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The Indian sports production industry is poised to explode, given that equipment is getting cheaper and easier to use, and there are far more leagues to cover. But, there are two basic issues which will need to be tackled if that growth curve has to really take off. First, the number of women in the industry is a tiny fraction of the total workforce, and most of them are in the non-editorial functions like production management. That proportion has to change if it is to grow faster. And the other issue is that there seems to be no educational degree or institution that really gives a career path into the business. It is pretty much still as hit-or-miss as it used to be. The IPL officially began on 18th April 2008, but its first real impact on Indian sport happened a few months earlier. On January 24th that year, the BCCI announced winning bids for the eight IPL franchises. And while the value of the winning bids might have garnered immediate attention, the real game changer was that corporate groups, such as Reliance, United Breweries and GMR, had finally become stakeholders in Indian sport, the first real step towards professionalism. Two things combined to make the IPL a serious differentiator. The first was that both the league and the franchises had less than three months to get their act together. That meant that the corporate management teams had to quickly learn and cooperate with the hard-core cricket operations staff to hit the ground running.
The lack of time ensured that there was no time to bicker and carve out territories. The first example was probably the auction on February 20th, 2008. With just a couple of weeks to prepare, most teams ended up with a mix of analysts, cricket players and coaches to work their way through spending the $5 million allotted. The Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) team had former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly’s and former World Cup winning Australian coach John Buchanan’s inputs, combined with an algorithm designed by senior professors of the Indian Statistical Institute, whereas Mindshare, a media buying giant, was intimately involved with the selection of the Deccan Chargers team. The results were mixed, but the principle was established, and six years later, SAP actually partnered with KKR in creating a Decision Support System for the 2014 IPL auctions, which helped them to a championship. Since then, high-level video analysis and decision support systems have become a part-and-parcel of the IPL auctions. Never again would it be just about ‘gut’ feeling, not backed by data and analysis. The other was the standards set in the marketing, logistics and support functions of the league and the teams. One of the most immediate impacts was the influx of highly trained physiotherapists and trainers who came to the various teams. The likes of Andrew Leipus, John Gloster and Adrian Le Roux had already been associated with the national cricket side, but it was the first time that domestic cricketers got the benefit of top-class physiotherapists and trainers. Interestingly, instead of this hurting the Indian physiotherapists and trainers, it actually helped them by creating a demand and a price line. Another hundred-and-fifty odd cricketers started enjoying the benefits of professional physiotherapy and training, and when they went back to their state teams, they now expected the same level of service and pushed their states and associations to provide it. This slowly percolated to other sports. The IPL came at a time when at least one top football club routinely offered Red Bull to its players as a half-time refresher, and its impact on the health and fitness aspect of every sporting league is one of its biggest boons to Indian sport. The single biggest bottleneck in Indian sport is the lack of trained coaches.
The truth is that a lot of the coaches trained at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) are taught methodologies which haven’t changed from the mid-eighties, and the NIS degrees are not even recognized by many federations. For example, the AIFF uses the norms of the Asian Football Confederation. This means that there is little standardisation in the teaching of sport. Looking around at the successful models internationally, there is no doubt that it is up to the sports federations to align with their international federations to create a single set of coaching licenses which are universally recognised. If that can happen, there is a huge demand for trained coaches in almost every sport. The standardisation of coaching norms and licenses could be the single biggest boon to Indian sport, and will probably also account for the most number of jobs in the industry. Perhaps the single most important support profession for Indian sport will be legal. This starts at the very root of the sporting system that we inherited from the British. If one were to look at the constitutions of the various sporting federations, almost every rule is ambiguously phrased or has an escape clause, allowing the decision maker discretionary powers. And that is the power that most federation heads wield to hold on to their posts. The Sports Code is the first step towards a uniform code to which every federation’s constitution needs to adhere. However, if cricket is any indication, even a win at the highest level will mean attritional battles right down to the state level.
