Unlike in the West, India continues to lack a well grounded sports culture. Sport for all or sport for development continue to be ideals that India hasn’t yet embraced and chances are will not embrace in the near future.

Writing on the sports industry in India isn’t easy. Firstly, ‘sport’ in India isn’t considered an “industry” in the conventional sense of the term. Business yes, but not an organized structured industry with big and small players operating on the basis of established and codified market rules. Rather, the sports business, valued at 4000 crores, continues to be unstructured and disorganized. Despite this, however, India is now a favored destination for sports events like the IPTL and the ISL, is surely world cricket’s financial nerve center, stages the world’s leading T-20 league in the form of the IPL, is considered a major market for European football leagues like the EPL, Serie A and La Liga and finally has a sizeable middle class that is far more tuned to consuming global sporting spectacles than many other Western democracies.

Moreover, despite being disorganized the size of the Indian sports market isn’t negligible and this was borne out in the way leading global businesses now operating in India appropriated Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement series, which witnessed the organization of multiple celebrations across the country. Second, IPL season 8, though not as big as the first few seasons, was sizeable enough to attract substantial investments and finally the London Olympics, which was a watershed of sorts for India’s Olympic sport, witnessed many a campaign by the Olympic sponsors to reach out to the Indian youth. This is not to forget that India, rather urban India, will also brace itself to watch Euro 2016 come June and Rio 2016 come August. All of these render a look into the sports industry in India a timely subject of analysis.

I. Unlike in the West, India continues to lack a well grounded sports culture. Sport for all or sport for development continue to be ideals that India hasn’t yet embraced and chances are will not embrace in the near future. This makes the structure of the sports business/industry in the country somewhat fragmented and disorganized. The bigger players are focused on a handful of individual brands and properties and the industry hasn’t seen much exponential growth over the last decade. For the sake of this essay I have divided the industry into two distinct constituents, individual brands and marketable properties. While Sachin, M S Dhoni and more recently Virat Kohli make up the first category, the second is made up of properties like the IPL and the Olympics.

Individual sports icons in India, who command a long term and tangible corporate loyalty are few and far between. While some like Sachin remain the timeless corporate favorite, Dhoni, and Virat in cricket and Leander/Sania in tennis and Vishy Anand in chess are other icons sponsors are confident of investing in. The cricketers, however, constitute the elite bracket and Virat is the most recent addition to this upper echelon of the Indian sports hierarchy. Riding on the back of his superb run in Australia and his taking over the captaincy, Virat, corporate India is confident, is the next megastar and one who is safe to invest in. His fee has leapfrogged to 3-4 crores and with big brands like Pepsi and Adidas already in his repertoire, Virat is well poised to consolidate his position as India’s very top sports properties/brands.

Making it into the top bracket on the back of spectacular performances isn’t new and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, post the 2007 T-20 world cup and the 2011 world cup scaled unprecedented market heights thanks to India’s victories and his own final heroics against Sri Lanka. He, together with Sachin, is India’s highest paid sports star and it is impossible not to find a smiling Dhoni on a flexi board in most Indian cities. The recent dip in form notwithstanding, Dhoni continues to earn the highest among India’s sportsmen.

If Virat is on the ascendancy based on his recent exploits, Sachin, despite retirement, has only further consolidated his hold as the nation’s all time favorite sports brand. Sachin’s brand appeal continues to remain unrivaled even after retirement and if the adulation around him is anything to go by it will only remain steady in the immediate future.

While Virat, the individual, is crucial to Adidas’ consumer share at the moment, the IPL is by far the single biggest mass sports property in the country. The visibility associated with the IPL makes it the most awaited sports property in a year. Football leagues like the EPL and Serie A, besides competitions like the Euro and the world cup, which have a decent traction among the urban Indian youth, are other lucrative properties companies are looking to invest in and the Olympics, with a number of Indians in contention for medals, constitute a nice add on.

While brands look to celebrate particular events, the first corporate house to have thought of doing something special centering one particular milestone was Coca-Cola. Debabrata Mukherjee, Head of Marketing for Cola Cola India put it nicely, “We believe in giving people happiness and any major achievement is a national release of happiness of unrivaled proportions. It fits in perfectly with our company philosophy. And more importantly such achievements can hardly happen again.” For example, during Sachin’s 100th international century Cola Cola had launched a special 100/100 gold can and 100 individual cans commemorating the feat. Each talks about one particular hundred and includes an interesting statistic related to that ton.

II. While such ideas are fascinating, the market as a whole can do with a well grounded sports culture among the nation’s youth. One of the country’s veteran sports managers, Vinod Naidu, put it in context, “The industry can grow manifold if we can inculcate a sports culture among the Indian youth. It will give the whole sports business a fillip.” Naidu has some impressive ideas to mainstream brand Olympics in India. “If I had my way I’d start an Olympics period in schools from early April. Kids can thus be brought into the Olympics fold. They can be told stories related to the games, shown Olympic footage or even taught what the five rings signify. Only then can there be a strong connect with the world’s leading sports spectacle”, he signs off.

