George Orwell said of sport, “It’s war minus the shooting.” Unfortunately, he wasn't around to witness a billion people celebrate Abhinav Bindra’s 10m air rifle exploits in Beijing, China. More than a billion people produced a solitary gold medal, a tally comparable to Finland which also won a medal in shooting that year and had an overall tally greater than India. We haven't repeated that feat since, even though we’ve launched a dozen sports leagues and the well-branded Khelo India programme. It’s 2020 and you might be tempted to google the population of Finland and where the subsequent Olympics were held, but pray, please also look up India’s sports budget and while you’re at it, 'Winter Olympics' is also quite a search string.
I began writing this piece on India’s National Sports Day. Established in 2012 to commemorate the birth anniversary of hockey legend Dhyan Chand, hockey is the only team sport that we have won Olympic medals in. It is also the sport that gave India the first professional league and then a few, all of which failed to revive the sport that has been usurped by Cricket.
We are a few days away from the biggest cricketing property in India, the IPL, being held in UAE this year because of the pandemic.
Since its announcement, there has been controversy around its location, its sponsors and what have you? From its inception, it has relied on such sensationalism to bolster equity among fans. To be fair, the popularity of the game determines every dollar moving towards it.
Just look at this google trend graph from the last 3 months. Starts from the point at which the lockdown was being lifted and people could start thinking about outdoorsy stuff, like going to a stadium to scream at the top of their lungs.
The trend shows the relative interest between the IPL (blue line, duh!), two other popular leagues and the Olympics.
If you’re wondering how decisions on brand spends are taken, this is a quick reflection. It’s easier to justify media spends associated with a popular tournament backed by graphs like these than on building hard-working brand stories around leagues people aren't searching for enough.
Every sport in India other than cricket is in the business of creating interest while cricket is in the business of managing interest.
India’s performance at the theatre of sporting excellence (Olympics) has been abysmal, so we take solace in the fact that we are the most powerful cricket playing nation. Not the most successful, mind you. Combine the clout and riches BCCI enjoys with the passion millions of Indians have for cricket, it's shocking how we don't win everything cricket.
But that’s how inexplicably sport works. Passion and hard work often level even seemingly lopsided fields. This is probably the real reason why IPL is such a massive success. Irrespective of which club wins, it’ll be Indian and that would sit ok with young Indians who are exposed to the global sport but parched for Indian sporting success. BCCI’s coffers fuel cricket at the grassroots level, the same cannot be said for other sports that are run by government federations.
Corporates and their interests are a function of cultural relevance reflected in tools such as the Google trend graph, so we can't really blame them for their lack of endorsement. If anything, corporations such as Hero and Tata have consistently supported other sports over decades. It’s a hard task for them to build an ecosystem that is countrywide and generate audience interests like Cricket, thanks largely to what happened in 1983 at Lord’s. Organisations such as Olympic Gold Quest and GoSports are a start, but it’s too little.
Did you google the sports budget then? Assuming you got a little lost in the Finish loop, I’ll put it here. Don't hold your breath though! Announced in February (just so we’re clear that the pandemic did not influence this), it is a piddly INR 2827 crore. Stagnant, even declining if you account for inflation, certainly inadequate if you look at the global sports superpowers our athletes compete with when they get on any real-world stage. I love cricket but it’s not part of the Olympic charter and is played seriously by six nations of which two were us pre-partition. I mean Curling, a sport which uses brooms as one of the equipment is part of the Olympic programme.
From a sportsperson's point of view, India could certainly use a mopper of some kind to clean up the corruption in Indian sport. Even the disbursement of the pittance that the government offers sport is hard to trace down to the athlete. The absence of funding and the struggle of competing in the sport itself can disillusion sportsmen who are trying to make it as pros, drying the overall pool of talent. A shrinking competitive set means continental and international standards are just too high for Indian athletes.
This explains why India’s success in individual sports is Centre of Excellence led, whether it is Pullela Gopichand’s Badminton academy in Hyderabad or certain wrestling and boxing circuits in Haryana.
The number one sport in the world, football, where India’s ranking is 108 (as of July 2020) has been given a boost by ISL, will take at least half a century-long commitment to build audience partisanship which is an essential ingredient of any club sport. It’s symptomatic of the times we live in when one can say with more certainty that 'Reliance can' while India might not be able to.
The pandemic offered Indian sports polity a unique opportunity to give precedence to some of these sports over IPL. The proven bubble model that all sports leagues around the world have created around the tournament participants could have been adopted by these challenger leagues. For instance, Pro Kabaddi League scheduled for mid-July should have started by now. ISL that typically starts its season mid-October will also see IPL encroaching on its timelines. We have to understand that while it’s not cricket vs the rest but unfortunately our sporting and sponsorship ecosystem can only have one sport at a time (barring the Reliance effect). So in effect, IPL, which lost its season first, wants it back first and will have first dibs at the non-Chinese sponsors. Even though logistically it would be easier to organise Kabaddi (second most popular league, also not an Olympic sport) also backed by Vivo.
The model to privatise team sports, a copy-paste of IPL without similar funding support or a healthy grass root program will never generate the interest required to sustain it. Watching ISL when you can watch European football is one of the most nationalist things an Indian football fan can do right now.
While these traditional sports passed up on the opportunity, Chess, forever the dark horse (no pun intended) of Indian sport ceased its moment by ushering in a new era. Success at the Chess Olympiad (joint winners with Russia) where the baton was smoothly passed from India’s first Rajeev Gandhi Khel Ratna awardee and NIIT brand endorser for years (still think that association was a coup), Vishwanathan Anand to the current India team captain, Vidit Gujrathi.
Vidit glibly talks about Chess’ future as an e-sport. Live streaming has democratised the viewership. The impetus for which, as it usually is, was available at the intersection of sport and standup comedy. It was comedian Samay Raina’s live streams that made Chess accessible, with other popular comics such as Abish Mathew joining in to amplify the reach of the movement. These are the kind of innovations that need to be adopted by challenger sports in India.
Personally, sport has helped me navigate awkward conversations and even make new friends while I travel and plonk myself on bar stools. I wish I can do that in our cities to start with. I wish that we enquire about our summer olympian’s training for the now postponed Tokyo Olympics. I wish we make more documentaries on the struggles of our Olympic heroes like Mary Kom and Milkha Singh. And I wish for our own sake that we can stop being a one-sport nation.
The author is founder, creative and strategy director, Rasta.
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