Over the next few months, advertisers will closely watch people such as Nishant Raj, a 15-year-old student in an upscale New Delhi school who follows football “like a religion". He swears as much by Manchester United as any teenager his age and doesn’t miss a single game of the English Premier League (EPL) or other European leagues.

Handy work: Workers at a factory in Meerut near Delhi hand-stitch footballs, still the preferred method for many manufacturers.

Raj stands on the periphery of a group, aged 20-35, that will form the target demographic for advertisers as they count down to one of the planet’s biggest sporting events: the 2010 Fifa World Cup. This is a small, urban group but a rapidly growing one; youngsters such as Raj now thickly populate India’s schools, colleges and offices. During the World Cup in June-July, they will form a rewarding audience for advertisers.

How quickly India’s cadre of football devotees has grown can be gauged by the price paid for the 2010 World Cup telecast rights in the subcontinent. ESPN-Star Sports bought these rights for $40 million (Rs184 crore now); the rights to the 2006 World Cup were sold for $8 million. The 2002 edition went for $3 million.

Major tournaments such as the World Cup, says an ESPN-Star Sports official who did not want to be identified, have generated television ratings comparable with those of Indian Test matches; the Barclays Premier League had higher ratings than the Champions League Twenty20 last year. The viewership of the EPL in India “has grown by 18% over the same period as against last year. The number of viewers in India have grown from 32.5 million last year to 38.5 million in 2009," says the official.

Little wonder that football is such an attractive avenue for advertising. “India is increasingly a busy nation, where people do not have too much time to spend on one particular sport," says Sai Nagesh, the chief growth officer and head of operations at Dentsu Media India, the media buying arm of Dentsu India.

“Given the number of cricket matches that will be played during the year (300 days of cricket, by one count), I feel the sponsorship in cricket matches will decline in 2010," adds Nagesh.

For some time now, observers have been waiting for this affection for international football to spread to the domestic field. So far, the wait has largely been in vain. Nike chose to become the official sponsor of the Indian football team’s uniform but it still prefers to sell new Manchester United jerseys rather than Indian colours. Bharti Airtel Ltd promotes Manchester United content via its mobile services, but its agreement with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to establish a football academy collapsed over land disputes.

“We have not been able to sell our product as a business venture," says Baichung Bhutia, captain of the Indian football team, and the sport’s most recognized Indian face. “Corporates will only come if there is a business viability, which they cannot see fully now."

Five years ago, Zee Sports bought the exclusive rights to telecast every domestic football game played under the aegis of AIFF. This included the Federation Cup, Santosh Trophy, National Football League (now I-League) and the Super Cup. Even today, this package has been difficult to monetize.

“Sponsorship continues to be a problem, and big ticket sponsors are still hard to come by," says Atul Pande, chief executive of the sports business at Essel Group, of which Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd is a part. “The World Cup is a high-decibel game which generates excitement. We hope to take advantage of the momentum created by the World Cup (for the I-League)."

Bhutia has mixed feelings about the effect of the World Cup in India. He thinks it will lead to immediate comparisons between international and domestic football, which happen after every World Cup. “It is natural to compare the two levels of the game, but people don’t see the lack of infrastructure and systems at the grass-roots level," says Bhutia. “This hampers the viewership of Indian football." But there is a definite silver lining: “Many youngsters watching international football are then inspired to play," he adds.