Okay, itís cricket, our national opiate, but hereís the odd thing: Test matches in India have seen a gradual dwindling of crowd support. The vast empty stands at the India-West Indies match at Kolkataís iconic Eden Gardens in November 2011 was a sign of the times. Ranji matches, where support to state teams should be an incentive, attracts more stray dogs than people. International limited overs cricket matches get crowds in India because they are comparatively short, and itís the national team playing.
The IPL is a different animal. Apart from the Delhi Daredevils, who have Virender Sehwag, none of the teams has a local born and bred captain. In fact, very few teams have any local representation after the last auction: Gautam Gambhir switched to Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), Harbhajan Singh is now captain of Mumbai Indians, Sourav Ganguly captains Pune Warriors India and not KKR, Mahendra Singh Dhoni plays for Chennai, hottie Virat Kohli wears the Bangalore Royal Challengers shirt and even Yuvraj Singh now supports Pune rather than Kings XI Punjab. All teams have token locals, but they rarely feature in the playing eleven. Yet, the crowds are amazingly vocal ó fanatical in dress, behaviour and support for teams that have a majority of players from abroad and none from the city or state they are named after.
Itís obviously nothing to do with the extra attractions like cheerleaders or accompanying band-baaja; the novelty has worn off and some cheerleaders are even sporting saris this time around. The fan frenzy, including wearing team shirts, waving flags, screaming hysterically and performing high-fives with total strangers, is so out of proportion to local or even state representation that it clearly points to something deeper and more psychological. Professor Daniel Wann, an American psychologist, has published several studies and books on fan psychology. Over time, he devised the Sport Fan Motivation Scale which isolates the eight major motives for becoming a sports fan: eustress (positive stress), escape, entertainment, economic, aesthetic, group affiliation, self-esteem and family bonding. Itís an intriguing mix.
Eustress is a term coined by an endocrinologist to define stress that is healthy or provides positive feelings. In other words, eustress is really to do with destressing, increasingly needed in the times we live in. That, in turn, gets connected to escape, and watching any sporting event is a form of escapism, getting away from the problems of daily life and work. Thereís a difference between escapism in an open air stadium with like-minded people around you and where all barriers ó social, economic, caste, community ó are removed, and escapism in a hushed, darkened cinema hall which encourages intense focus and silence. Then comes entertainment, where the IPL scores with its crowd-pleasing innovations. The economic factor is to do with value for money; the average IPL ticket goes for Rs 400, which is about the cost of a cinema ticket in a multiplex, and offers much more varied entertainment with the added bonus of it being a live event.
Aesthetics refers to the physical prowess and grace displayed by an athlete in a highly competitive sporting event, and the T20 format encourages the spectacular much more than other forms of the game, from mightily struck boundaries to great fielding and catches, something everyone can enjoy, and not just hardcore lovers of the game. Group affiliation is to do with being among like-minded people with common interests, which prompts spectators to display the social psychological phenomenon of disinhibition. They shout, scream, stand, cheer and celebrate with total strangers all around them. Even people who are ordinarily reserved and shy will explode into unexpected bouts of exhibitionism when surrounded by other people engaging in the same unrestrained excitement. Itís a release, almost like therapy.
An important factor in sports crowds psychology is the phenomenon of Basking in Reflected Glory, or what psychologists call BIRGing. It explains how the performance of a sports team one supports can change an individualís sense of self-worth. Specifically, by wearing a teamís shirt, showing up for their games or watching them on television, the teamís successes become the fanís successes, and as a result, wins on the field translate into bolstered self-esteem. Finally, thereís family bonding and thereís no denying that an evening out with the family in an open air arena full of noise, music, excitement and fast-paced action is conducive to bringing a family closer than any comparable situation, more so if the children have a passion for the game. The presence of more women in the IPL stadiums means that wives are very much involved when a cricket match is on.
What adds to this is the contemporary situation that binds people together. Many traditional institutions are beginning to break down: religion, family, governance and economic security. The human psyche demands that something replace those, and sports fills an important void. Being a supporter of an IPL team, regardless of its composition, allows you to feel a deep emotional investment in something that has no real world consequences, so winning and losing do not really matter that much, unlike when it is the national team. Thereís more to the psychology of sports fans. Edward O.Wilson, Harvard professor and polymath, in his new book The Social Conquest of Earth, argues that modern humans are psychologically equivalent to the tribes of ancient history in which the drive to join a like-minded group is deeply ingrained. He calls this evolution process ďeusocialityĒ where multiple generations bond (ďeuĒ is a prefix meaning good or pleasant) in collective happiness and a shared desire to be part of a competition to prove who is the best. Thatís the hidden attraction of the IPL and why Mumbaikars and Delhiites will come out in thousands to back a team that has players from outside their city, state or even country.