Half an hour before the start of an Indian Premier League (IPL) match that pitted Sachin Tendulkar against Virender Sehwag at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla stadium, the star of the moment was not a cricketer, but boxer Vijender Singh.
Populist: (clockwise from above) The final day of the Commonwealth Boxing Championship; boxer Suranjoy Singh; and India at the Hockey World Cup. Photographs by Kamal Kishore / PTI, Saurabh Das / AP and Vijay Verma / PTI.
Six kilometres away, at the Talkatora Indoor Stadium, nearly 3,000 people and a dozen TV camera crews packed the stands to watch Singh battle England’s Frank Buglioni for the middleweight gold at the Commonwealth Boxing Championship. The boisterous crowd screamed and shouted at every flail of Singh’s arms, booing loudly as his nose began to bleed after Buglioni’s hard punch in the first round.
Singh won 13-3, and it was a good evening for the team, with India picking up six golds for their best-ever tally in a boxing championship yet. Flyweight boxer Suranjoy Singh provided the pre-Vijender entertainment with a single-round knockout victory against Oliver Lavigi of Mauritius. India was also declared the “best team” of the tournament, beating England to second place.
The recently concluded FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup saw sold-out matches for India’s ties and the finals—the Dhyan Chand National Stadium has a capacity of approximately 19,200, of which 14,000 seats were available through ticket booking. “The other matches were filled to about 50-70% capacity,” says Rajesh Tandwani of ticket booking service Ticketgenie.
The healthy attendance at both these events could be seen as a resurgence of audience interest in sports other than cricket. But the boxing championship, organizers say, was not cause for celebration—both as a test event for the Commonwealth Games later this year and a bellwether for India as a future venue for boxing championships, a lot of things went wrong. “Championships usually attract about 500 or so boxers, from almost 90 countries. The participation here, with about 80 boxers from 11 countries, was not as good as we’d hoped,” says Kishen Narsi, an executive committee member of the International Boxing Association (Aiba). “The security and infrastructure is, quite frankly, a hindrance. You can’t park your car easily, can’t bring anything inside, can’t walk around freely…but I suppose it’s a part and parcel of holding an event here.” While most of these concerns apply to cricket matches also, it turns off more people from attending less popular sports.
Even though the Talkatora stadium is liberally sprinkled with entrances, exits and walkways, most of these were cordoned off, and large crowds were herded through a single gate and single approach, shuffling along like queues at a temple. No items of any kind were allowed inside, and even wallets and purses had to be emptied of coins before entering. It was a necessary procedure, the head of security said, because of the crowd’s habit of “throwing things into the ring during a match.”
Tickets for three of the six “boxing days” were sold out (a day ticket was priced at Rs100), and an average of 1,800 people came to watch the bouts every day. “Boxing is still in its infancy in India in terms of spectator involvement,” says Narsi, referring both to attendance in numbers and the audience’s understanding of the sport’s mechanics and tactics. Compared with the attendance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where “every session every day” was sold out, he says India still has some way to go.
In the finals, there is only a mild smattering of applause for a well-fought match that does not involve an Indian boxer, even if the winner bags a gold medal. With an Indian boxer in the ring, however, wild hooting and cheering follows every punch thrown, irrespective of how effective it may have been. As Tandwani’s comments indicate, that applies to hockey too—the World Cup games in which the Indian team was playing saw greater attendance and boisterous crowd involvement, the team’s dismal overall performance notwithstanding.
With Jai Ho! blaring from speakers after every round, and cheerleaders dancing near the ring in between matches, the event felt more like a pro wrestling entertainment show than a serious international boxing tournament. “Let’s face it…India has only a few sports ‘followers’—how many people would go watch Sachin Tendulkar play a Ranji Trophy match?” says Manuj Agarwal, the chief operating officer of event management firm Percept D’Mark, the organizer and promoter of the Commonwealth Boxing Championship. Agarwal acknowledges the influence of the IPL. “Right now, sports content outside cricket has to provide entertainment if you want the crowds to come,” he says. “Otherwise you run the risk of making it too technical, like Formula One racing, and alienating a lot of people who might be interested.”
The “entertainment” was slotted in between matches, and even the tickets to the event mentioned them as prominently as the boxing (“Cheerleaders egging them to the finish. World-class DJs spinning tracks to get them into the groove.”). But Agarwal insists the sport remains central. “We’re just building on a strong core,” he says. “We’ve got the poster boys—three Indian boxers in the world top 10—so we knew that there would be interest.” Agarwal wants to take boxing outside the confines of a sports stadium, to “open arenas” and “public places”.
“We hope to keep building crowd participation in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games,” says Narsi. “For a good crowd, you need to get a good calendar of events going in the country.”