India Inc has entered the country's sporting arena, and is changing the way the nation plays.
Club owners and representatives of sponsors and organisers take apledge over a football replica during the emblem-unveiling ceremony of the Indian Super League in August 2014.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was taken for granted that an aspiring sportsperson in India would have to do any or all of the following:
- Secure a job in a public sector company, or a large private sector one, for a regular income.
- Scramble for corporate sponsorship to be able to compete at international or even national tournaments.
- Depend on government-run training facilities and sporting federations to be selected for tournaments and get adequate training.
- Not consider the sport a viable full-time career option.
But, over the past few years, the Indian sporting arena is beginning to look different: Sports other than cricket are drawing spectators, television audiences; more sportspeople are treating their discipline as a substantial, if not primary, source of income and moulding full-time careers out of them; and the dependence on government-run organisations for training is on the wane.
Assuming a substantial role in this change is a new player in the arena: India Inc.
Billion-dollar TV rights, millions of viewers across the globe, and consequent ad revenues, ticket and merchandise sales are bringing in money like never before. The television spectacle that started with cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) has, by now, spilled over into other fields with the Indian Super League (ISL, 429 million viewers), Indian Badminton League (IBL, 21 million viewers), and Pro Kabaddi League (PKL, 435 million viewers). ISL has emerged as the fourth biggest football league in the world by average stadium attendance (24,357 per game), ahead of the French, Italian and Brazilian leagues. Its success presents a stark contrast to the older avatar of football in the country: The I-League, which averaged 5,618 spectators per match for the 2013-14 season.
Although this new-found interest of corporate India and private enterprise in the development of sports in the country has various motivations—some are involved through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, others are in it simply for the potential big bucks—the biggest gainers are perhaps sportspeople and fans. Changed lives
That MS Dhoni is one of the highest revenue-earners in Indian sport is well known: He rakes in more than Rs 100 crore a year from brand endorsements, an IPL deal and a contract with the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI). Lesser-known is the fact that he was recently promoted by Air India from deputy manager to manager of their Ranchi office. For Dhoni, his career at Air India may be nothing more than a vestige of his days as a beginner, but similar jobs continue to hold more value for other sportspersons. Take, for instance, Rakesh Kumar, captain of India’s international kabaddi team. Kumar, a Haryana lad with humble beginnings, is employed as senior ticket collector with the Indian Railways, with a monthly salary of Rs 50,000. He’s been part of national teams that have won Gold at two World Cups, three Asian Games and two South Asian Games. For his achievements, he was rewarded by the Delhi government: Rs 15 lakh for the 2010 Asian Games Gold, and Rs 20 lakh for the 2014 Asian Games Gold.
But it was with PKL that Kumar’s financial fortunes turned around significantly: He was paid Rs 12.8 lakh by the Patna Pirates to play for just over a month (he got the highest bid for the season); he will also be earning about Rs 30 lakh from his participation in TV reality show Khatron Ke Khiladi.
Although fortune has not shone as brightly, yet, for other PKL players, things are definitely looking up. “Even now, most PKL players are dependent on permanent jobs. But it gives sportsmen immense pride to be earning something from their sport,” says Charu Sharma, director of Mashal Sports, the organiser of the kabaddi league. “The whole concept of pro sport is to compensate to the level of individual achievement. When a pro league starts, that’s when true quality is recognised. That pushes up standards: You want to play better because you know it will earn you more and more.”
Kabaddi has always been a huge sport in India, but was largely ignored by the media. “Mumbai has 500 kabaddi clubs; it’s the biggest sport of the city,” says Sharma. “There was always support. We just presented the new, slick, sophisticated face of the game. Once the Star TV juggernaut moved in, it ramped up the league.”
Star India plans to invest Rs 20,000 crore for sports broadcast rights in the next few years. Analysts say it’s a paying market with ad spends on sports packages pegged at Rs 4,000 crore annually. Star has successfully utilised its network of sporting and non-sporting channels to promote PKL and ISL, aided in no small measure by the presence of celebrity team-owners who drum up interest, viewership and stadium turn-outs.
IBL and ISL have done something similar for its own franchise players.
In the past, badminton players would only make money if they won tournaments. But IBL has given them a substantial and steady source of income. For instance, when Srikanth Kidambi—currently ranked No. 4 in the world—won the 2013 Thailand Open, he won $9,000. But in the 2013 IBL auction, he was bought for $34,000 by the Lucknow Warriors.
In football, Chandigarh’s Sandesh Jhingan had played with two I-League clubs before being signed on by Kerala Blasters for ISL and earning Rs 25 lakh for its 2014 season. He was a break-out performer and was awarded ISL Emerging Player of the League. “His price will probably be Rs 80 lakh next year, the maximum auction price,” says Anuj Kichlu, CEO of The Football Edge, the agency that manages Jhingan.