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IPL 2021: Fans gear up to become the virtual 12th man

Cricket lovers may not be able to pack the stands this year but they are all set to get a piece of the action online

IPL Trophy during the 2021 Indian Premier League player auction, at the Hotel ITC Grand Chola in Chennai, on Thursday. (ANI Photo/IPL Twitter)

Big-money cricketers, mega fixtures and another exciting run-up to the most coveted trophy in Twenty20 cricket, the 2021 Indian Premier League (IPL) is here. The season starts on 9 April, with the Mumbai Indians taking on the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in Chennai. The world’s biggest T20 tournament returns to India after being held in the United Arab Emirates last year, but due to covid-19 restrictions, all the matches will be played behind closed doors this time too.

That, however, hasn’t stopped official fan clubs and supporter groups from planning their participation in the month-long tournament—everything from virtual watch parties on Zoom to WhatsApp groups for fans to express their opinions. Almost all the eight franchises have dedicated clubs and supporter groups that bring together millions of fans from across the world. Prabhu Damodharan, co-founder of the Whistle Podu Army, the official Chennai Super Kings (CSK) fan club, says their wait to see their team and M.S. Dhoni in action from the stands seems to get longer every year. “It has been really unfortunate over the last couple of years…. As a cricket-loving community, Chennai lost the opportunity to see CSK play (from the stands). Now, with the pandemic, it’s beyond anyone’s control. But we are happy to see our team on the field rather than not have the IPL at all ” says Damodharan, 41, who lives in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and works in the textile sector.

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Before the current surge in covid-19 cases, the Whistle Podu Army had planned to organise small, physical watch parties, observing the norms on social distancing. But now, says Damodharan, most of the “buzz” will be online. “We don’t want to be a cause for the pandemic to spread further. There will be a lot of activity across all our social media handles but we will also have WhatsApp groups where all our members, including the overseas ones, will join for fan discussions,” adds Damodharan, who co-founded the Whistle Podu Army in 2015. Today, the fan group has 1.4 million followers on Instagram and close to 230,000 followers on Twitter. “The idea is to get everyone together. Each CSK fan is the same for us.”

Fans of the Delhi Capitals participate in a live, online watch party during the recent IPL player auction.
Fans of the Delhi Capitals participate in a live, online watch party during the recent IPL player auction.

CSK’s arch rivals, the RCB, have their own fierce fan groups. Prathamesh Avachare, from Nashik, Maharashtra, co-founded the RCB Bold Brigade in 2018 with fellow supporter Dileep Kalathil, who is from Kerala. This year, the Bold Brigade will host watch parties online and focus on generating video content for its social media handles. “We are planning to organise watch parties on Zoom during all the RCB matches. Everyone will be tuned to the game and we can record their reactions this way. There are also plenty of fan engagement activities—involving them for match reviews and their views on the team,” says Avachare, who also founded the Virat Gang fan club in 2012. “There will be 15-20 fans on board for every match so that we can involve more and more people during the tournament,” says the 25-year-old, who runs a digital marketing business. With merchandise giveaways and pre-match discussions, Avachare is hoping to highlight the fan’s perspective. The RCB Bold Brigade and Virat Gang have a collective reach of more than 900,000 fans across the different social media handles.

This year, broadcaster Star India, along with its R&D arm Star Lab, is also introducing a slew of technologies to enhance the fan-viewing experience. “In terms of viewing and camera work, our motion-based cameras, like the Spidercam, the drone cam and buddy cam—which move around the stadiums—can now be more liberal with their movement since there’s more empty space in the stands. They will be able to capture the action quite differently,” says Sanjog Gupta, head, sports, Star India.

With features such as the “Fan Wall 2.0” and “Cheer@home2.0”—an audience engagement platform on Star/Disney+ Hotstar—fans will be able to experience a stadium-like environment. The Cheer@home2.0 feature, for instance, will collect reaction data from fans to trigger custom chants at the stadiums for their teams and players. Gupta adds, “We are trying to get the viewers closer to the game than ever before and treat every viewer at home as a fan in the stadium.”

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