EVER SINCE THE Mohun Bagan advertisement on the Nasdaq Tower electronic billboard at Times Square, New York went live, there's been a lot of talk about it on sports and political circles.
Pictures of Mohun Bagan's emblem being displayed on the Nasdaq tower were shared by FIFA on Twitter, and immediately it became a story of its own; picked up by newspapers and websites around the country.
The conversation it sparked has been a wide spectrum; from admiration to outright criticism. People have speculated on what it means for the club and for Indian football. Some misattributed the whole thing to KGSPL, who have recently acquired majority shares of the Mohun Bagan football team. Others went on to question the act of spending on a billboard during a pandemic instead of giving money to relief work, unaware that the club and many of its fan groups have been doing so for months; both for victims of COVID-19 and the Amphan cyclone that ravaged South Bengal.
Then there were those who saw reflections of a corporate-political nexus in it; tying Mohun Bagan's advertisement campaign with a right wing organization subsequently promoting a religio-political issue using the same methods.
But in reality what went on behind the scenes wasn't a big corporate operation. It wasn't an attempt to capture FIFA's or the media's attention either. In fact, the people working on it weren't marketing professionals or degree-holding social media experts. They were a bunch of Mohun Bagan fans, of different ages, each with different day jobs spread over many countries, who volunteer to run the club's social media out of a desire to contribute to the club.
Fans like Gourav Roy, Sayantan Basu, Dipanjan Chatterjee, Tuhin Roy, Somnath Sengupta and a few others who form Mohun Bagan's rag-tag social media crew are usally preoccupied with updating live scores, making some edits of players' pictures, compiling quick videos and putting up short articles on the club website. The casual idea of doing something special to commemorate Mohun Bagan Day - the annual celebration of the club's historic IFA Shield triumph in 1911 - started germinating early this year.
On the condition of anonimity, some members of the MB social media team told us how the project came about,
"One of our members, Gourav, knew someone who's familiar with the world of marketing. It was that person who gave him the Nasdaq billboard idea."
While the team liked the idea, they didn't actually know how to go about doing it. Knowing they weren't an established brand in the USA, the fans reached out to the agency that handled the Nasdaq Tower giant screen with a few months to spare,
"It's a good thing we started early. The process is complicated. Some big PR agency may be able to book spots within days but we couldn't have done it."
While the process began before COVID-19 caused lockdowns took hold of India and USA, the pandemic suddenly attributed extra significance to this effort. When they informed club officials Debashish Dutta and Srinjoy Basu about the idea, they thought it could be a good substitute for the lack of the celebration that has been observed by Mohun Bagan fans for over a century and formally commemorated by the club since 2001,
"Srinjoy Basu helped with the financing. He was happy with what we were doing. Because of COVID-19, the actual celebration at the club couldn't be done as we wished. So they thought this was a good alternative way to kick off the occasion and also showcase our brand to a wider audience. We're going to play in ISL this season, so it would be an impactful way to announce our arrival."
As for the new principal owners of the football team, a member said they weren't involved in the process,
"We aren't in touch with them, but I think the club officials we were talking with may have told Mr Sanjiv Goenka about it, I'm not sure."
It took a few weeks for the MB social media team and the billboard agency representatives to decide on the format and total time of display. The overall content of the two slides were managed by Dipanjan Chatterjee and designed by Sayantan Basu. But there were still hurdles to cross.
The use of Bengali letters made the agency a bit cautious, they asked for translation and clarification over what was being written,
"People are saying if you give money they'll put on anything. But it's not that easy. They were very cautious about what goes on their platform. They wanted to understand what each word meant, and fact-check each claim. They have a due-diligence board that looked into everything before giving us approval."
The phrase 'National Club of India' - a status Mohun Bagan fans lay claim to - also went through a period of scrutiny from the agency's review board,
"We had to provide documents to prove that there was sufficient grounds for us to have it on the billboard. We sent the letter from AIFF that referred Mohun Bagan as the National Club of India. We also shared a newspaper article from 1989 that quotes the AIFF President saying Rajiv Gandhi would honour Mohun Bagan as National Club of India. It was an article in Bengali so we had to translate it for them. After looking at everything they gave us the go-ahead."
The next issue to resolve was that of timing. The club wanted the tower to flash the green-and-maroon banner exactly when it's midnight in India. But the agency did not approve it ahead of time. On 23rd July they greenlit the content - for a price much cheaper than the standard rate - but the midnight timing was still up in the air. It wasn't confirmed till 28th July, mere hours before the advertisement went live,
"In the end they confirmed three time slots for us. One was at midnight Indian time, once in the evening. But the other one which no one is talking about is actually the most prominent one; just before closing bell time at Nasdaq. It's a time when many business news outlets from around the world focus on the Nasdaq ticker, it's good visibility for the brands that go on at that time. So we had two minutes on that slot. The display was up for thirty minutes total; three set slots and the rest was on rotation with others."
