14 Dec 2017
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How to make sports leagues successful

MUMBAI: Inspired by the success of the Indian Premier League (IPL), a slew of sports leagues have mushroomed, from kabaddi to soccer and badminton. But certain things need to be done for these leagues to work. For example, the stakeholders have to work together to build the ecosystem.

A session on the last day of FICCI Frames looked at the roadmap to make India a feasible multi-sport nation. The participants included Star Sports president Nitin Kukreja, USports CEO Supratik Sen, Intex Technologies director Keshav Bansal and FC Goa CEO Sukhwinder Singh.

Nitin KukrejaKukreja noted that three years back there was a lot of scepticism when the broadcaster decided on a kabaddi league. “Now we are on the cusp of something special. The whole ecosystem has to work together. Those who come in later need more convincing. How well the stakeholders come together will determine the success of a league.”

He also made the point that sports leagues to work must keep the fan first. Some stadiums are not fan friendly. But in everything, from marketing to programming, if the fan is kept first, then things get sharper and clearer. For kabaddi the challenge was that people were not playing it. It wasn’t seen as aspirational. So a lot of attention was paid to detail. There was also an effort to see that the stadiums had an aspirational element.

“We had to see that the trophy was coveted. The journey is not done. We have to build the stature of the sport,” he stated.

Sen said that it was Ronnie Screwvala’s idea to get into kabaddi. “We were the first team. The challenge was taking the sport to the masses. We looked at a development plan from the outset. We went to schools and colleges. Students started playing and rock star athletes were found. In the second season it transformed into something much larger. International players came to play. We are touring the US, UK and Germany. ”

Hockey and badminton leagues

When asked if other local leagues like hockey and badminton were less successful or if that was just an outsider’s perception, Kukreja said that it is an outsider’s perception. Hockey is strong in Ranchi and generates passion.

Supratik Sen“A sport has attributes that make it work to a certain extent. Sport is getting more local. The challenge is to manifest that on a national stage. Kabaddi is simple and many people have played it at some point. How many people have played hockey? That is a challenge that sport faces,” he explained at length.

While ratings are important, other elements are also important. Star Sports spends time building these incentives for fans, which is why it co-owns ISL and PKL. For the ecosystem to be sustainable, clubs must do their bit. It cannot be all on the broadcaster. He reiterated that clubs must do grassroots activities and fan engagement activities. At the same time, the sports federation concerned also has to play a role in things like the design of a league, the competition format and how to build rivalries.

Using IPL to build brands

Talking about his company’s new foray into the IPL for two years, Intex Technologies’ Bansal said that since the time frame is short, one cannot think about profits. It is about using the IPL to build the brand. He said that while 30 parties bought tenders for a new franchise, six were present on the day of submission.

“We cannot look for profits. We went in for reverse bidding. We went for a negative bid. Profits don’t look possible, though I would be delighted if that happens. While there are traditional advertising avenues, what we have done with the IPL is a new move. Our aim is to see that the consumer’s faith in our brand increases manifold. There is nothing bigger and better than the IPL,” he said.


FC Goa CEO Sukhwinder Singh believes that besides cricket other sports like soccer can show promise if packaged well. The aim is to get more fans and also see that the deal makes sense for financial and commercial partners.

sukhvinder-singh-CEO-FC-Goa“We experienced something unique and intense. Fans in Goa are football educated. We will launch new services for them. So far we have been consuming international football. Now going local and regional is the need of the hour. Building fan engagement is essential. He also said that the success of his team financially will depend on the team’s on-field performance. Merchandising is driven by performance,” Singh observed.

He also pointed out that sometimes celebrities own a franchise and that can be leveraged successfully. Everything for the franchise has to be planned like hospitality.

“It is about building brand affinity. We approach the grassroots. From October to December, we highlighted our brand. However, it is not so for the nine months when the league is not. We do community engagement for nine months. We did a workshop for parents who wanted to know more about our team and the league and the opportunities. We participated in the Goa Carnival,” he said talking about his team’s various initiatives to reach out to the masses.

While acknowledging that it has been tough financially, he praised team owners like Virat Kohli. He is looking at a horizon of 5–6 years for ideas and packages that can be monetised. He also said that while the league is on for a short duration, each year it gives the club enough time to do other things. For him the ISL is an experiment that has worked.

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