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A Hockey India League match between Dabang Mumbai (blue) and Punjab Warriors in Mumbai on 24 January. Photo: PTI
A Hockey India League match between Dabang Mumbai (blue) and Punjab Warriors in Mumbai on 24 January. Photo: PTI

So, whose flag are you waving?

Deciphering the phenomenon that is city-based sports leagues and why they score over more traditional domestic tournaments

Just over a year ago, I wandered into South Mumbai, to Mumbai Hockey Association stadium, to watch a hockey match. It was the final (my column on it, Indian hockey: The curious case of the Bombay Gold Cup) of the 50th edition of the Bombay Gold Cup. Bharat Petroleum steamrolled CAG, 6-1. About 300 people watched.

A couple of weeks ago, I wandered south again, to the same stadium, to watch another hockey match. This was a contest in the Hockey India League—not the final or anything like that, just another league match. Dabang Mumbai beat Punjab Warriors 10-6. About 3,000 people, I’d say, watched.

I went to both games because I like hockey. I also went so as to get a sense of this phenomenon of city-based leagues that’s taking over sport after sport in India. Why the difference in audience size, I wondered. After all, it’s the same game of hockey they play in either tournament. Well, apart from some tweaked rules, that is. In the Hockey India League (HIL), for example, each field goal is worth two points, whereas a goal off a penalty corner is worth just one. Confusingly, they call these points goals—so when a team scores a field goal, they really score two goals. In any case, you can see the reason for this rule change: it gives teams an incentive to shoot field goals. So if both teams are striving to score those, it should improve the flow of the game and produce a more exciting contest.

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Not that the un-tweaked game doesn’t produce exciting hockey, though. At its best, hockey is swift, athletic and filled with constantly switching momentum, regardless of the goals scored. So I haven’t yet understood why the regulation HIL game attracts easily 10 times the crowd that the final of a long-running tournament does.

Fair enough, that final last year featured two teams that few would get passionate about. What emotion does the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General evoke? Or Bharat Petroleum? None. In that sense, it’s likely that the 300 who came to see that match were diehard hockey fans, folks who just wanted to see a good game.

But for me, that reasoning falls apart with the experience of several Ranji Trophy cricket matches I’ve watched over the years. Each one featured my city’s team, each one played out in my city’s premier cricket stadium…and each one attracted, most of the time, no more than a few dozen fans.

So, it’s not just hockey teams that represent obscure government organizations that struggle to drum up fans’ passions. A Mumbai cricket team also struggles.

But not the Mumbai Indians IPL team. They have raucous fans who wave flags and beat drums and shout and scream at their games—much like the fans at the HIL game from a couple of weeks ago.

And yet the other truth about the teams in these leagues is that their players are drawn from all over India—indeed, all over the world. Take Dabang Mumbai: the team has on its roster players from Ireland, Australia, Germany, Sweden and New Zealand, besides Indians from Bhopal, Allahabad, Amritsar, and elsewhere.

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Not just that, either. Typically, many of these players play for different teams in different seasons. For example, Dabang’s Danish Mujtaba— born in Allahabad—has played for the HIL Chennai Cheetahs and the Delhi Waveriders in the past.

Not that this doesn’t happen in the more traditional domestic tournaments. In the Ranji Trophy, players like Amol Muzumdar and Sairaj Bahutule have gone on to play for other teams after playing for Mumbai. Yet, it’s still true that in any given Ranji team, most of the players have their roots—cricket and otherwise — there. Thus, you could legitimately say that they do actually represent that particular city.

Not true with the IPL and the HIL and the other new sports leagues.

So, when the rosters of such teams change every season, as they do, remember the paradox of the Ship of Theseus and ask: in what sense does Dabang Mumbai remain Dabang Mumbai? In what sense do teams like the Mumbai Indians and Dabang Mumbai represent the city whose name they take? When fans cheer for them as passionately as they do, what exactly are they cheering for?

Like with so much else, the answer seems to me to boil down to marketing. A Dabang Mumbai home game is a more than a game. It is a spectacle—complete with orchestrated cheers; flags and other wave-able things being handed out; T-Shirts and other merchandise to buy; contests to try your hand at; sponsor’s lounges to, well, lounge about in; a kind of stage where a manic performer screams and leaps about after every two Mumbai goals and you know when they get those two goals.

At the match I attended, there were even smartly dressed waiters taking food on trays to the VVIP section, and even a solemn-looking official walking about there, handing little boxes to the kids. The boxes contained hockey balls stamped with the team name. Somehow Dabang has managed to use all this to build enthusiasm and a fan following, just as other teams in the HIL have done. (There was a fair sprinkling of initially cheery but later despondent Punjab Warriors fans at the game, too.)

Just as they—and indeed, professional teams around the globe—have found, fans get pumped up with all the razzmatazz.

Still, what are these fans cheering? A real team? An idea of a team? A name? A brand? What?

I don’t have an answer. But the game is one exciting experience. Certainly I’ll go to another at some point. Only, don’t ask me to wave the Dabang flag.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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