Let's play

Written by Anushree Chandran | Updated: May 21 2014, 00:52am hrs
When Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan last month bought the Jaipur franchise of Pro Kabaddi league, he added Bollywood pizzazz to the newly minted Indian Premier League-style sports tournament to be held in the country in July-August this year. The league is a joint initiative of industrialist Anand Mahindra and sports commentator Charu Sharma and would feature eight city based franchises that would play on a home-and-away basis. Bachchan joins other marquee names of franchise holders such as Ronnie Screwvala (Mumbai), Kishore Biyani (Kolkata), Uday Kotak (Pune), Rana Kapoor (Delhi), Core Green Group (Vizag) and Kalapathi Investments (Chennai). The league has the backing of the International Kabaddi Federation, Asian Kabaddi Federation and Amateur Kabaddi Federation of India. The promoters have roped in the Singapore-based World Sports Group to market the event.

The countrys largest media buyer GroupM India estimates that between 2008-2013 sports marketing spends rose roughly twofold, with a total spend of R21.39 billion in 2008 which rose by 92% to R41.1 billion by 2014. The market is slotted to grow exponentially in the next few years with other sports such as football, basketball, distance running, golf, motorsport, tennis, hockey, etc., complementing the cricket story.

This is quite easily the most exciting and volatile time for the sports genre in India, with alternative sports being given its share of limelight and professional leagues being launched and others being planned and plotted. Brightly-lit stadiums, frenzied audiences, coloured confetti, cheer leaders, merchandise are all par for the course, and the properties are being promoted and cushioned by corporate groups, broadcast groups and Bollywood.

Charu Sharma, director of Mashal Sports, says that his connect with kabaddi came as a result of being the world feed commentator for the sport during the Doha Asian Games in 2006. It was easy to see that with appropriate marketing, television and the infusion of reputed corporate entities, kabaddi could become huge as a spectator sport. The plans took some time to brew, but were finally set in motion when Anand Mahindra, realising the immense popularity, potential and patriotism connected to this unique Indian heritage sport, came on board as a co-promoter, he said.

Sharma is delighted with the response that he has had from various corporate groups who have come in as franchise owners, and others who are interested in coming on board as sponsors. With its pan-Indian following and mass based support, Pro Kabaddi should be an ideal promotion vehicle for the hundreds of fast moving consumer goods looking for a big reach at value for money propositions, Sharma says, pointing out that the story for non-cricket sports is not unfolding now. It is returning. Many moons ago, most sports were on an equal footing in terms of popularity. But with the advent of television in the early eighties, the coverage of sports in India increasingly became skewed to one single sport. Other sports in India wilted because of the paucity of attention and lack of commercial support. The return of the non-cricketing sports we are now witnessing is stemming from the realisation that there is a cricket overdose, says Sharma, Add to that, unsavoury developments in cricket. The support of corporate groups in the growth of non-cricket is what is leading the revolution, as per him. Anand Mahindra has built many successful businesses. It wasnt just my conversations and presentations with him, but also the observations shared by Heidi Ueberroth of the NBA about the immense potential of kabaddi, that led to Mahindra offering his unstinting support and guidance to the Pro Kabaddi project, says Sharma.

Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra said to BrandWagon on the eve of the launch that a game as spirited as kabaddi needed a league of its own. I realised that this was a game that was ideally suited for television audiences. While its played in all small towns, we realised that it could be re-invented. We knew that a broadcaster such as the Star network will be able to publicise and promote this format, he said, adding that he was investing in this league in a personal capacity. He may invest in other sports at a later stage. When asked if he was also looking at investing in or helping build sports infrastructure in the country, Mahindra's answer was that the infrastructure is already present in India. The stadiums and the infrastructure is all there. What a game like kabaddi needs are corporate groups to fund leagues and put their money where the mouth is and broadcasters who publicise the game.

Rush of gold

The Pro Kabaddi league is just one of the non-cricket ventures spinning off in the country. The new cause of non-cricket sports is seeing a burst of crusaders. In India, global and media company IMG has formed a joint venture with Reliance Industries to develop and own sports, fashion and entertainment properties. Already, IMG Reliance has signed a 30-year partnership with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to develop basketball at every stage, from the grassroots to a professional league. The BFI has granted IMG Reliance commercial rights, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. IMG Reliance separately signed a 15-year partnership with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body for football (soccer) in India. IMG Reliance, in cooperation with the AIFF, will radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularise and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level. This agreement grants IMG Reliance all commercial rights to football across all football properties controlled by AIFF including but not limited to the national teams and all current and future professional leagues. Such rights include media rights, sponsorship and advertising rights, licensing and merchandising rights, franchise rights, new league rights and any other commercial rights attached to any of these properties. IMG Reliance and Star India are together bringing in the Indian Super League (ISL), under the aegis of AIFF.