But the last-minute nature of the midnight time slot approval brought with it another major problem. On just a few hours' notice, the fans had to arrange for a photographer to take pictures of the banner, which proved to be a tough task during a pandemic,
"They gave us access to their live stream but said they couldn't provide professional still photography. Now, we don't even live in New York, so we had to come up with a photographer who could give us some good photos. I didn't even know where to start. I started searching on Instagram for Times Square location-tagged pictures and found an account that belongs to a lady who takes pictures of tourists at the Square. But when I reached out to her, she said she had gone to Italy and got stuck there due to the coronavirus. But thankfully she put me in touch with Gerard, who said he'd do it. He went out twice to take pictures and did a good job of it."
That's why the advertisement came as a "surprise" to the Mohun Bagan fans, despite not originally being planned as one. And the pictures that went viral almost didn't happen.
The display was live streamed on Mohun Bagan's social media handles, and it got a good amount of response. The Mohun Bagan social media team thought that was the end of it and turned their attention to setting up the many live streams the club would put up over the next 22 hours as part of the virtual celebrations of Mohun Bagan Day. Some of the members were going to stay up and work for 28 hours straight to pull it off. But before long, they started getting messages from some fans who were more enthusiastic about the billboard than anticipated. One member recalls,
"I started getting pings from Mohun Bagan fans in New York. Some weren't even living in the city but wanted to drive all the way to go see it. I was worried that getting out just for this during the pandemic would put them at unnecessary risk, but they wouldn't let up. So eventually I told them about the reserved time slot later that we had. Some of them actually went out there to see the billboard."
While going out during a pandemic just to see a billboard was an unequivocally bad idea, the social media team member said he understood why they wanted to do it,
"See, they are living so far away from home and their favourite club. They miss it dearly. You give them any sign of some club-related activity happening nearby they want to go to it. It makes them feel like they're home, even if it's just a advertisement on a billboard."
And that was the beginning of what was supposed to be just a billboard growing into a story of its own; something that took everyone behind it by surprise,
"We had no idea it would blow up like this. FIFA shared it, then it got tons of media coverage. Now a huge PR machine of a political party is doing what we did. We keep aside our political beliefs when it comes to working for the club, but just objectively that's beyond what we thought."
It is indeed curious the way fans and the media latched onto a narrative of "an Indian club being featured on Times Square," like it's some sort of an achievement. Three days later, it's still being talked about, with people waxing poetic about the socio-political significance of the billboard and its aftermath. There are indications that this may actually become a trend for Indian brands and organizations to display themselves in Times Square.
This story does not, however, highlight the real achievement behind the billboard - some fans with no marketing experience pulling off something that big marketing agencies charge a pretty premium penny to do. They spent days and weeks working on the concept and running negotiations; time they took out of their own jobs and personal lives. And they did it out of love for a sports team, not for money. Basically a complete anti-thesis of the methods and motivations taught in high-brow advertising institutions.
In the end, nothing could be truer to the spirit of Mohun Bagan; selfless fans carrying out the work of a club that has long been criticised for not being "modern" or "professional" enough for the corporate masters of Indian football. A club whose fans are routinely labelled as "hooligans" and "uncivilised" for their unfiltered display of passionate loyalty during matches; even though instances of actual physical altercations with rival fans are relatively rare. A club whose existence for 131 years despite all its flaws puzzles the Indian elite. A club that got blamed for a political organization copying its methods. A club whose "death" was gleefully and inaccurately announced by rival fans and some of the less-informed mediapersons when they sold the majority shares of their football team to KGSPL.
Perhaps it's hard for them to understand why generations of fans from different social strata would give their money and time to a club that in their eyes is beneath polite society and doesn't deserve a deep scrutiny. Perhaps it's this lack of understanding or curiosity that was the reason behind this obsession over a billboard instead of the story it told of a mostly barefoot team of Indians defeating a British regimental side more than a century ago, what it meant to a region struggling with an enforced division and why their descendants still insist on keeping that memory alive.
Perhaps the continued presence, and even growth, of the Mohun Bagan club and its brand is an inconvenient anomaly that the metroplitan elite would like to explain away, but are struggling to do so; and the loud, unabashed presence of this billboard is just another annoying reminder of that fact.
If the above sound like mere assumptions, they're certainly not bad as the sweeping generalisations and ignorant stereotypes that fans of Mohun Bagan - and indeed those who support East Bengal & Mohamedan Sporting as well - have found themselves and their clubs subjected to over the last few decades.