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Football and India — a friendly match

Pia Heikkila, The National

December 18, 2011

Cricket-mad India has found a new passion – football. Local games and international tournaments alike are attracting a huge following, and young wannabe David Beckhams can be seen kicking balls in parks and streets across the country.

This popularity of"the beautiful game" has not gone unnoticed by those overseas, with major English football clubs lining up to cash in by launching merchandise outlets in the country.

Manchester United is leading the charge. The club has tied up with the Bangalore company Indus-League Clothing, which is part of the Future Group, to set up two United stores in Mumbai and one in Kolkata. A United-themed cafe is already open in Mumbai.

Rachna Aggarwal, the chief executive of Indus-League says football’s growing popularity in India is the reason for the deal with United.

"Football in India is seeing a lot of action," Ms Aggarwal says. "There was a Fifa friendly match held recently between Argentina and Venezuela in Calcutta [Kolkata]. Liverpool and Barcelona are set to open schools for training kids, and Manchester United has already started. In addition, there are a lot of schools who give professional training for football."

Other clubs are getting in on the action. Blackburn Rovers, which is owned by the Indian poultry chain Venky’s, plans to begin selling its club merchandise soon in India. Liverpool has signed a deal with Carnoustie Group to launch shops and cafes.

It’s easy to see why the clubs are jumping on the bandwagon: there is huge scope for growth. India’s sportswear segment was estimated at about US$900 million (Dh3.3 billion) last year and is expected to grow to $2.4bn by 2015, according to Ernst & Young India.

The market is still at a nascent stage, says Pinakiranjan Mishra, a partner at Ernst & Young India.

"Cricket is by far the most popular sport in India, and football still doesn’t occupy a lot of mind space. So this will be a very limited and niche market in India," Mr Mishra says. "However, with increasing popularity of football and investment in advertising and promotion, this sector could see a healthy growth in the future."

It has been a slow start for the sportswear and merchandise sector, but cricket merchandise has paved the way.

"India opened up to the sports merchandise market long ago when T-shirts of the Indian cricket team were available in stores," Raghu B Viswanath, the managing director at the Vertebrand consultancy. Although cricket has dominated this scene since some time, there is a huge scope for other types of sports merchandise and overseas brands to come in due to growth in India’s exposure to other sports and sporting events."

The club merchandisers have been waiting in the wings to watch the big global brands kick things off.

"A lot of brands like Nike, Reebok, Puma have done well in India. The value of the market is still low, but is expected to grow tremendously in the near future," says Saloni Nangia, a senior vice president at the consultancy Technopak. "With rising consciousness among people about being fit and being into sports … the opportunity certainly exists."

Analysts say brands such as Manchester United can gain popularity in India if they build a lifestyle profile rather than a strictly sports image.

"Reebok, adidas, Nike, Puma are some of the popular brands in the sportswear segment in India that entered India early on," says Tarang Gautam Saxena, a consultant at the retail advisory agency Third Eyesight. "While their initial positioning was based around being leaders of functional products driven by technology, they, too, have increasingly moved towards being sports-inspired lifestyle brands."

Indus-League Clothing wants fans to live and breathe Manchester United with the help of the club’s merchandise.

"The Indian fans see this brand as a premium lifestyle sports brand and wear it with pride. The brand will be a complete lifestyle offering of apparels, accessories, home linen and sports accessories in India," Ms Aggarwal says.

The Indian sportswear market differs from the more mature western markets because the Indian consumer is primarily a sports spectator rather than a sports participant. "The Indian sportswear market is more of a non-active casual-sportswear market. Acceptance of active and technical sportswear in India is rather low. In the casual-sportswear category, we foresee a robust market growth," Ms Nangia says.

Football’s popularity in India is rising, audience figures suggest. TAM Media Researchsays 20 million television viewers watched last year’s Fifa World Cup on the first two days of the competition in South Africa, a 35 per cent increase from the 2006 World Cup. A total of nearly 300 million television viewers in India saw the Fifa World Cup last year, TAM Media says.

Shushmul Maheshwari, the chief executive of RNCOS, a market research company, says events such as the World Cup can be great marketing tools and that the rise of internet and satellite television has helped to create brand awareness in the football merchandise sector.

"Things were very different 20 years ago when our exposure was limited to domestic brands or the odd cricket T-shirt," Mr Maheshwari says. "Today kids get internet on their phones and can access the latest information on their favourite clubs [and] can see the latest team-wear in an instant."

As a result, marketers today have created opportunities for fans to show their loyalty.

"There are now new avenues for these enthusiasts to socialise and show their support for the favourite teams, such as social networking sites and upcoming sports bars, lounges and clubs," says Mr Viswanath from Vertebrand.

But despite the enthusiasm showed by the clubs to interact with their fans, most genuine brands are still out of the reach of those in the lower middle class.

"They are too expensive for the masses. It will take a little time for the market to mature. In the meantime, people still want to show their devotion so the masses will buy rip-off products because they love the brand but can not afford to buy the real thing," says Mr Maheshwari.

The deal-making and partnerships are essential because of the country’s strict limits on foreign retailers operating in the country. The Indian government has decided to suspend the recently announced easing of restriction on foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector.

"The restrictive FDI regulations may have been an impediment for brands that are looking to have a greater degree of control and management in their own hands," Ms Saxena, the Third Eyesight consultant.

"The enhanced limit of FDI in retail, whenever it happens, will encourage many such brands to enter the Indian market."

(This article appeared in The National.)

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