Its inaugural season is in September-October 2014. Spanish club Atletico Madrid, former cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly as well as top Bollywood actors are among the owners of eight franchises. According to tournament organisers, franchises paid about $25 million for a team for 10 years in the ISL.

The Indian Badminton League, a franchise league by the Badminton Association of India (BAI), came in last year. The league had six franchises which represented the Indian cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Lucknow. There is also the launch of the World Kabaddi League (WBL), a personal venture headed by Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. The league follows the Formula 1 touring sports format and will be played across four continents starting August to December. The Hockey India League, a professional league for field hockey competition in India, is organised by Hockey India. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has just announced the launch of its first online store in India, in association with e-commerce platform Jabong. There is a collection of nearly 200 products for both sexes and these are priced between R1,400 and R14,000. The body had announced JAM, a basketball tournament across Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad last year. Mahesh Bhupathi had announced the launch of the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) earlier, the franchises of which will be spread across Asia. Six teams from six Asian cities are to compete in the franchise-based league. Six to ten players will be picked up in an auction in January with total salaries in the range of $4-10 million. IPTL is expected to host its first season in 2014-end.

White knight investors

Ronnie Screwvala, the founder and former chief of the UTV Group (now owned by Disney) has purchased the Mumbai franchise of Pro-Kabaddi. He has also bought a football club and training academy based in Mumbai called PIFA FC. His company Unilazer Ventures has formed a sports division that is looking to build sports apart from cricket. Screwvala says, Cricket has and will remain a very popular sport for India. However, there are many other sports, some of them waiting to break out as they have real mass appeal and others that just need more visibility. Football is a very fast paced game. Also, its a focused game and needs speed and focus and tons of training. It also needs young players to commit to this sport very early in their age and for them to be trained well - more like at 14 years and so this needs parental support and belief that this can be a career for their kids and more so that football will also teach them as much as they will learn in class rooms with academics. In his view, the onus is on schools and faculty and principals to believe that sports ensures all-round growth for the youth, and not just an extracurricular activity.

Screwvala says that football will grow in popularity over the next five years as more young Indians follow it and play it. There is also a need to train seriously for this sport, as it is global in frontiers and in that sense is much bigger than cricket. Kabaddi, he says, is a fabulous hardcore Indian sport, but just because a lot of the urban youth dont see it as aspirational or a fun sport, the media hasnt given it the right recognition. Its a sport waiting to break out in popularity, as it is played a lot in the heart of India and with a little visibility and television spotlight and stars getting popular and the fact that it is a fun game to watch and that the players can be hotit will soon gain traction. He is also evaluating other sports such as badminton and tennis. I think badminton and tennis is stepping out and will gain traction - and both need to be tracked.

Broadcasters the big hope

Star India has committed $3.2 billion for developing its sports investments in the country, and a lot of it will be channelised into non-cricket sports. Star India is acting as a catalyst in a big way as far as new sports properties go. As a company, we are actively thinking beyond cricket and are committed to growing the sports business in India, says Star Indias chief operating officer Sanjay Gupta. Whether it is us, or the corporate houses that are supporting upcoming sports, people are thinking much bigger. There are a number of catalysts coming together. More investments are brewing and the games are being scaled up. The three big sports that we expect to take off in a big way in India are football, kabaddi and hockey.

Gupta says that he is also watching with interest the growth of badminton and tennis. There is a new tennis league being formed that we are watching closely. I think its interesting that a number of corporate groups, league promoters and broadcasters are coming together for this growth in sports. It is truly a meeting of minds, he says. Gupta says Stars strategy is threefold. The first is to make non-cricket sports a mass market genre and to increase awareness about other sports. The second is to drive some of these properties digitally and to improve the quality of viewing. The third, and perhaps the most important, is to grow the pay television market in India.

Gupta adds, For the sports business to work, you need to be ubiquitous. We are present in all avenues and reach out to more than 60 crore people every week through our network, said Gupta. While Star India is part owner of the Super League, it is clear that it will mostly support other properties as the broadcaster and not as owner. The broadcast business is what our expertise lies in, he says.

