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The Fundamental Changes in Indian Sports Industry

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Something fundamental is changing when it comes to sports in India. After decades of lamenting about the abysmal performance of the country on any international level, we can spot the signs of change, as sport is slowly shaking off its torpid lethargy and awakening to new possibilities. A new set of sporting heroes has emerged in the last few years, and hearteningly, these new champions come from a wide cross section of sports. More importantly, sport as a brand is undergoing a gradual but decisive transformation. It is not as if India’s performance in the global arena has improved dramatically. It does well at the Commonwealth Games, has started showing some improvement in the Asiads, and while at the Olympics, the Indian showing is getting better, it is still far from being any kind of a player in the overall scheme of things. But numbers do not capture the full story. Historically, sport in India has been viewed as a form of leakage of capacity and intent. The time spent on sporting activity was time spent not doing something more meaningful.

Devoting time and energy to sport was in effect a drainage of potential; time and attention paid elsewhere would be deemed to pay richer dividends. The division between notions of work and play were firmly etched out, and sport, no matter how seriously pursued, was nevertheless seen as a form of play. Rationally, too, given the fact that sport as a career was a very high-risk choice, and one in which being successful was no guarantee of being able to make a half-decent living. Apart from the more proximate reasons for not pursuing sport, there was a deeper cultural one. The idea of engaging in sweaty physical activity was seen to be a lower-order pursuit. What was valorised were the pre-occupations that involved the upper body.

The mind and its exertions were exalted, and there was a strong class connotation attached to things physical. It is no surprise that the one game that Indians follow the most is cricket, which involves very little actual exertion. It is instructive that, even within cricket, there existed a clear hierarchy that aligned with class – batting, which involved the application of the wrist and needed timing more than strength, was looked up to the most, followed by bowling, which at least for the few fast bowlers India could boast of, involved considerable physical exertion. Fielding came last, and in the days when aristocrats were part of the team, they would send in a substitute and not bother turning up on the field at all. Hockey, which was the premier sport in India, gradually faded in importance. Part of the reason was cultural – as spectators and consumers of sport, we gravitated to a less sweaty spectacle. Cricket filled time, both in terms of watching as well as discussion. It attracted money, particularly after the 1983 World Cup victory, and a virtuous cycle of greater interest, better performance, more money, greater incentive to become a cricketer kicked in. Hockey, on the other hand, felt like a disappointing memory, a reminder of the time when India excelled, with the accompanying knowledge that the glory resided strictly in the past. The game of hockey had changed in character, and post the arrival of the astro-turf, the Indian lack of athleticism caught up with the team. If hockey went into decline, the condition of other sports was even worse. Barring the odd individual champions that emerged entirely on their own steam, the state of sport in India was a story of continuous and concentrated neglect. Sporting federations across different sports displayed the same craven need for power, combined with a callous disregard for the sportsperson.

The people charged with the responsibility of promoting sport have traditionally been the single most important reasons for the state that sport has languished in. We know this well, and if sport has started doing better today, it has, in most cases, happened in spite of these bodies and not because of them. What has changed then? Several factors seem to be coming together to bring about a slow but fundamental change in attitudes toward sport. Simultaneously, an environment more conducive to the development of sport is stirring awake thanks to the efforts of private players as well as some action on part of the state. To begin with, there are many more heroes to emulate across many more sports. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this factor. Nothing galvanises interest in sport more than the emergence of some performers that we can be proud of. The need for symbols of nationalistic pride has grown dramatically, and there is only so much that can be extracted from cricket, although it may not always seem so. Sport has become a key marker of nationalistic pride and the market for nationalism is growing in interesting new ways. The need to display patriotism, to consume it visibly, in an overtly performative way is a new movement that we see all around us. Fanned by the dominant politics of the day, and supported even by key actions of the judiciary (making standing for the national anthem compulsory before a movie screening), aggressive displays of nationalism have become an important instrument of identity today.

