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Should Indians be offended by Roger Federer's cricket jersey apology?

Roger Federer and Nike have opened the Pandora's Box, using a fierce rivalry and the Indian cricket jersey for a marketing gimmick.

Roger Federer with the Indian cricket jersey
Roger Federer posing with the Indian cricket jersey

Sport is a realm of fierce rivalries and fiercer fandoms. It is where sportsmen and sportswomen are elevated to the same stature as gods and goddesses, sometimes higher. The level of following that these heroes garner and the emotions that fans invest in them are almost unreal – fanaticism towards players and teams is probably the most dependable phenomenon in the entire world.

But fans can surprise, as Roger Federer, arguably the greatest and most adored tennis player to ever walk on the planet has realized. Known for being sensitive, for avoiding controversies, for being gentle on and off the court, Federer has created lifelong memories for his fans, but last week he was also involved in perhaps one of the greatest sports advertising campaign ‘blunders’ ever.

These sound like big words, don’t they? And yet, while it was a simple incident that triggered the whole marketing versus fan-emotions debate, this controversy will remain in our collective memory for a while.

How it all started

It all started with a simple Facebook post – “Dressing up for a Gentleman’s game today. #BleedBlue”. The date was February 15th, which was when India were to clash against Pakistan at the ICC ODI World Cup, 2015.

Now as everyone knows, the India-Pakistan rivalry is amongst the fiercest in all sport. The emotions that fans vest in their teams when they play against each other is unbelievably mercurial, oscillating from the abyss of hatred and desperation to the pinnacle of euphoria based on how the teams perform.

That a well-adored, sometimes worshipped, Federer got entangled in it, couldn’t be a mistake or a coincidence. His Facebook page alone has 14.9 million followers at the moment and his post, where he is seen admiring the India jersey, has more than a quarter million likes and over 30,000 shares.

And that seemingly innocuous post was just the beginning of the cascading turmoil that has now become a great talking point in all sporting circles.

An open letter brings the pain into perspective

While there was a huge uproar from fans around the world who just couldn’t fathom the need for Federer to pull a stunt like this, one observer’s open letter titled “Dear Federer, Why would you choose to Bleed Blue” for The Express Tribune has become synonymous with the disillusionment felt by Pakistani fans.

The statistics mentioned by the writer are probably the result of a canteen discussion over snacks, but a couple of points were indeed valid. He raises the question as to why Federer and Nike would choose to show support for India against Pakistan, instead of against any other team. As the writer notes, it is undeniable that the campaign was designed to attract the maximum possible attention at the most opportune time imaginable.

Predictably, the open letter became all the rage on social media, so much so that news of the pain felt by his Pakistani fans even reached the ears of Federer himself.

A marketing gimmick

“It was more of a Nike thing to be quite honest,” Federer has come out and admitted sheepishly, apologizing to all the fans who were hurt by his gesture to #BleedBlue. But there was no reason for Federer to justify his allegiances, and it is funny that his gesture in the first place – sporting a Nike India cricket jersey – was taken so seriously by fans around the world.

Federer was endorsing Nike, and Nike is the official sponsor of the Indian cricket team. Doesn’t it make sense, then, for Nike to ask Federer to post that picture? If Federer appeared in an ad, for example, with Sachin Tendulkar, will that cause the same level of outrage?

It is interesting that fans are not looking at the post as just a Nike ad, and instead are viewing it as proof of Federer’s dislike of Pakistan and Pakistanis. But like the man himself has clearly pointed out, he supports the Indian team only ‘a little bit’ and his interest in cricket ebbs and flows, based on the continent he is on.

If anything, the one undeniable fact is that Federer’s mom hails from South Africa and he does openly support the Springboks, their rugby team. So does it make any sense for Federer to support India, when obviously they are the closest contenders in the pool to South Africa? No.

All of this just goes to show how little most fans understand sport, and the whole spirit of following teams through tournaments. Taking offense at #BleedBlue is just superficial outrage that doesn’t take into account the umpteen reasons why the whole gesture is nothing more than a marketing gimmick, with India being the largest untapped market for tennis and sporting goods.

Economics and emotions

A big nation has a big population. And a big population means a big market. Whether it is in reference to a sportsperson or a corporate company, these are basic truths that cannot be ignored. How much Federer makes from endorsements depends on which brands want him to associate with them which in turn depends on the populace that brand targets for its sales.

A fun game of tennis at the IPTL alongside Aamir Khan, a picture of Federer laughing on the court with Deepika Padukone, a picture with the great Sachin Tendulkar, who is loved by a billion people – all these are brand builders in one way or another, the churnings of a powerful PR machine.

Some sportsmen and women have natural charisma, while some have ‘earned goodwill’ by working on their image relentlessly, through mannerisms, gestures and performances. Federer, blessed as he is, is both naturally charismatic AND equipped with a relentless PR team. It’s not a wonder, then, that every single thing he does makes headlines, whether warranted or not.

Shouldn’t Indian fans be offended with the apology?

If you extrapolate this whole issue to a ridiculous level, Federer supporting India is not too different to a neutral observer supporting a weak team so that the favourites don’t steamroll the competition. In other words, Federer rooting for India is actually, on one level, an insult to the way India was playing before the World Cup started. 

Need any more excuses to get offended? 

While it is unfair to say that everything sports celebs do is about branding and marketing at some level, it is equally unfair to assume that sports celebs aren’t aware of the repercussions of their endorsement activities. In this case, for example, it is hard to comprehend how Federer wouldn’t know about the possible fallout his post could cause in the cricketing and tennis circles of Pakistan. In one way or the other, the marketing gimmick is bound to hurt emotions – that is the nature of sport fandom.

Federer clarified that endorsing the Indian jersey was a Nike thing, and that he had met quite a few Indian celebs in recent times. Does that mean the Indian jersey means nothing more than a marketing tool for Nike? Shouldn’t that offend Indians, who follow the game with all their passion, sometimes at the expense of their careers (ask any student preparing for a Board exam) or possible promotions (ask me)?

Just kidding, of course; taking offense is our favourite pastime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the healthiest thing to do.

Coming out of the controversy a winner

Federer gained wild support among Indians and caused consternation among Pakistanis because he used the hashtag #BleedBlue. He is in the news around the world and the controversy is ‘trending’. Rage or outrage, Nike is getting the publicity it wanted.

Meanwhile, some of the fans fans are hurt and are wasting their valuable time revisiting old posts no one cares about and removing them, like they were sacred trophies in their mantelpiece. That this has been offered as an argument is in itself a proof of how bereft of logic we sports fans are.

But at the end of the day, that is what fandom is all about. Haven’t brands been cashing in on it since time immemorial? Star Trek merchandise, Harry Potter merchandise, all kinds of commodities from engine oil to energy drinks endorsed by our favourite stars – what are all those if not instances of making money out of the fans’ love for their idols?

There was no need for Federer to offer an apology for the Nike stunt, but the fact that he did speaks volumes about the genuine affection he has for his fans – be they from Switzerland, South Africa or Pakistan. And the sooner we realize that, the better it would be for us and our peace of mind.

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