Meanwhile, the Zee group owned Ten Sports has signed a three-year deal to broadcast the Hyundai A-League, Australias premier football league run by the Football Federation of Australia (FFA). The network has other non-cricket properties such as Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and the Hockey World Cup. Channel Six, part of Multi Screen Media (MSM), have stacked up on properties such as the FIFA World Cup. The sports scene is completely dominated by Star with the Board of Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) cricket rights and the Team India sponsorship rights. Other television networks have to make do with the leftovers and by default, are leading a revolution in non-cricket sports, said an analyst at a sports marketing firm, who did not want to be named.

Companies as evangelists

Football in India is an idea whose time has come. Coca-Cola over the years has been supporting grassroot development of football around the world and in India, says Debabrata Mukherjee, vice-president, marketing and commercial at Coca-Cola India and South West Asia. It has a property called The Coca-Cola Cup, which has been launching talented young footballers for several years now. The tournament creates a platform for selection of the national under-16 squad and serves as an active talent pipeline for building a competitive team for the next U-17 Football World Cup.

Mukherjee says that FIFA is poised to announce the Indian squad for the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup in December; all eyes are set on these young talented players who have emerged from the U-16 and U-15 teams. Over 40,000 players from more than 2,500 schools across 75 cities participated in the last season of The Coca-Cola Cup, creating a huge pool of gifted footballers.

Yes Bank says that it finds great potential in sports banking, in other words, banking with clients in Indias apex sports bodies such as the BCCI, All India Football Association, Hockey India among others. Several sports associations are keen on IPL-styled franchisee-based leagues to boost the growth of their respective sports in the country, says Karan Ahluwalia, president and country head, media and entertainment, sports and luxury banking group of Yes Bank. Sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, one that has bucked the economic downturn and continued at a brisk pace, he asserts. The global sports sector is worth $480620 billion and contributes 15% to the GDP of various countries. Although at a nascent stage, the Indian sports industry presents substantial opportunities. Globally, sport is a major contributor to the GDP of developed and developing nations. In India, the sports sector has the potential to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 5%, from $1.53 billion in 2011 to $1.89 billion in 2015. The young burgeoning middle class of India with their increasing disposable income offers huge consumption potential for the business of sports. Investments in sports by the private sector earlier formed part of its corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. However, the advent of sporting leagues in recent years has spurred interest in companies to monetise sports through sponsorships and owning of leagues and franchises, he says.

In Ahluwalias opinion, the advent of the IPL has changed the mindset tremendously. You can see the spillover effect of the IPL in Hockey India League, Indian Badminton League and even the much talked about Indian Super League. With the opportunities to develop sports in India vast, it is critical that this wave is used for talent spotting at the grassroots level and creating sustainable infrastructure via the public private partnership route."

Vodafone India says that it is associated with Vodafone Sirmur Cup (Polo-Rajasthan), Goa Football Development Council Rising Stars Football Festival (Goa) and the inaugural season of the Indian Badminton League . "Badminton has won laurels for the country at several international events including the Olympics. Vodafone partnered with the Indian Badminton League as badminton is a sport that most Indians associate with and we see this as a paradigm shift in the sports entertainment industry, said Ronita Mitra, senior vice president, brand communications and insights, Vodafone India.

She adds that that the Vodafone Goa Football Development Council Rising Stars festival 2013 organised a six-month long championship with participation of 600 aspiring, under-14 footballers. Similarly the Vodafone

Cycling Marathon 2014 event witnessed participation of 3,000 cycling enthusiasts from all age groups. Others such as bowling company PVR bluO say that they organise events such as the amateur Corporate Bowling Tournament which generate interest at a regional level.

The last edition of the tournament, which happened in September 2013, witnessed more than 125 teams from the Capital/NCR region, in comparison to 100 teams which participated in the year before that. Vishal Sawhney, country head and chief operating officer, PVR bluO says that this year the tournament was also organised in Bangalore for the first time and saw more than 60 teams participating.

He says that niche sports such as golf, bowling and cycling have started to see a spurt. Brands such as Lufthansa Renault, Woodland, Gift Big, Universal Music, Ayesha, VLCC, Victorinox and many more have associated with the Corporate Bowling Tournament. These brands see immense value and connect with the tournament considering the target group, i.e., corporate executives in the 25-40 years age group.