When the creation of the Indian inter-city cricket league, the IPL was announced, it came as no surprise that a few of these teams were ‘owned’ by Bollywood celebrities. Cricket is a national passion in India, and marriage with Bollywood was sufficient, if not necessary for the success of the new league. No doubt, the promise of riches played its part, but popular and personal appeal must have been substantial factors, given that time given to promoting the IPL would have necessarily detracted from their film-making schedules.
In this context, the participation of Bollywood and other Indian celebrities in the Indian Super League must be contrasted to their apathy to the Hockey India League. In terms of national history and popularity, hockey certainly outstrips football by a large margin. There are local exceptions, notably: Kolkata, Goa and some North Eastern states. But the point remains, hockey has a notable history in India, and some of the games greatest players, Dhyan Chand, Dhanraj Pillay, Leslie Claudius, Balbir Singh among others have played for India. By contrast, soccer has no such history in India. The national men’s team was among the best in Asia in the 1950s and 60s, but there is not much of a notable history beyond that.
The question then is, why is the Indian elite so invested in the Indian Super League ? Why did it completely ignore the Indian hockey leagues despite clear evidence of them being more popular than any soccer programming1 ? One might find an answer in the culture of metro India which is increasingly disconnected from the India-Bharat of smaller towns and cities, and the Bharat of villages. The Ranbir Kapoors, Abhishek Bachchans and Virat Kohlis of the world have grown up in a metro Indian middle class which is intimately connected with global capital and entertainment, of which European soccer has emerged as one of the major poles. In fact, the English Premier League is one of the biggest exports of England and a major source of European influence in contemporary East and South East Asia. Also, the World Cup of football has emerged as one of the biggest and most important global events in the last twenty years.
Not surprisingly, emotional and consequently financial investment in a European soccer team is a characteristic of the metro Indian. Thus the enthusiastic participation of Indian celebrities in the Indian Super League is not surprising, even though the risk in financial investment is considerably larger than the hockey league. But it reveals an unsettling feature of our globalized metro society. It comes across as nothing but a deeply exploitative economic and social arrangement, where an elite that rules in the name of the national mass only uses it for profit, but is far more invested in the culture of a limited ‘global’ order.
1: The number of viewers for the World Series Hockey (pre cursor to the Hockey India League) was far higher than even the EPL telecasts in India. See here: http://bharatiyahockey.org/2012/apr2012.html