As traditional sources of identity get deployed less frequently in everyday life, the use of the nation-state in a more self-conscious way as a source of identity is on the rise. We are more conscious of being Indian, and we need to show this in many ways. As it turns out, there aren’t too many ways available to us, and sport becomes the primary vehicle for carrying these sentiments. Faces are painted, bodies start hosting the national colours, flags are waved, chants are chanted, all seething with nationalistic pride in the backdrop of a sport. Every act that validates national pride gets celebrated. Any sportsperson who enables this feeling, regardless of what sport she/he plays, gets appropriated in this quest to prove the greatness of the country. If nationalism is one pillar that supports a new engagement with sport, the market is another. Consumption needs hangers, it needs vehicles to get its message across. With growing affluence, and the emergence of a new experience of surplus, come newer leisure pursuits. Consumption needs pipelines of attention, channels that connect it directly to the desires of people. As the engagement with sport increases, it starts becoming a powerful way to get to peoples’ hearts and wallets. Commerce develops a vested interest in sport. It begins by exploiting the attention that exists. Cricket, the dominant sport in India, becomes the first port of call. Money starts moving there, its stars start endorsing brands, and every element in the mix gets a commercial value attached to it. Equipment, advertising on the ground, TV rights and so on. It then scales up this interest so as to weaponise it. It converts interest into property. The IPL is a new kind of asset created that becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem that connects viewers, players, advertisers and investors in an upward spiral of commercial gain. The players earn more, viewer facilities improve, investment in training, fitness and rehabilitation all becomes more professional, it then looks to create new centres of attention, replicating the success with cricket in other sports. What a spectacle like the IPL manages to do is to relocate sport in the arena of spectacular consumption.

The sport itself is sliced and honed so as to deliver maximum viewer reward; every moment delivers some gratification. The short format, the cheerleaders, the auctions, the patented war cries, the commentators who become performers, the glamour on display, the merchandise, the advertising – the list of monetisable elements is a very large one. The IPL has become a template for other sports. The idea of repackaging sport so as to heighten its delivery of adrenaline and dopamine is catching on. Kabaddi is a great example of how the market can completely reimagine an old sport. On the face of it, tennis, badminton, hockey and football, all had a better chance of becoming more commercially viable. It is a tribute to the imagination of some investors that kabaddi became the next big-league sport. The fact that a kabaddi player could get a crore or more in an auction simply boggles the mind. While not all leagues modelled on the IPL have become instantly successful, what they have succeeded in doing is to open out the possibilities with every sport. Promoting a not-yet-popular sport is otherwise extremely difficult, for without having heroes, the sport does not become popular, and unless it is popular, it does not invite professional participation, given the sports-averse nature of the Indian. The sport stays mired in a low resource, low performance, low enabling infrastructure space. Today, with the infusion of capital from commercial players who see an opportunity to ‘own’ a sport, this is changing. Cricket and kabaddi show how money can be made by creating properties from ground upwards and not just waiting for a sport to become big before moving in to exploit it. The brand endorsements don’t hurt either. Brands need celebrities for they are guaranteed attention magnets. As brands strive to get noticed in an increasingly competitive space, and as entertainment options multiply, they need the help of celebrities of all kinds to associate with. In India, celebrities are in short supply.

After Bollywood, sport becomes the arena which manufactures celebrities regularly. Unlike the glamour-soaked ways of Bollywood, sport tends to throw up less exalted names, but there is a market that is growing for these emerging champions. Not everyone is a Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli or even a Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu, but here too, a door has opened. The advantage with sport is that, unlike Bollywood, here the heroes feel much more real. Sporting achievement makes for great storytelling, for that is sport’s purpose – to inspire us with tales of ordinary people fighting impossible odds to perform at a level the rest of us can only dream of, and to win a symbolic victory that we can all savour as our own. This makes for a great synergy with corporate myth-making. Business thus has been and will continue to find uses for sports and sportspersons from here on.

The interest that the market shows in sport has other consequences. For the first time, the air of make-shift clumsiness that surrounded most sporting events is giving way to a slicker, more modern sense of choreographed productions. This may seem to be a minor factor, but it plays a big role in removing the air of abjectness that had become a part and parcel of sport. The equipment has improved, the uniforms look better, and while one must be careful not to overstate the change that has taken place, for the dominant reality of Indian sport is still quite grim, these changes do serve to make sport a more desirable option not only to watch, but also to participate in. Overall, the rise of spectatorship is a phenomenon to take note of. As consumers of spectacles, we are hungry for more stimulation. With the increased access to data on our mobile phones, we now are open to being entertained all the time. We are now individual consumers, and the market for content has exploded – every single-family television screen has, in effect, become five. Sporting content has a special quality in that it is a reality show like none other. Everything is live and authentic, and compels emotional participation. One cannot watch a game, whatever it might be, and whoever might be playing, without picking a side and rooting with unreasonable passion for one. Spectatorship itself may be passive, but the enthusiasm it generates translates easily into more money for the sport and for greater participation in it.

