The Fifa Under-17 World Cup that got under way last week was always going to throw up a lot of questions. How, for example, would the young Indian team fare against stronger, better-prepared opponents? Or which new once-in-a-generation footballer would be unearthed? Would we see the next Lionel Messi or Mesut Özil or Neymar in action?

There’s one question, however, that has overshadowed all of these: Are the organizers actively trying to keep this tournament a secret? Given the scale of the event—it’s arguably the biggest football event India has hosted—there’s little or no buzz about it. The tournament has barely begun, but it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to already term it a colossal marketing failure.

Which is terribly unfortunate given what a massive opportunity this is.

Over the last few years, India’s top sports broadcaster, Star, has shown that there is a way to bring other sports out of the giant shadow cricket casts (disclaimer: the writer was formerly employed with Star India). A lot of what it has done is simple but effective, like focusing on creating heroes, generating excitement, and building engaging storylines. Some of the coverage might come across as over-the-top, and all that excitement does on occasion feel manufactured, but the bottom line is that it seems to be working.

Almost entirely on the back of marketing, sports like kabaddi and domestic football have become sexy.

The marketing around the World Cup seems almost apologetic in comparison. In Goa, you see hoardings only as you get closer to the Fatorda stadium in the south. There’s almost no visibility in the tourist belt up north (which is a pity because spending an evening watching top-quality football would probably seem quite appealing to families who have flown down for a few days).

In the lead-up to the tournament, the local organizing committee had maintained that since it didn’t have a large marketing budget, its focus would be on on-ground activities in schools and colleges that would directly help create buzz and fill up the stadiums.

This would have been okay if the only target was to fill up stadiums—it’s not such a big challenge to find 15,000-20,000 hard-core football fans in any given city—but in terms of taking the sport to a larger audience, it’s safe to say that this strategy hasn’t worked.

This lack of hype has had a direct impact on the size of crowds. None of the venues has seen a full house, despite the games being “sold out" to the general public.

As the organizing committee pointed out in a statement earlier this week, a large chunk of tickets go to corporate sponsors, participating nations and associates.

It’s likely that people who got these freebies didn’t show up for the games (it’s hard to imagine someone buying tickets and then not turning up). Chances are they’re not showing up because they aren’t excited about the tournament. That lack of excitement is a direct result of the lack of imagination involved in packaging and selling this event to the larger public.

The less said about the stadium experience the better. In Delhi, where India took on the US in their opener, last Friday, students were drinking water out of taps in the toilets because there was no other water available.

Last month, India officially put in a bid to host the Fifa Under-20 World Cup that will be held in 2019. They will have to do a better job selling the idea to Fifa than they have done selling this tournament to potential fans here.

Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.

Close