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How to grow non-cricket sports in India

MUMBAI: The global sports industry is poised to grow $145 billion by 2015. However, when it comes to India, the sports sector cuts a sorry figure. One big reason for this is the absence of a proper ecosystem, particularly in the case of non-cricket sports.

Leading executives from the sports industry converged at the FICCI Frames 2014 to deliberate on the way forward to build a strong ecosystem for different sports to thrive.

The challenge for non-cricket sports lies in creating the ecosystem in the first place and not monetising the ecosystem, the panellists said. This is the mistake that most non-cricket sports in India are making.

The first step should be about building the ecosystem by putting in the infrastructure and creating a loyal fan base. Once that is done, then one can talk about making money through different avenues like television, digital and merchandising.

NBA India MD Yannick Colaco noted that without the ecosystem being built, one cannot monetise a sport immediately. The industry needs to build the sport bottom up by going to the grassroots, which is why the NBA is doing a lot of grassroots-level programmes across the country.

“First you have to bring fans to the sport and engage them. We are doing programmes including one with Reliance. This makes basketball a part of the school curriculum,” Colaco said.

Star Sports president Nitin Kukreja noted that if after four decades soccer clubs in the country cannot make money, then something is fundamentally wrong. “The foundation of the sports ecosystem is corroded and is on the brink of collapse because the business is skewed,” Kukreja stated.

Touching on the broadcast side of the challenges in sports, Kukreja said that price cap and mandatory sharing of feed with Doordarshan is hurting sports broadcasters.

“There is a price cap on a television channel regardless of what sports rights cost. Cricket is fortunate in that it gets a lot of revenue from advertising but other sports cannot follow this model. There is also the issue of must-sharing with Doordarshan,” he lamented.

The must-share clause with Doordarshan has hurt the sportscasters and is resulting in spill-over of content even on digital platforms. “I agree sharing feed with Doordarshan can make sports available to anyone. But now that has spilled over to cable and satellite and also digital homes. There are leakages and barriers galore in the system. Till these issues go, India will continue to be a non-sporting country,” he added.

Colaco agreed that work needs to go into getting the structure in regulation right. “Abroad, the regulatory system is more developed. That way you know what the sport is worth.”

Dempo Group chairman Srinivas Dempo said that his company is running an I-league club out of passion. “The cash burn rate is high. My concern is that going forward business families may not be willing to burn through cash. I feel that the I-league has to be packaged differently. Mahindra got out of the I-league as the company felt that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. The I-league also faces strong competition from foreign leagues. The EPL gets 27 million viewers while there is only 6.5 million for the I-league.”

Colaco pointed out the obsession with sporting leagues in India. “After the IPL, you now have a hockey league. A soccer league and tennis league are coming up. It is great when you have a slickly packaged entertainment product. The issue is what’s next. After the league gets over, is there more content from that sport that is being offered? That is not the case today. Star invested a lot in the badminton league but after that season got over, there was no other badminton content to take advantage of the interest in that sport. This is something that sports federations have to address.”

Echoing the same concern, Kukreja said that leagues in other sports are not being supplemented with additional content. “Having just 70 days of hockey and one hundred days of badminton is not enough when you have 300 days of cricket. Sports federations must ensure that product consistency happens. Right now, building the product is not happening,” he averred.

Colaco also applauded the BCCI for pushing cricket deeper into smaller centres like Kochi and Dharamshala. “The BCCI is a case study for other sports federations. 25 years ago cricketers came from the metros but today they are coming from the smaller towns. There are hundreds of cricket academies present in the smaller towns and cities.”

He also spoke about the importance of the in-stadia experience. “The quality of experience is key given that you are competing with other forms of entertainment like movies. If the experience is bad like not being able to use washroom facilities, then people might come once or twice but after that they will not come back repeatedly,” Colaco noted.

Kukreja backed him up by saying that while cricket fans in Australia enjoy a great in-stadia experience and have fun, in India there is no reason to watch a Ranji Trophy match in the stadium. “There is nothing going apart from the match itself.”

On this point, Dempo noted that crowds for soccer matches in Goa are declining. One of the reasons is that the match timings are at 3:30 pm when people are at work or children have just come home from school.

The panellists also observed that without infrastructure support, interest in a sport will die down even if there is a player participating at the global level. Colaco mentioned Sania Mirza who got people interested in the sport when she started playing but when her participation fell away, so did the interest, as it was only she who was pushing the sport.

“On the other hand, basketball was popular in China even before Yao Ming started playing. He grew the interest level in that sport in China to another level,” he pointed out.

Above all, sports have to be ubiquitous. Kukreja noted that cricket surrounds Indians. It is played in the gullies. Different parties including broadcasters, sponsors and federations have to come together to make sure that other sports also become ubiquitous.