Vivek Kumar, 32, grew up in the industrial town of Jamshedpur in the late 1990s, playing cricket and basketball like many other children his age. But after Kumar finished studying and moved to work for a non-profit organization in Nagpur. In Delhi, his childhood friend Nikhil Jha faced the same issue, and the two would often bemoan the lack of a sports routine.

“It was a big lifestyle vacuum," says Kumar, who is now based in Gurugram, near Delhi, over the phone before heading out to play an evening game of basketball. “There weren’t many options. Sometimes you wouldn’t find people to play with and sometimes you wouldn’t have a space." In school, it had been natural. “But once you enter the corporate zone, it goes missing," says Kumar.

Playing a sport after leaving school or college is hard in Indian cities—grounds are few, schedules are tight, distances are long and it is often difficult to find a group for a team sport.

In March last year, the two friends, along with a third co-founder, Abhishek Arora, launched GoSporto, an app to connect players and find grounds across Delhi for a variety of sports. They had started in 2010, trying an offline model, so the transition to online was inevitable and seamless.

A number of developers have sensed similar opportunities, mostly across major cities, and launched a clutch of apps, in the process helping working people reconnect with their childhood passions or incorporate exercise in a crowded daily routine. These include GroundWala, Playo, Sportzify and Khel Now, which have been launched across Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Most have been launched in the past two-three years, offering everything from badminton and tennis to football and cricket, with working people in their 20s and 30s forming the main target group.

“We find Zomato for food, TripAdvisor for travelling, IMDB for movies but nothing for sports," says Ashish Negi, country head for Khel Now, which is trying to integrate football players, coaches and fans on a single platform. “Hence our idea was to create the same type of an ecosystem in the sports arena."

The details might differ, but the rough idea is to bring back recreational sports into the daily routine. For the app developers, though, there were twin problems to tackle: one was space. There are sports clubs and gymkhanas everywhere, but many have restrictive annual memberships that are expensive and beyond the reach of most. The other, naturally, was finding a partner or a team.

The apps have sought to slice through these logistical hurdles by sorting out agreements with clubs that have pay-per-use slots or helping access derelict grounds or available school and college campuses after-hours. A small terrace could be converted into a play space, a 6,000 sq.m area suffices for the fast and furious five-a-side futsal, for instance. “There are some grounds we hadn’t even heard about," says Vishwanath Reddy, 40, owner of a dental laboratory in Hyderabad who plays cricket every week now after using GroundWala. “Maybe we wouldn’t have been able to play otherwise."

At GroundWala, research suggests there are 200 million urban men in India in the 20-45 age group, a vast pool for such apps to tap. Sports viewership is also increasing across India beyond cricket. “With things like the Fifa Under 17 World Cup (being hosted in India) or the success of Indian badminton, this has an impact on amateur players," says Ankur Singh, 36, founder of GroundWala, which is available in Hyderabad, Pune and Delhi. “When you watch a sport, you also want to play it."

An interested amateur simply needs to log on to find other players or grounds. Many of these apps have other value-added options, such as providing equipment, hosting monthly tournaments and local leagues, in addition to maintaining a regular player base. “We just want people to start playing again," says Vikash Singh, chief executive officer of Sportzify. “And what if we can make that accessible?"

Since the 1990s, going to the gym has become the primary fitness routine for city people and more formalized sports have lost ground significantly. “We aren’t saying the gym is not important," says Daanish Suhail, the Bengaluru-based co-founder of Playo. “But we want people to realize that sports can be a fitness routine and a social option. It’s a great way to meet people."

When Gurugram-based Abhishek Arora, 23, started playing football a month ago through GoSporto, it introduced him to a wider circle and brought some excitement into his exercise routine. He had been to the gym only twice during his six-month membership period. “Gym was too boring," says Arora, who works in social media marketing. “But this is something to look forward to after office."

After every game, players can rate other players on GoSporto. Similarly, Sportzify allows for post-match performance analysis based on your data, which means players are also being pushed to sharpen their skills. “What if people are looking to improve their game?" asks Vikash Singh. “We need to engage with people on the ground as well (not just online)."

Currently, women represent a minority on such platforms, comprising between 20-35% of users, say developers, although in some sports such as badminton, they are present in larger numbers. Still, broadly speaking, the amateur sports industry in the country is in its nascent stage. “It won’t grow in percentages but in multiples," says Ankur Singh of GroundWala. “This particular industry is at a tipping point."

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