our first campaign, 'Let’s Football', focused on building a national narrative and getting all of India interested in the sport.

Eminent personalities like Sachin Tendulkar, M.S. Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Sourav Ganguly, Abhishek Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor were convinced by our vision for the sport and signed up as team owners, their star power adding to the glamour of Indian football.

“The idea is to keep expanding the footprint of football in the country,” says Akshat Sahu. “The first two years, we focused on consolidating and growing the sport in the core markets. The last 2 years, we’re identifying new potential markets like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and helping them grow.”

For season 3 and 4, Star hired local agencies in different regions to look at each market, find out what their fans want or need, and conceptualise and execute campaigns specific to each market based on these insights. For the first time in India, we offered football commentary in languages other than English and Hindi. And it wasn’t just commentary. We hired local football experts and teamed them up with international analysts, providing a good balance of local knowledge and world-class expertise.

Most importantly, we realised that Indian football will live or die on the back of its footballing heroes. So for the past two years, we have worked hard to identify the country’s most talented players and introduce them to the rapidly growing football fanbase. Many of these players came from nothing, but today they are icons to young fans all over the country. Kerala-born Anas Edathodika who once drove an auto rickshaw to sustain himself is now one of the leading football stars in the country. Meghalaya’s Eugenson Lyngdoh had given up his studies to pursue football and is now earning the rewards. Mizoram’s Jeje Lalpekhlua has put Mizoram on the map. In the coming years, these players - and many others - will take Indian football to new heights.

Future Hai Football

Tens of millions tune in to the live broadcasts on Star Sports and Hotstar, with the audience growing steadily year on year. The season 4 opening game had a 70% higher viewership than the opening game for season 3, and viewership on Hotstar tripled in that time.

The results are also visible on the field. There are many more young men and women playing football at a competitive level. India has also qualified for the 2019 Asian Games. The men’s team’s FIFA ranking has jumped up to 97 from 173. And that’s only the beginning.

As part of the Indian government’s Khelo India campaign, we want 300 million children to take up football. Our vision for the next five years includes seeing India become a force to be reckoned with in Asia, and for Indian football heroes to be recognised in the same way a cricket star is today.

“At Star, our sports philosophy is ‘Believe',” says Sanjay Gupta, MD, Star. “Football, a game that hobbled on the fringes of Indian sports, is now amongst the most popular. Star strongly believes in creating local heroes, inspiring Indians to believe greatness is possible through sports. Together, we can create a country where football becomes a passion.”

Imagine more
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