Swimming against the tide in Indian sports

Swimming against the tide in Indian sports

Mumbai: Last March, Hakimuddin Habibulla persuaded the parents of Virbhawal Khade, a high school student from Kolhapur, that some things were worth missing school exams for. And to prove it, his company funded the 14-year-old’s participation in the World Swimming Championship.

Last month, the efforts paid off: Khade became the youngest Indian to represent the country at the Beijing Olympics.

In 2006, Habibulla, a national swimmer-turned-software engineer, and two friends from school quit their day jobs to set up sports management company, GoSports India Pvt. Ltd, in Bangalore. Their aim is to nurture talent early on in sports other than cricket, and especially focus on the Olympics.

“Sports, more than other careers, involves exceptionally high risks and not enough rewards yet so it is a very underdeveloped industry in India," says co-founder Nandan Kamath, who practised law in the US for three years before starting GoSports. Thus far, the firm has taken on three sportspersons: Delhi-based swimmer Sandeep Tejwal, Bangalore’s badminton player Anup Sridhar and Khade. All three qualified for the Beijing games.

GoSports offers a player the right coach, the best places to train and, most importantly, sponsorship. It invests its money to fund the sportsman until initial success is validated and other sponsors can be found. In Khade’s case, it secured Rs25 lakh per year from the Mittal Champions Trust and Rs45 lakh annually from the government. Its revenue model involves a basic monthly management fee and taking a percentage of the players’ endorsements and prize money. The endorsement market in India, the company estimates, is about Rs200 crore a year.

The company dabbles in a high-risk business, one that depends entirely on the success of its players.

Not only is there little advertising money outside mainstream sports, but also “stiff competition and fragmentation in this arena, as there are many individual agents," says Suvir Sujan, managing director of VC firm Nexus India Capital, a venture capital firm. Kamath likens GoSports to a venture capital business: “If we take on 20 people, we need one or two successes first."