Mohammed Naif Amoodi, 22, lugs his laptop wherever he goes. The freelanceprogrammer from Hyderabad doesn’t need the Compaq Presario to punch code so much as live out his passion: a fan website dedicated to India’s top wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
The site, www.dhonixpress.com—“it’s not a blog, it’s a complete site,” he defends— is just one of the many fan sites and blogs by Indian cricket buffs to keep each other posted on their icons’ latest feats. They run campaigns in players’ defence when the going’s tough for them. Or conduct polls over contentious issues such as who should succeed cricket coach Greg Chappell.Some hope, that in the long run, they might make some money from ads.
There’s some irony in cyberspace because much as cricket has been likened to a religion in India, the sport’s governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)—the richest cricket board in the world—doesn’t yet have an official website to quench the thirst of fans such as Amoodi for the latest information, or even generate revenues through online ads.
Meanwhile, less popular sports such as soccer, and even lesser known sports such as motor racing, have tapped the Internet to develop a following. In some cases, because fans are so spread out, they connect with each other on the web or even log on to find out if there are any offerings in India of obscure sports, from darts to boxing.
Some of India’s top football clubs have their own portals— Mohun Bagan of Kolkata will begin online merchandising of club jerseys, balls and bags in a month. And Formula car racer Akhil Khushlani, only 17, is using his personal portal to make his name and goodlooks familiar to the advertising and marketing world; he’s already negotiating a modelling contract.
BCCI vice-president Lalit Modi says the board is awaiting the “final report” of consulting and services firm Accenture India, entrusted with shortlisting and appointing a company to host the long-awaited BCCI website. “It’ll be out any day now,” he says. And, Modi adds, the board’s looking at the portal as a merchandising tool.
Unlike players such as Kevin Pietersen and Monty Panesar from other cricketing nations, no member of the Indian cricket team has his personal website. Online advertising on Pietersen’s website, www.kevinpietersen.com, with images and full contact details set in a box costs £750 (Rs60,000) before value-added tax annually; an online “classified” link advertisement describes products and services and includes a link to the advertiser’s web costs of £500.
In the absence of similar sites in India, hosted either by players or the board, the fans have taken over—despite the expenses. “Running it is costing me a lot at the moment,” says Arjun Marri of his blog www.tendulkar.co.in, dedicated to star cricketer SachinTendulkar.
A few advertisements courtesy Google’s ad-placing service that offers bloggers and people that run their own site the option of featuring ads related to the content in return for a small fee, offset a part of Marri’s expenses and contribute between Rs1,500 and Rs3,000 a month depending on whether India’s playing or not; the rest comes from the pocket of this 24-year-old web developer, also a Hyderabad resident like Amoodi.
Amoodi says he wouldn’t have hosted the Dhoni fan site if the cricketer had his personal portal. “It would be very difficult for an unofficial site to compete with an official one,” he says.
The youth pays $50 (Rs2,050) a month for hosting the site as “the bandwidth consumption is a lot” on account of the site’s high hit rate.
But he needn’t worry; Jeet Banerjee, managing director of celebrity management firm Gameplan Sports that represents Dhoni, concedes he has never thought of having an official site for his star client. Maybe sometime in the future, Banerjee says.
India has few Internet users compared with television viewers. Even the most optimistic estimate available puts the number of Internet users in the country at 55 million. In contrast, the country has at least 500 million television viewers. And Indian sports might be undeveloped in cyberspace for a reason: the Indian online merchandising market hasn’t developed to justify advising clients to host personal sites, says Anirban Das Blah, chief executive of celebrity management firm Globosports that handlescricketers Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan and tennis icon Sania Mirza.
“Makes no sense other than ego glorification,” he says.
Despite his stated lack of interest in personal portals, even Blah has accepted the immense marketing potential of the Internet, and speaks of a “big announcement” related to a client and the Internet. He wouldn’t offer details.
Yet, while the current lot of cricketers stays away from leveraging their brand equity in cyberspace, a former player, the swashbuckling Krishnamachari Srikkanth, says he’s making a bundle from his portal www.krishcricket.com.
Born last June out of his 23-year-old son Aditya’s obsession with the Internet, Srikkanth’s portal has fantasy games developed by his software company Krish Infotek in Chennai for competition among registered members; the contests have prizes that include colour television sets and DVD players, driving membership to more than 80,000.
TCL Corp., a consumer electronics enterprise based in China with revenues of $6.6 billion, advertises on Srikkanth’s site, as does Korean apparel trading company DYC International Co.
The player-commentator-entrepreneur won’t say how much he charges. “Let’s just say we are doing very well,”he says.
Soccer club Mohun Bagan’s website www.mohunbaganac.com was started a month after Srikkanth’s; club secretary Anjan Mitra says it’s more than an avenue for disseminating information on the club started in 1884—it’s also a business venture.
Official gear, currently sold from the club premises, will be available for online sale within a month, he says. Inviting online advertisements was also a top priority.
Even more and more Indian Formula car racers are taking to personal portals. India’s number two racer Karun Chandhok’s website, www.karunchandhok.com, gives him a platform to improve his connect with the media and fans; but, like Globosports’ Blah, he too believes a very small segment of the population buy online.
Yet, thanks to the website, his fan mail has increased, and followers of the sport send mails from countries as distant as Bulgaria, the CzechRepublic and Slovakia. As the traffic increases, so does Chandhok’s brand value among his sponsors.
Teen racer Khushlani needs a website to cement his profile. His father Dinesh Khushlani, who also doubles up as his manager, says the website attracts sponsors looking for a fresh face. “We need money, the sport is very expensive, not only to pursue it, but even when one’s learning the ropes as a rookie,” Khushlanisenior says. His son, in his reckoning “a smart kid”, has already attracted a leading apparel label. Talks are on for the young racer to be an ambassador for the brand. “We are trying to go the ad way, Akhil will have to shake a leg… one really doesn’t mind doing it.”