How could India be made a sporting powerhouse was the topic of discussion during the inaugural edition of the Apollo Tyres Sports Conclave.
The panellists included former Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar; former Manchester United striker Andy Cole; Abhishek Bachchan, co-owner Chennaiyan FC and Jaipur Pink Panthers; Vita Dani, chairperson, Ultimate Table Tennis and co-owner, Chennaiyan FC; Neeraj Kanwar, vice chairman and managing director, Apollo Tyres; and Hemen Tseayo, chief strategy officer, Manchester United.
The talk was moderated by sports journalist Digvijay Singh Deo.
Much emphasis was placed on the grassroots, with all the panellists agreeing that a sporting powerhouse can only be established once the setting is achieved.
Tendulkar explained that while a career is an aspiration for many, just playing a sport could also help make a country fitter and healthier.
“For any country to be a sporting power, you have to inculcate a sporting culture from the grassroots. In India, we love watching sports but not playing them. To make this change, schools should make sports compulsory. The choice of the sport, however, should be in the hands of the child. A fitter and healthier person will perform better in any field they professionalise in,” he said.
Tendulkar added that playing a sport at the grassroots also allows experts to identify talent and nurture them to a career in sport.
"Once the talent is identified, they can be part of specialised training camps. Then, facilities become important. Once they achieve their targets like Neeraj Chopra did during the Olympics, those athletes need to be celebrated. It’s not only the winners but also those who represented India during the Olympics, that need to be celebrated. The more you interact with them, the more the younger generation will get inspired," added Tendulkar.
Echoing Tendulkar’s point-of-view, Kanwar added, “Today, it's all about academics and most of the time is spent in school on studying. While achieving a medal in the Olympics is the final aim, for getting to the grassroots of the country and finding hidden talent in the rural districts, private corporations need to create public partnerships with the Government, to get inroads into those rural markets and start the wave of sports in India.”
Kanwar also stated that India has huge potential in sport and can succeed if the money invested by the corporates goes into the right hands.
“We have to channel our resources in the right direction. In the past, I have seen resources go into the wrong hands. We need to focus all our resources on the right cause,” he added.
Cole stated how the grassroots have helped footballers like him create a career in the sport.
“When I started playing football, we were getting scouted from the age of 10. When you're talking about grassroots now, it's from the ages of five onwards.”
Adding to the point Kanwar made about sport versus academics, Cole stated that it can’t be one or the other for children, it has to be a marriage of both.
Dani, who is chairperson of Ultimate Table Tennis, spoke about how the league helped India progress from having just two players in the top 50 in 2018 to now having 12 in that list, and 21 in the top 100.
“I think what's most important is to be the dark horse in any sport. That makes your expectations less. It's important that a country of our size backs the right talent and ensures they have what it takes to excel in the sport,” she said.
She shared how Chennaiyan FC has camps in Tamil Nadu which now have around 60,000 children as part of the training camps, helping them find the right talent.
Bachchan spoke about the importance of leagues and how they’ve helped the sport grow in the country and stated that once you put a sport on television and market it well, it will end up growing.
“The one thing we shouldn't beat ourselves about is the systems and processes. They are going to take some time and we have to understand that. The corporate world got involved in sport only after 2007 and 2008. After the advent of the IPL, privatised leagues took off in India. We had the Pro Kabaddi League, the Indian Super League and other sports. That's how you generate interest in any sort of sport,” said Bachchan.
Adding to the topic of grassroots, Bachchan informed the panellists that all ISL teams have a stated mandate to have a grassroots programme running to help identify and nurture talent from a very young age.
Bachchan also requested all involved stakeholders to have patience. “In India, the leagues are around a decade old. Other leagues, like the English league, have been running for more than 100 years. They've had systems in place and do a wonderful job of marketing worldwide,” he said.
Bachchan claimed that Manchester United has done a great job of putting the word of football out there.
Pointing out the success India had in the Olympics this year (a Gold, two Silver and four Bronze medals) Tseayo stated that the country is making progress on its journey to becoming a powerhouse.
“It's been fascinating to see India's journey. When you think of India and the Olympics, hockey is what it was associated with.
In terms of progress, in the last 20 years, India has evolved from one medal in 2000, to seven in 2022. In six different sports, seven wins are good. With a billion people, you have individuals who can be world-class in everything,” he said.
Tseayo also pointed to the pool of participation that has to be increased to get more medals.
Tendulkar agreed on the patience bit mentioned by Bachchan, but stated that one can’t wait for things to happen and should explore possibilities to fast forward the development.
“Our infrastructure is getting better and more organised. People are supporting various sports and are fully committed to what they want to achieve. It's some time away but there will be light at the end of the tunnel. I wouldn't forget our Paralympians. We got 19 medals in the Paralympics and it's a massive jump from the 12 we got last time around. We need to celebrate them more, and we can't wake up every four years,” he said.
Stating that sports around India are seeing the right investments from corporates, Dani explained that it’s time to implement the right systems.
“India is a young country and you're looking at consumers and spenders of the age of 35. You have to keep them engaged and entertained and that's where the leagues will play a big role. Whether it's esports, on the ground, or on TV or digital, it's all going to be consumed,” she said.
Dani also referred to USA’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), as a system to follow.
“This allows students to pursue sport and education at the highest level. If we target schools, we get the right talent,” added Dani.
Tseayo added that participating in sports now could be more lucrative as there are careers outside of being an athlete that are extremely lucrative.
“We are aware that only a small percentage of people make it big, but participating in sport is an end in itself. More people will be aware that there's a whole industry around sport - doctors, accountants, coaches, and more. This way you can be aligned with the sport. So, marketing a sport is a part of it. Don't market just the pinnacle, but everything around the sport. The industry is about emotion. It's a religion at the highest level. The joy and the despair is a wonderful thing and brings people together,” he said.
Tendulkar thanked big corporates for getting involved in sports and supporting clubs and said that without this, things in sport could have been very different.
“There's a commitment from association and boards, but you need money, and the corporates are investing now. The results will soon follow,” he said.
Kanwar added that corporates need to invest with the Government to create academies for sports.
“Today, we have more than 180 engineering colleges in India. Now, the wave has become software engineers. Where are our colleges for sports? Do we have public/private partnerships for sport? I don't know of any, even if they have. The entire DNA and infrastructure have to change. The mindset of the country has to change. India with its population can do it. China, 20 years ago were nowhere in the medal tally, now they're in the top three,” he said.
Pointing to Prakash and Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati, Kanwar stated that each of them had to travel abroad to get the right infrastructure to build their games because it wasn’t available in India.
He ended the panel by stating the importance of marketing as a tool to promote sport in India.
“We have to show the success of sports in the other parts of the world so that parents see that and believe that it's possible,” he said.