What has been of interest in recent months is the entry of new brands into the Olympics fold in India. Amul has already showed interest in being the lead sponsor of the Indian Olympics contingent yet again and are planning to launch a massive marketing campaign centering the games. Amul advertisements, always of interest because of their sense of humour and wit, will enrich the Indian Olympics experience come August 2016.

It is in the context of the Olympics that other Indian athletes, men and women who are in contention for a medal at the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, can be built into tangible sports brands. We well remember what an Olympic medal can do; it had catapulted Abhinav Bindra into becoming the nation’s most loved sports icon post his gold medal winning feat at Beijing. Beijing 2008, it can be asserted, was much more than a sporting spectacle not just because India's performance was its best ever at the Games but also because it heralded the promise of a new beginning for Indian sports. Bindra was not an aberration. His performance was followed by near-podium finishes in badminton, tennis and archery and the gains have been consolidated since.

Just when it was turning out to be a tale of so near yet so far in China, Vijender Singh (bronze in boxing, 75 kg) and Sushil Kumar (bronze in wrestling, 66 kg freestyle) ensured that the Indian tricolour went up twice more at Beijing. Their achievements, analysed for hours on television, turned them into national celebrities overnight.  If the media catharsis that followed was any indication, for the first time, Olympic sports, apart from hockey, was at the centrestage of what could be termed as the national consciousness. It was an indication that decades of ill treatment and neglect, which had reduced Olympic sport to a footnote in India, might just change. Corporate India immediately took notice and Abhinav and Vijender suddenly made it into our drawing rooms a lot many more times on the back of their Beijing achievements.

Looking forward to Rio, the one common chord across all corporate houses is that “this is India’s best chance and there are a lot many athletes than ever before who are in medal contention.” Abhinav Bindra and Chain Singh/Gagan Narang in the 10 meter air rifle, Jitu Rai in the 50 meter Pistol, Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna (likely) in mixed doubles, Mary Kom and Sarita Devi in boxing, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu in Badminton, Deepika Kumari in archery, the list of real medal contenders isn’t a footnote anymore. Indian hockey too is on an upswing and India’s recent matches have been fairly well attended.

Relatively lesser known Olympic sports too have found corporate backing and this has helped Indian athletes significantly. The Tatas, who have an Olympic history going back to the 1920s, have invested heavily into athletes like Deepika Kumari, who had a very good chance of creating history for India in women’s archery at London 2012. In what is deemed an “attempt to make a difference”, the Tatas are only following the path carved out by Dorabji Tata, the first/founding President of the Indian Olympic Association in 1927.

No analysis of India’s Olympic sporting environment is currently complete without mentioning the support of the two bodies, Olympic Gold Quest and IOS. It is well known that Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) has already put together the best possible package to help the athletes in their pursuit of the elusive gold medal in London. For the shooters, who stand a great chance to win medals.

III. If the Olympics are still evolving as a sports brand in India, the sports market gears up annually in April-May every year to welcome the IPL India’s only desi yet global sports brand. Played for eight seasons now, this could very well be the make or break year for the IPL with two new teams making their debut. This is both a challenge and a worry. A challenge because the IPL, in its ninth year, might well have carved out a niche of its own with its own loyal band of supporters and might not be dependent on the way India performs at the international stage. In other words the constituency of the IPL watcher may well turn out to be independent of the international cricket viewer and the tournament can help remove the negativity surrounding Indian cricket by drawing huge audiences yet again.

If the crowds don’t embrace the tournament in ways they have in the past going forward and if television ratings show a dip when the final data for season nine is eventually made available, it will constitute a huge worry for corporate houses looking to invest in the IPL pie. This will mean that ‘nationalism’ continues to be a key element in influencing the Indian sports watcher and prove that there is a direct co-relation between India’s performance and the sports industry in India.

So what does the future hold for the Indian sports market? More pertinently, can we make predictions about the future trajectory of the sports business in India? The answer is both a yes and a no. As far as individual brands are concerned it is safe to assume that they will continue to command mass loyalties. The Indian public can never ever have enough of a Sachin or a Dhoni or a Virat and will forever stand behind these much loved icons.

Finally, new age entrepreneurs operating in the digital mobile space are also coming up with interesting ideas to expand the sports business market and enhance the IPL’s brand appeal. Voice blogs and mobile video content were two of such contributions the digital had come up with. With the Indian contingent poised to make the Olympics their own in some months from now (7-8 medals are a distinct possibility), we might well see the Indian sports market getting ready to welcome more and more global players in the coming days. For a country with immense potential, Indian sport was always a neglected sphere and hence lagged behind other conventional spheres like entertainment and IT. If the celebration centering he IPL are any indication, things are about to change for the better in the da



Mr. Boria Majumdar is a leading sport scholar and television commentator. Author of a number of bestselling books on Indian sport, he is an oped columnist for The Times of India and sports expert at Times Now. A Rhodes scholar, Majumdar is adjunct professor, Monash University, and senior research fellow at the University of Central Lancashire


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