For many parts of India, aspirations do not have vehicles that can provide transportation. As sport starts becoming a little more remunerative, it can legitimately become a mobility vehicle. In a scenario where access to higher education is either difficult or expensive, and jobs are scarce, sport becomes an important source of advancement. In a larger sense, we see a greater openness to mobility vehicles other than education, which was otherwise in India, virtually the only way in which people had a shot at changing their life scripts. Today, the idea of talent is seen as an alchemic force, that lies within, and when properly harnessed unleashes destinations not possible to reach using conventional means. While talent can take many forms, sport is an exceedingly important one. Stories of sportspersons coming from extremely humble backgrounds and finding avenues to stardom and money are inspiring, and encourage many others to take up sport more competitively. Of course, since today the gap in terms of rewards between those who make it to the top level and those who do not is so acute, it becomes important to find ways to ensure that serious athletes, even if not top-level champions, have the opportunities they need to make a good living. The third significant factor in the new culture surrounding sport lies outside it.

The traditional ideas of success are slowly beginning to change. From a time when success was about moving up on a single material axis, things are changing. Studying hard and avoiding distractions including sports and other extra-curricular activities (the phrase itself is revelatory for it makes ‘curricular’ a default life choice), getting good marks to become a doctor, engineer or IAS officer, getting a good secure job with a multinational or the government, and then working gradually up the ladder, in the meantime starting a family and ensuring that one’s children go through the same process – this was the meaning of a successful life. Today, while this mental model essentially continues to hold, the definition of success has started to become more horizontal in nature. The focus is not only on what you become, but who you become. The individual today is increasingly known by her interests and not only by her designation. On social media, people describe themselves not by their occupations but by a host of other descriptors – their hobbies, desires, opinions, life goals, pet peeves. Just take a look at Twitter bios – the self-descriptions are expansive and adventurous. In this context, interest in sport takes on a new dimension. It becomes synonymous with an expanded view of life. As parts of India start experiencing a feeling of surplus, leisure pursuits gain in importance. The focus remains not only on how to earn money, but on how to spend it. Time takes on a new quality. Free time needs to be occupied meaningfully.

The need for lives to be adrenalized, for every minute to deliver some gratification, become more urgent. Fuelling this is another big shift that is taking place. The body is being experienced as an important site of change. The biggest changes are taking place in and around the body, for it is the primary asset that we own. In an earlier time, we thought of the body as given, and largely outside our control. We had a passive relationship with our bodies, something that has changed at a fundamental level. We increasingly think of our bodies as malleable and within our control. We can shape them, mould them as per our need, protect them, and use them to extract more life. This body-consciousness has both to do with external appearance and internal health, and is resulting in a new consciousness about fitness that one can see all around. Gyms have cropped up everywhere; in the smallest town, it is not uncommon to come across facilities that are surprisingly well equipped. The success of marathons is a startling example of how widespread this movement is. People young and old have taken to running with an intensity that an India of yesterday would be dumbfounded by.

As the idea of physical exercise begins to become enshrined in our lives, the relationship with sport changes dramatically. We think of physical exertion as a necessary part of our life, and are happy to encourage our loved ones to pursue such activities. An interest in the body and a comfort with physical activity are the foundations on which a culture more accepting of sport is built. Far from the arena of competitive sport, fitness has started becoming a competitive activity. Peer group pressure is creating a push towards greater participation. Maintaining youthfulness is now a social responsibility, for it has many stakeholders and several sources of pressure. Age has different connotations today – a 50-year-old of today bears little resemblance to one a generation ago. An important constituent of this change is the increased participation of women in sport. Some of India’s most significant successes in recent times have come from women. What is heartening is that a lot of these athletes have come from parts of India that are either not the most women-friendly or have been marginalised for one reason or another.

The impact that sport has on the lives of women is particularly profound, for it opens up avenues that could not have been dreamed of otherwise. Sport as a brand has come a long way, even as there is a much longer way to go. The good news is that this change is deep and ecological in nature, as it is the product of many large forces working together, rather than being the outcome of any one dramatic initiative. Because it is organic in nature, it is inexorable in its trajectory, and will force recalcitrant elements in the sporting ecosystem to change. The state’s attitude is beginning to change, and the private sector is also coming to the fore. Much more needs to change, and this book is part of many efforts to harness the natural momentum that sport has acquired and to convert this into a movement that is unstoppable. For the first time, it does seem that this is not an impossible dream.

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The Fundamental Changes In Indian Sports Industry. (2020, April 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 30, 2020, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-fundamental-changes-in-indian-sports-industry/
“The Fundamental Changes In Indian Sports Industry.” GradesFixer, 12 Apr. 2020, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-fundamental-changes-in-indian-sports-industry/
The Fundamental Changes In Indian Sports Industry. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-fundamental-changes-in-indian-sports-industry/> [Accessed 30 Oct. 2020].
The Fundamental Changes In Indian Sports Industry [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Apr 12 [cited 2020 Oct 30]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-fundamental-changes-in-indian-sports-industry/
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