Will India ever fully embrace football or horse racing?

Cricket has been lodged firmly into position as the top sport in India since living memory and the inception of the Indian Premier League has only entrenched its position among supporters young and old. Superstars such as Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli have taken pride and place in the hearts of youngsters growing up in the country’s cities and towns.

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The IPL continues to be a giant, drawing huge attendance and television audiences. It’s so popular that last season’s increase in viewing figures of 11% – which most would consider a massive leap – was seen in India as a disappointing flop. However, there is speculation that football is on the rise in India. Studies and certain football experts in the region, including World Cup winner Lotthar Matthaus, believe young people in India are beginning to take a deeper interest in the sport.

More viewers means more players

Whether it revolves around going to the game or watching matches on the television, there have been notable rises in attendance figures in the I-League, while the accessibility of English Premier League matches on StarSports also encourages further interest. Unlike in England, where 3 pm Saturday matches have restricted access, Indian fans can watch the team of their choice. Given the Premier League season runs for 10 months of the year – compared to the relatively short stint that the IPL plays out – it could reverse the trend in popularity.

Cricket draws the majority of young men away from Indian football, depriving the latter of talent that could see standards at all levels of the sport shoot up. But the new generation is showing signs that it can be convinced otherwise and that means big things for football nationwide.

Other sports could see changes, too

Society as a whole is becoming based around televised entertainment. Staying in is becoming the new going out and a regular product on television can bring about a change in culture, making it possible that other major sports could break into the zeitgeist, potentially catching up with cricket, too.

After football, major horse racing events dominate the television landscape globally: companies battle over the rights to Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot. It remains to be seen whether those would resonate in India as well as football is beginning to, although similar types of supporters in the United Kingdom follow both sports so passionately that the two easily combine to create some interesting runner names, even tipping the odds. There are plenty of fans of both sports, who can be swayed (somewhat superstitiously) towards the horse whose name captures their football colors. Such a tight link elsewhere suggests India’s football fans could well develop this cross-interest, too.

Football prevails for now

There are already racing venues in every major city, including Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai among others. However, racing caters to a particular audience and, unlike football, does not have the universality of being played by youngsters in the street. So it seems the majority would have an allegiance to cricket over horse racing, but that football could well steal the limelight in India.

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