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Indian sports industry can touch economic value of $10 bn: Star MD Sanjay Gupta

MUMBAI: Sports is the one sector where India has to and will leap frog the most. Despite being formally around as a sector for more than a century, sports is at best a fledgling industry with a size of $2.5 billion. Compare this to the IT, telecom, e-commerce and payments vertical which have been built within recent memory but are humongous in comparison. Sports’ commercial size is reflective of the relative status it has in the pecking order.

However, it is possible to grow this industry four-fold to an economic value of $10 billion. But what is needed is investment for the long term and collaboration among stakeholders.

These remarks were made by Star India managing director Sanjay Gupta while delivering the Premier League Conference keynote address.

Sanjay_Gupta“Firstly, we have to invest for the long term. I am thinking of 5–10-year cycles at the very least. Only grit and tenacity can lead to societal change. This is not an instant noodle recipe. Frankly, it’s also a commercial imperative; no one can make any return in a shorter cycle,” Gupta said.

Secondly, all players in the ecosystem have to collaborate effectively. Like collaborative farming ethos, not a competitive hunter mindset. “If we all row the boat, we take a longer voyage,” he said.

Thirdly, like all big social initiatives—literacy, disease eradication, participative democracy—real change happens on the ground and begins with a change in the mindset.

For Gupta, the main problem is the mindset issue. “The reality is that despite this concerted push by us few, the mindset has not really changed meaningfully. The mindset of the society, of parents and teachers, of institutions is that sports is of secondary importance. And the mindset of companies and brands on what sports can deliver has not yet dramatically changed,” he said.

The problem, Gupta noted is that parents continue to believe, even today, that sport is at best a recreational indulgence largely unproductive and unrewarding. “Schools do not give it its due in their poorly designed curricula and inadequate facilities. A school kid in India plays for less than 40 mins a week. In countries like the US and Australia, this number would be closer to 12–14 hours. Our entire system, of education and societal norm outside, has been designed to reward excellence in academics, but be indifferent to and at times, even punish an interest in sport.”

The problem, Gupta underlined, is also the fact that even brands do not understand the value of sports. There are about 40 brands today who consistently invest in sporting events. Outside of those, these events are largely considered to be as effective as any other piece of content. It becomes another line item in a media manager’s plan.

“What they don’t realise is the power of sport—the power to unite, to inspire, to speak to youth in a language they understand. What society doesn’t understand is that skills that come naturally as part of playing a sport—teamwork, discipline, fitness, the ability to accept failure—cannot be taught better, not even in our formal education system,” he added.

Brands should understand that sports can deliver unparalleled impact in the long term. Barclays’ association with the Premier League has made it a familiar name to even those who have never stepped inside a bank. Likewise, Emirates is known to premier league fans who have never stepped on to a plane. Red Bull’s investment in small football clubs from Germany and Austria made them synonymous with football in those regions.

“Let me strike a note of urgency and caution. Mindful that this industry is at a sweet spot today and acknowledging that the kind of momentum and excitement that it is seeing is incredible, there is no better time to shape this story than now. Ten years of building on this will take us to a much higher platform of performance, economic reward and ecosystem richness, but equally, a few more years of collective apathy and mediocre results can mean India relegated forever to the lowest rungs of sports achievement. That will be a sad outcome for 1/5th of humanity, our great nation and our most populous youthful citizens.

And we can do this together. All we need is a push towards changing the mindset about sports in this country to further accelerate this growth wave and make it not a wave but a Tsunami,” Gupta stated.

Gupta is disappointed that under the glitz and glamour of ratings and monetisation and sponsorships, the true opportunity for the next stage in this revolution-evolution in India is getting neglected.

“The fact is we are doing better than before but nowhere close to where we should be. In the ranking of sports playing nations, we are at #67 in the Olympics medal tally. Except in cricket and kabaddi, India has not been in the top 3 of any major sport. Our kids are playing for an abysmally small period of time, if at all. And when they do, it is with pitiable infrastructural support. Even in football, let us not look away from the glaring statistics that our global ranking is #130,” he said.

Of all the parameters by which you may assess India’s standing among the nations of this world, the most glaring mismatch is in the area of sporting achievement. With 390 million generation Z born after year 2000, the sheer size of India’s youth should make this incongruity a matter of collective shame.

“Why can we not see that India’s story is incomplete without a structural correction that puts sports in the heart of our socio-cultural life?,” he asked.

Gupta started his speech by pointing out that progress has been made on the broadcast front. “Cricket is now available not just 1–2, but 7–8 languages across this country. Viewership for India cricket is at an all-time high. And national and regional leagues like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are further gaining momentum.

But what is even more exciting is that India is moving beyond its previously typecast position of being only a cricket country.

A rustic sport like kabaddi, which was traditionally played in the mud grounds of hinterland India, suddenly has acquired the stature of a leading national sport within its launch year in 2014. In fact, the number of people coming in to watch the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) is comparable to cricket.

“We have given India a truly Indian sport to root for,” Gupta remarked.

At the Olympics, usually a time for the country’s intelligentsia to lament the dismal state of affairs, there emerged a whole new contingent of achievers and role models. Suddenly, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik became household names. And Dipa Karmakar, a girl from a small-town in Agartala, became an icon of achievement and a new ‘can do’ spirit.

Gupta is excited about local leagues being formed in different sports. Today, there are national leagues in badminton, hockey, wrestling and soon one in P1 Powerboat racing. Was this conceivable even five years ago?

And of course, football! A sport which has been around on TV in this country for the last two decades but seen as an ‘elitist sport’, the kind of interest and excitement around it has never been seen before.

The Indian Super League, for the first time, has managed to bring the game to our doorstep.

It has been the largest breakout in the Indian footballing ecosystem—from an all-time high television viewership to huge stadia attendance and enabling a superior experience for fans.

“419-mn people in this country switched on their television sets to watch the first season of the ISL. It is now the third most attended football league in the world! The ISL has managed to bring football to the radar of our national consciousness, where it is beeping brightly. This is not merely unprecedented. This is a revolutionary and seismic change,” Gupta added.

But even at an individualistic level, in a country where there has been no concept or cultural yearning for physical fitness, people are stepping out of their houses more and more to run.

“More than ever before, I see men and women, of all ages, on jogging tracks and on the roads, training hard for marathons and half-marathons! There are 40–50,000 such people in Mumbai alone. It is truly fascinating, if not somewhat surreal, to see people who aren’t athletes doing this not for a trophy, but for themselves. There is a genuine sense of community and bonding. It would not be an exaggeration to say that runners are a new caste in India,” Gupta said.

“The narrative of sports’ growth is so compelling and organic that nobody dare dispute it. This is a heady time for Indian sports,” he added.