Why England’s biggest football clubs are suddenly turning towards India

The Gunners are coming.
The Gunners are coming.
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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Fulham vs Chelsea in New Delhi, or Liverpool vs Manchester City in Mumbai?

Can Robin Van Persie score a brace for United in Kolkata, or can Mesut Özil delight with his trickery in Hyderabad?

The English top flight playing in India might have once been a wild fantasy, but the Premier League is increasingly turning its eye towards the subcontinent.

On Nov. 30, the British tabloid The Daily Star reported that Arsenal Football Club is set to play two friendlies next year in India. The Gunners, as the North London team is known, will face Indian Super League franchises FC Goa and Mumbai City, where Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg ply their trade respectively.

The duo were at the core of of “The Invincibles” in 2004: an Arsenal XI that went a whole season unbeaten and represented coach Arsene Wenger’s attacking philosophy at its finest.

The team embodied modern football at its best: pace and precision, but it also highlighted that the Premier League has a perfect product to sell. The football on display is often furious, dramatic and competitive. And it’s designed for consummation, appreciation and, by extension, fervent support.

Asian expedition

The year before “The Invincibles”, the Premier League started to capitalize on the enormous market that Asia offers with the establishment of the Barclays Asia Trophy, a biennially pre-season tournament hosted in the Far East. Ever since, these lucrative tours have become part and parcel of the Big Four’s pre-season routine—Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.

The last edition of the Trophy in 2013 showed again how receptive the fans were in Hong Kong. They snapped up the tickets, priced between £13 (Rs1,257) and £51 (Rs4,944), to pack the local venue to the rafters and see Manchester City be crowned champions.

The international interest prompts shirts sales, merchandise and leads money-spinning commercial sponsorship deals. Companies, at home and abroad, realize the exposure and benefits that stem from being linked with a Premier League club. Asian businesses such as Samsung, Chang and Goldenway have all accrued massive expenditure in backing Premier League clubs.

It’s a model the Premier League wants to transplant to India.

Welcome to India

The Big Four are now trying to make inroads into India. Manchester United and Chelsea both have held clinics in the country in the past. United, perhaps the most recognizable English football club in Asia, also has eleven stores across India, with a twelfth set to open in Jaipur. Liverpool has a youth academy in Pune, while Arsenal has multiple training centers in New Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

The clubs claim this is for the development of football in India, a philanthropic manner of spreading the gospel of the beautiful game. In reality, however, it’s a business venture aimed at cashing in on the popularity of the Premier League, the most popular league in the world.

It’s broadcast in 212 territories around the world with 80 different broadcasters. The combined TV audience is 4.7 billion of which more than 30% comes from Asia, according to the Premier League’s website. Every weekend, millions of Indian football aficionados religiously watch the league on Star Sports—apparently outnumbering fans watching the games back in England.

The figures dwarf Spain’s La Liga, where only Real Madrid and FC Barcelona have  a global appeal. This October’s El Classico had a global audience of 400 million viewers.

Big numbers

An Arsenal source put it poignantly to the Daily Star: “India is seen very much as an untapped market in terms of revenue streams. There are more than a billion people in the country, so it doesn’t take a lot of working out that there are lots of opportunities as yet unearthed in that part of the world.”

To gauge the India’s appetite for football, one only needs to look at the Indian Super League. Within its first season, it has become the country’s second-most watched sports league—after cricket, of course—with 74.7 million viewers on its launch day and a combined reach of 170.6 million in the first week.

And Indian football fans have turned up at stadiums nationwide in such large numbers that the championship has become the ninth most-attended outdoor professional sports league in the world, in terms of average attendance.

At the same time, the drive towards further overseas expansion is set to continue for England’s top teams. The Big Four’s revenue is growing because of their globetrotting ambitions. Other English clubs simply can’t compete with that kind of financial power. To level the playing field, they will also have to start looking abroad—and towards India.

So soon, FC Goa and Mumbai City might not only be playing just Arsenal, but also Tottenham Hotspur, Hull City and Southampton.