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Letter from... whatshisname

Though the IPL team names—flashing in front of our faces for a decade—have made a mark, the other teams/sports haven’t yet managed to. Photo: HT
Though the IPL team names—flashing in front of our faces for a decade—have made a mark, the other teams/sports haven’t yet managed to. Photo: HT

After plodding through two one-sided, rather boring matches—the French Open tennis final between Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka and India’s win over South Africa in the Champions Trophy—I looked for something more action-packed last Sunday. This was initially a bit difficult because our service provider has been a bit mercurial off late—happens in this monsoon season—and has been giving us access to unsubscribed material, like cricket in Tamil. 

After flipping through channels where a lady was selling a vibrating belt to flatten the tummy, an agitated news anchor who looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel and a Telugu film dubbed in Hindi, the only seemingly sensible thing I could find to watch was an old recording of the TV show Friends

It was the episode in which this character Ross is marrying Emily but calls her Rachel (a former girlfriend) by mistake (habit?) at the altar. Obviously things don’t end up very well for Ross, but it reminded me of the number of times I have been called Arjun, which has only caused minor irritation. 

So do names really matter? Why do we get mixed up with them (people call me Arjun because there are too many Ns and Rs in my name)? Many believe names are pointless—they tell you nothing about the person. People forget names because they aren’t, for one, paying attention when they hear or read your name. 

Furthermore, it is more difficult to remember names because there are just so many of them—people you know, famous people, work people, people you meet and may never meet again, people you meet and may become your best friends one day, people with same names, people with same sounding names, similar looking people with same or different names... 

Just last week, one such conundrum came up during the launch of the latest Indian sports league—Ultimate Table Tennis. It’s one of over a dozen sports leagues in India currently and as expected, certain names are common across sports and teams. 

Names/words like warriors, royals, sultans, pirates, bulls, panthers, kings and challengers recur often. For example (Italics are mine), there’s Bengal Warriors (Pro Kabaddi League or PKL), Jaypee Punjab Warriors (Hockey India League or HIL), Japan Warriors (International Premier Tennis League or IPTL), Awadhe Warriors (Indian Badminton League or IBL) and Gujarat Warriors (Super Fight League or SFL). Then there’s UAE Royals (IPTL) and NCR Punjab Royals (Pro Wrestling League or PWL); Bengaluru Bulls (PKL) and Chennai Bulls (Poker Sports League or PSL); Jaipur Pink Panthers (PKL) and Delhi Panthers (PSL); Colors Delhi Sultans (PWL) and Haryana Sultans (SFL). You get the drift. 

The deluge of sports leagues in India—since the Indian Premier League got off to a cracking start a decade ago—is a consequence of more money being spent on advertising and sponsorship by large companies and the power of television broadcast. Sponsorship grew by nearly 20% last year, making this a lucrative business to be in. Over the years, several team owners have said that their interest in owning sports teams is both humanitarian and financial—so that they can contribute to the development of the sport and invest in a sure shot winner for the future. 

Each of these leagues comprise between six to 12 teams. So that’s roughly about 80 teams across sports, most of them franchises associated with Indian cities. 

But no one in particular, and quite obviously in retrospect, thought of this Shakespearean question: names. Classification that will repeat across sports, confuse followers and leave us in a haze of doubt.

Sharks—is that a water polo team? Hunters—archery? Spinners—cricket? Marathi—malkhamb? Pirates? Johnny Depp? 

The answer: none of the above is true in this context (for example, Pune Sharks is a poker team). Though the IPL team names—flashing in front of our faces for a decade—have made a mark, the other teams/sports haven’t yet managed to and will struggle to, given the overlaps. 

Names give us identity and exclusivity. One of the consequences of an increasing population and dire need to be different is that people experiment with names so as to be unique. Sohini Chattopadhyay had written in Mint Lounge earlier this year about names in Hindi films falling into a pattern. 

“Kaira, Shyra, Akira, Kia, Tia, Sia. Shanaya. These are Bollywood’s cool new names, broadly classified into the ‘ya’ or ‘ra’ nomenclature… These new names carry an unmistakable aspiration to be global. They are unrooted to place, community or any kind of identity except class. They are almost never longer than three syllables and easy to pronounce. They float on coolness and lightness,” said the article. 

Sports leagues in India too want to be cool and are aspirational—many stakeholders will refer to older leagues in other countries, most probably the English Premier League, as an example of how sports loyalties and businesses will build here. They would affectionately talk about the ‘Spurs’ and the ‘Gunners’ with familiarity while mentioning their favourite clubs. 

But that affection is difficult to replicate here because, one, how do you shorten “Pirates” (Pir? Pates? Rates? Ates?), and two, when you say “Pirates”, do you refer to the PKL (Patna Pirates) or SFL (Goa Pirates)? Three, it’s still too early to feel fondness for a particular team or name. 

Of course, some team names have managed to stand out—notably Ranchi Rays and Goan Nuts—but for the already muddled, their names give little hints of what sport they may be associated with (the former is hockey, the latter poker). DoIT Sports Management, which owns a bunch of teams in a number of sports, adapted by giving all teams the same first name: Dabang. So it’s Dabang Mumbai (HIL), Dabang Delhi (PKL) and Dabang Smashers (UTT). Even if you get confused about the sport, you can be sure of the owners. 

To a certain extent, UTT bucked the trend by not having city-based franchises. Most leagues have the usual suspects—Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru/Bangalore etc.—as teams, so these repeat in the names as well. There is a Delhi team in at least eight leagues, Mumbai in seven, Bengaluru or Bangalore in about four. With table tennis this would not be the case—a minor consolation. 

People don’t really form loyalty based on cities, one of the UTT team chiefs told me, citing the example of M.S. Dhoni, whose Chennai Super Kings fanbase moved to Rising Pune Supergiant when he switched teams in the IPL. So it makes more sense to target big names in players rather than big names in cities to build a fan following, he added. 

Could some of the teams in India have pushed the boundaries by a bit and come up with spectacularly funky names? Don’t we all remember the name of Pinal Shah from the IPL even though he didn’t have that many notable performances? 

If football clubs are an inspiration, why not names like Deportivo Moron (a third division Argentinian team), Hearts of Oak (also known as Phobia, a Ghana club), Fotballaget Fart (a Norwegian football team) or Semen Padang (from Indonesia)? The funniest name I have seen here so far is Oilmax Stag Yoddhas (UTT) and I am not even sure why it’s interesting. 

I feel, illogically of course, that England did well to reach the Champions Trophy semifinal because they have players called Root, Wood, Stokes, Plunkett, Billings, Ball and, of course, Willey. 

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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