The battle for transparency and clear unambiguous rules is one that will go on for quite a while. At another level, a lot of smaller federations walk the fine line between autonomy and interference. To allow too much outside interference could make them seriously vulnerable to takeover, often political in nature, and deny them the ability to do their job efficiently. To allow total autonomy would create patriarchs who grimly hold on to power. While the high-profile battles will be in the courts, the bulk of the real work will be in the framing of constitutions, contracts and agreements and the removal of all the ambiguity in the current documentation, to allow players and federations the protection that they need to function and focus on their sport. Aside from being actual players, the most desired jobs in sport have to be presentation and commentary. The story of Harsha Bhogle, an IIM Ahmedabad graduate who gave up a corporate job for sports commentary, has acquired legendary proportions and drives thousands to try their luck at presentation and commentary. At ESPN Star Sports, we devised a show, “Dream Job, the Hunt for Harsha” that worked on that very premise. Many of the finalists of that show, which returned for a second season, are now commentators and presenters on a variety of sports platforms. The interesting part is that the one most desired position, cricket commentary, is probably closed to anyone who hasn’t played international cricket. The reason is that, over the last decade, there have been a lot of international cricketers who have figured that this calling was more lucrative than even their playing days, and could keep them in the public eye as well. Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar were the first Indian cricketers who looked at commentary as a possible second career, and many more have joined the fold since. That is not to say that there aren’t opportunities in sport. Kabaddi, hockey, badminton and wrestling are just some of the sports which have a huge demand for good commentators and the number of such leagues is on the rise.
What is interesting is that other than one broadcaster, nobody has really invested in training commentators. And therefore, the process of the selection of personnel and the quality of commentary is extremely hit-and-miss. A finishing school for presenters and commentators is an absolute necessity for Indian sports commentary to take the next step. One of the real success stories in Indian sport has been the coverage of sport. The early sports magazines, like Sportsweek and Sportsworld, and the newspapers had a small core of sports reporters who fought for the right to cover events. Sport was not a glamour beat and not really considered big news. That started to change in the early nineties, and news television brought in a whole new wave of reporters and presenters. The ‘democratisation’ of sports news had its own issues. The old guard of print mostly regarded the sports television fraternity as upstarts who did not really know the game well and lived from sound bite to sound bite, while the new wave thought that the old print school had been stuck in the same writing style for decades. In effect, they both did each other a favour. Print writing became younger and fresher, and a lot of the television journalists made a genuine effort to learn more about the game. The internet just added to the mix, allowing a huge cross-section of sports lovers the opportunity to write on the side, hone their skills and even cover events that traditional print and television did not have the bandwidth to cover.
The real story in the last few years has been the quality of coverage outside the banner sports of cricket and football. The 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games coverage has been outstanding. The doyens of Indian sports journalism have smoothly passed the baton to the next wave of writers, and this is the one area of Indian sport that seems to be in very good hands. One of the other success stories in the last few years has been the sponsorship puzzle. Since the days of Worldtel and Sachin in the mid-nineties, the top Indian cricketers have had lucrative opportunities. However, the real change has been in the other sports. Starting with Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza, and now with PV Sindhu and Pankaj Advani, identifying and positioning sportspersons and events, and finding fits with specific brands has made the entire sponsorship market less top-heavy. And while cricket still generates the highest rates, there are many sportspersons and leagues who are now able to command a decent value in the market. Player agency and league sponsorship are two of the fastest growing parts of the sporting profession, and while there is still a lot of hit-and-miss, there is far more structure and method than ever before. I grew up in the eighties, the second generation of a country that had a glorious and inspiring freedom movement, and then a rude awakening to starting off as a third world nation.
Our grandparents had dreams of building a great India, but most of our parents just wanted us to have a steady job and, if possible, a green card. For the vast middle-class majority, sport was regarded as a distraction from the essential business of clearing entrance examinations. If there’s any consolation, that’s no longer as prevalent as before, and many of my generation have got over the obsession towards the three or four chosen ‘safe’ professions. It’s much easier today to project sport as a profession to a parent. I know of NASDAQ-listed CEOs whose children are working their way towards their dreams of becoming professional sportsmen, and surgeons who are delighted that their son wants to become a trainer. The real challenge is that the compensation in the sports industry just has not kept pace with the level of interest. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that sport was considered a ‘volunteer’ event, something bureaucrats and army officers or royalty did in their spare time. It was not regarded as a proper job. And even when the stakes became much higher, as in cricket, most important posts were ‘honorary’, which also meant that no one actually could be held accountable for their actions, no matter how huge the perks were on the side. This continues to be a huge issue, especially in the federations.
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