Sunil Yash Kalra, 30, pulls out piles of colourful hockey equipment from a plastic packet, dumps them on the table in his small ninth floor New Delhi office, and says: “If these don’t attract the kids, I don’t know what will.”
Kalra, a partner at a sports consultancy, is planning what he believes to be India’s first invitational public school hockey carnival in early May; the equipment he displays has been specially brought from the sports manufacturing hub of Jalandhar to prevent injuries to children. The goal: convert children worshipping the only religion many of them know—cricket—into devotees of hockey.
His eight-member firm, Score Consultancy, is one of several young, small but growing sports management firms across India. Started in April last year, Score represents a significant trend in India of the move toward professionalism in sports—sleeker marketing and more avenues to promote or sponsor games, even beyond cricket. A count by Mint yielded at least seven such start-ups over the last year, apart from the India offices of multinational companies such as Ogilvy Sports and Havas Sports. By one estimate, the industry now generates around Rs1,500 crore annually; one sports marketing professor believes this will only grow as India prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
In many cases, the domestic firms have been set up by business-savvy individuals with little background in but lots of love for sports. Kalra, for example, says he “worships” sports and plans to write a book on hockey. T. Vishwanatha Reddy, 36, turned his back on the $100,000-a-year he was earning as a software engineer in the US to return to his native Hyderabad and set up Vishwam Sports Network Pvt. Ltd in January. He plans to help run a corporate cricket league and then hopes to move on to promoting elite badminton tournaments. And he wants them to be televised, sponsored, followed by fans.
“Someone in the TV networks should be passionate about Indian sports,” he said. “That is missing... Very few companies are generating sports content for TV at the domestic level.”
Other entrepreneurs have emerged on the scene to cater to the demands of foreign leagues, such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), that are looking for Indian business leaders who can ease their entry.
Score was hired by the Punjab government to promote basketball in the state last year; it brought former NBA star Robert Reid to train coaches. The Thiruvananthapuram-based SportzIndia Management Pvt. Ltd, similarly brought the flashy Harlem Globetrotters basketball team from the US for exhibition games last November. In Kolkata, little-known Allsports Management has designed a unique penalty shootout tournament that pits bureaucrats against corporate personnel once a year. And in Bangalore, the sports leisure and management company Sportz Village has just set up a division to evaluate a new business opportunity: private sector participation in sports infrastructure development.
Such businesses are still relatively new in India, a country long accused of not supporting athletes or sports beyond cricket. Former sharp shooter and Arjuna award winner Roopa Unnikrishnan says during her sporting days in the 1990s, there were times when she felt a professional manager would have landed a sponsorship so she could have had better training and equipment. “There’s a real difference in getting professional management,” Unnikrishnan, now working for a pharmaceutical company in the US, said in an e-mail interview.
Professional sports management first entered India in 1994 when the International Management Group (IMG), the world’s largest sports and entertainment management company, set up shop. But professional sports managers were usually tapped among candidates with a media background. For instance, IMG’s general manager of sales Tuhin Mishra had a mix of media, advertising and broadcasting background. He was also on the Delhi University swimming team, and that’s how he landed the IMG job.
Things are changing. Amit Chacko Thomas, 25, who started Roots Sports with two friends in Bangalore a few months ago, earned a post-graduate degree in sports management in 2004 from the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management (IISWBM), Kolkata. Thomas concedes Roots is struggling at the moment. “We need time,” he said hopefully.
On the whole, sports marketing continues to revolve around cricket. SportzIndia country head Anil Kumar—who once played basketball for the Kerala team—said one just could not wish away cricket. So SportzIndia has decided to leverage the national pastime. On 19 April, it signed an agreement with the owners of a plot of land to build a multi-sport facility in Thiruvananthapuram that will have nets for cricket practice—alongside roller skating, tennis, swimming and basketball.
Ogilvy Sport, set up late last year, also intends to expand beyond cricket, into football, motor sport, tennis, golf and Olympic disciplines. Prashant Singh, who heads Ogilvy Sport, said the company would make “announcements in the international football area in the next one month”. He would not elaborate.
Another area marketing consultants are eyeing is sports infrastructure. So convinced is Tapan Siwach of this market, which spans building practice grounds to vast, commercially supported stadiums, that he didn’t take up a regular job after a management course at Insead, Singapore, a leading business school.
A few weeks ago, the IIT alumnus, who once worked at oilfield and information services company Schlumberger Ltd, joined Sportz Village as its fourth director. His job profile includes persuading the private sector to invest in sports infrastructure projects.
Home-bred sports management companies, however, could face threat from global majors after a few years, said Pradip Dasgupta, head of the Naval Tata Centre of Excellence in Sports Management at Kolkata’s IISWBM, from where Thomas graduated three years ago.
The Indian sports market is an unexplored area for foreign companies, and when they set up shop, Indian companies have to compete with them, Dasgupta said.