Those who watched the semi finals and finals of the 2017 BWF World Championships of badminton over the weekend would have little hesitation in backing badminton as the sport of the future in India. As first Saina Nehwal and then P.V. Sindhu engaged in two brilliant matches with eventual champion Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, the sheer pace of the game, the closeness of both contests and the range of athletic abilities it called for would have been enough to convert even those who don’t follow the game on a regular basis.

Yet if you went by the lack of Indian corporate interest in the tournament, it would seem Saina and Sindhu’s epic struggles were just a little indulgence on the side while the serious business of sports was what our cricketing gladiators in Pallekele were engaged in as they manfully put to the sword a hapless Sri Lankan team. The uneven nature of that contest, the glaring lack of any spark of genius among the 22 men displaying their wares and the soporific nature of the game itself should, however, serve as a warning to Indian companies that cricket is now an aging franchise.

That corporate sponsorship in India is still focused on cricket reveals a singular lack of imagination on the part of Indian companies. As Mint reported in March, a majority of corporate sponsorship in India, according to a report jointly published by GroupM ESP and SportzPower, still goes into cricket, a game that for all the huffing and puffing of the last 140 years, remains confined to less than a dozen countries and has spectacularly failed to expand anywhere outside the subcontinent. 

In most sports that are truly global, no one nation or even set of nations is able to hold sway for too long. In soccer, Uruguay, which won two of the first four World Cup titles (in 1930 and 1950), is no longer among the superpowers of the game. Even Spain, which just eight years ago lorded over global soccer with its attractive tiki-taka style, has found itself upstaged by teams like Germany, Portugal, France and Argentina. The highly competitive leagues in England, Spain, Italy and Germany have broadened the scope of the game, giving players from smaller nations across the world a canvas on which to display their talents.

Contrast that with the much-trumpeted Indian Premier League into which Indian companies pumped over Rs1,000 crore in advertising last year. It features the same set of superstars from the handful of existing cricketing superpowers. Ironically, its only real achievement has been that it has upended the traditional five-day game which is clearly on its last legs.

While this myopia continues, India has made huge strides in games like badminton and even hockey. Those who point to India’s gold medal winning spree in Olympic hockey between the 1940s and 1960s ignore how much more competitive the game is today with over two dozen teams vying for the final stage of the World Cup. Belgium, the team India lost to in the quarter finals of the Rio Olympics last year, has zoomed out of nowhere to be the fancied team in most tournaments. India’s sixth rank in the FIH World Rankings list is highly creditable.

Yet if the changing public interest in the kind of sports Indians are watching seems to have been disregarded by most companies, a far bigger miss is how they’ve completely ignored the rise of Indian women in international sports. The world over there is increasing interest in sports properties that reach out to millennials and women.

Till recently, the Indian women’s cricket team which finished runners up in the World Cup in England had to rely on the largesse of the notoriously chauvinistic BCCI just to stay afloat. The packed stands at Lords and a worldwide audience of nearly 100 million for the finals which India lost to England should convince companies that there lopsided support for the men’s game needs some rethinking. It isn’t any longer about the sheer numbers that might turn up for a sporting event. Driven by the second screen, and HDTV, companies are now looking at levels of engagement.

Smart money always creates rather than chases the opportunity. For once, Indian companies have the opportunity of creating successful sporting properties that will reflect the changes in Indian society. Will they show the creative zeal to seize the chance?

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.

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