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How ISL football clubs and their fans are surviving the pandemic

As another season gets underway in a bio-bubble, a look at the efforts that ISL clubs are making to maintain their connect with the fans

FC Goa manager Juan Ferrando during an online interaction with fans
FC Goa manager Juan Ferrando during an online interaction with fans (FC Goa media)

In early September, FC Goa launched their Durand Cup campaign, a tournament that they went on to win for the first time in the club’s history. Under normal circumstances, the team would have had little trouble drawing eyeballs towards their style of football. But with the last season of the Indian Super League (ISL) played behind closed doors due to the pandemic, it was evident that a sense of ennui had set in among the fans. The club was now looking for ways to keep them engaged.

Around the same time, a new season of the Netflix show Money Heist was released. It was the perfect ploy for the marketing team to spin a narrative that linked the two – a Durand Cup heist, masterminded by their coach, “El Professor” Juan Ferrando.

“We launched an online campaign revolving around the show, since it was the talk of the town. It captured the imagination of a lot of people. Going on a heist for the Durand Cup resonated not just with football fans, but also those who were not following us. By the end of the tournament, we had sold over 200 ‘Durand Heist’ kits -- the first time we sold so many jerseys that were not home kits,” says Souvik Roy Chowdhury, media manager at FC Goa.

“In terms of social media, we’ve taken a whole new approach – it’s more narrative driven now. And it’s got us some traction as well,” he adds.

Campaigns such as these have been vital at a time when football is being played out in front of empty arenas. As another season beckons, starting November 19, things aren’t going to be much different. And clubs are likely to follow a similar drill to keep the fan at home interested in the game.

It’s not like these clubs haven’t been busy with digital media in the past. Only now, it’s become an essential tool to maintain the connect between the fans and their team.

Dimas Delgado with a fan
Dimas Delgado with a fan (BFC media)

“Last year was a learning curve for everybody, since we were all grappling to see what the fans wanted. I think the situation demanded that we think of newer ways to do things, since people would go online more often to know what is happening with the club,” says Bengaluru FC media manager, Kunaal Majgaonkar.

A few traditions continued unhampered, though this time around, far away from home. Bengaluru would usually reach out to fans to pick songs that would be blasted at the Kanteerava Stadium during home games. The same routine was followed, where supporters sent song recommendations to create a playlist that is now played on the team bus and in the dressing room.

Also Read: European clubs at a crossroads after a year of pandemic football

Other teams like Jamshedpur FC started capturing key moments from the training sessions and the recreation room alike, and shared it through their social media platforms. On match days last season, they ran online contests that gave the winners a chance to appear on the fan wall inside the stadium. The supporters’ club, known as Red Miners, also had the opportunity to voice their opinion time and again – for instance, the team received feedback on the home kit design a couple of months ago. For a sponsor, they ran an online contest where fans could showcase their football skills through videos.

“It’s quite a challenge, since Jharkhand isn’t as populated as some of the metros. Besides, it also has one of the lowest Internet and smartphone penetrations in the country. But last season, we still had about 29.8 million engagements across four social media platforms – the second-highest number in the league,” says Jal Sonpal, media and marketing manager at Jamshedpur.

A lot of teams also scheduled Zoom sessions where fans could interact with the players and coach. Bengaluru released exclusive content for their members, and this season, hope to get their players on the phone a lot more often with the fans. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has even started his own video log to present a glimpse of life inside the team bubble.

“The key for us was to give as much access to the fans as possible,” Majgaonkar says.

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Chowdhury recalls engaging questions thrown by fans at the coach, which included everything from team tactics to how he saw certain players fit into his plans. In fact, Goa even enjoyed home advantage of sorts, given that the entire tournament unfolded in their state. Supporters from the FC Goa Fan Club such as Omkar Honovarcar would throng the practice ground, the team hotel and the stadium to make their presence felt, while maintaining a safe distance at all times. Before the first game, the team was escorted to the stadium by a convoy of cars and motorcycles amid great fanfare. And through the rest of the season, an entourage of loyal fans would gather outside the stadium to welcome the team, before heading off to catch the game on a screen nearby.

“We could finally meet the players and coach after the semi-final loss. They were quite disappointed and the mood was really sombre. But coach invited us to the hotel the following day and we had a nice chat with the players, so that was a great memory,” Honovarcar recalls.

“What we heard from the players was that our actions made a big difference for them,” he adds.

After the season, the club also organised a friendly game between the fans and staff where coach Ferrando donned boots for a kickabout. The promo for the latest season is a tribute to the same fans, who’ve stood by the club.

“To witness a hundred supporters gathered at the stadium just to see us off makes us realise how passionate they are. There’s an overwhelming sentiment to get back in the stadium and make their presence felt,” Chowdury adds.

This home support was sorely missed by teams like Bengaluru. In the past, the vociferous supporters from the West Block Blues, as the team’s fans are popularly known, have pushed the team to conjure up a win when the chips were down. It was all very different without them last year. Coach Carles Cuadrat was sacked midseason and the team placed a dismal seventh on the table – their worst finish in the league.

Banners (on the left depicting Shree Harsha) at the BFC training ground
Banners (on the left depicting Shree Harsha) at the BFC training ground (BFC media)

“Over the last eight years, our lives have revolved around the club and we’ve never let them out of sight. And then we were suddenly stuck at home. I know a lot of people who went on Zoom calls – chanted the songs, laughed and cried together. But it wasn’t like the stadium and we landed up losing so many games. It cemented our belief that we are important and the team needs us wherever they go,” Haridas says.

But even remotely, the supporters have been at the heart of Bengaluru’s activities. At their training ground in Goa, the team put up banners created by them, including one dedicated to a diehard fan, Shree Harsha, who succumbed to Covid-19. During the pandemic last year, they ran the “Back on our Feet” campaign to support small businesses in the city that were identified through supporters and promoted by the club through social media. And through the latest, “Keep it Kind” initiative, they want to spread the love and keep the family together during the good times and the bad.

“When we go back to the city next year, we want our people to shout for us. And remember that this is the club that stood for its community,” Majgaonkar says.

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