'All parties need to come together to take home grown leagues to another level'

Star Sports presented a unique series of Knowledge Sessions - the India Pro Leagues Forum 2013 in New Delhi. STAR India President – Sports Nitin Kukreja delivered an engaging and insightful keynote address at the inaugural session of the summit, elaborating on the growing appetite of the Indian sports fans and the enormous growth potential of sports in the country.

Does ‘sport’ in India really begin and end with ‘Big Boys’ Cricket’? Or do we just see it that way? Across the length and breadth of India, there are strong communities and pockets of interest where people are passionately engaged with local sports and local players - football in Bengal, hockey in Punjab and Orissa, badminton in Hyderabad, basketball played in schools and table tennis played in clubs, colleges and offices across the country.

But if a tourist landed in India and turned on the television or turned to the sports page of a newspaper, we could forgive him for thinking that India cares only about international cricket when Team India is playing.

Why then, has this rich diversity of interest and talent not been harnessed? Why is it that in the media, on television and in the public mind-space, sport equals international cricket? How is it that the English Premier League enjoys such a phenomenal following within the UK when the English national football team has not won an international competition since 1966! Why is it that an average 18-year-old in South Delhi or Bandra is more emotionally connected to the fortunes of Manchester United or Chelsea than say the Mumbai Ranji side (40-time winner of Ranji trophy) or the Indian National Kabaddi team (winner of all 4 World Cups played so far)? You may argue that not many nations play Kabaddi other than India and Pakistan; well – you could say the same about Baseball! The US is the best example of a country that thrives on local sports and leagues – some of their sports are played in no other country – yet they call it “World Series Baseball” and Babe Ruth is an American hero and legend.

When you watch a badminton match live, it is astounding to see the speed of the game and the agility of the players

Americans follow their city and college teams with a passion – across baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey; Italy, Spain, Turkey – all follow their local soccer teams with a fanaticism; tourists visiting Galatasaray are advised not to wear rival team colours while visiting! And note that all these nations consume their sport in their own respective languages.

In the last 15 years in India, entertainment and movie channels have gone local with a vengeance; the number of regional channels has gone up from just a handful pre-2000 to over 300 today; while Hindi accounts for 55 per cent of TV viewership; regional language content accounts for 30 per cent of viewership share; and it’s not just about language; a Bengali, Marathi or Tamil show is rooted in the local culture and ethos with participation from the local creative fraternity.

It is only the Sports genre in India that has remained aloof from localisation – until 2008 there was no IPL, and until 2012, telecast of cricket was limited to English, a language spoken by less than 10 per cent of India.

In India then, how can we take local sports and leagues to the next level? Broadcasters have a big role to play in this but more importantly the entire ecosystem - the sports federations, the government and the news media and advertisers need to come together to ensure that our home grown leagues get the money, resources, infrastructure and coverage that they deserve.

Look at the quality of television coverage for International Cricket over the years – the evolution has been amazing - the production quality, the camera work, the graphics, the slow-motion replays and the immensely talented people who narrate the action – all these elements really take the television viewer closer to the game; it is immersive, engaging and a pleasurable experience even for casual viewers who are not dyed-in-the-wool fans; television coverage has played a huge role in growing the fan base and support for Cricket; this is despite the fact that for all these years, all coverage was in English.

But even in Cricket – the more local forms of the game – be it Ranji trophy, Irani Cup or university cricket have so far been treated as the poorer cousin – the benchmark for coverage that has been set for international cricket needs to be duplicated in the local forms of the game. The fact remains all the international heavy weights – from Tendulkar to Yuvraj Singh to Kohli – have cut their teeth on and emerged from these local level tournaments.

The task is even greater for other sports – where even the national level game has not got the coverage it deserves. Consider the coverage that an average Hockey or Football match gets – you see some indifferently placed cameras and a disinterested narrative; there has been no attempt to make the viewer experience the thrills, the speed or the skill involved; when you watch a badminton match live, it is astounding to see the speed of the game and the agility of the players. The current standard of television coverage does not even begin to capture that excitement and skill.

In a pre-digitised world with limited bandwidth, TV broadcasters were forced to follow a one-size-fits-all approach and therefore focused on only saleable national-level content at the expense of local content and language; but in a digital world the consumer has ability to access a variety of content in multiple languages and on multiple platforms; broadcasters would be doing a great disservice if they continued to use a cookie-cutter approach and did not use this opportunity to go deeper and serve the interest of all pockets of interests whether by sport, region or language.

Great production values are not enough, the on-ground event also needs to be organised and mounted like a spectacle – this is where the sports federations have a key role to play. They must enable and nurture talent, and promote and market the game at least in the locales of affinity if not in the whole country. They must do their part to ensure that the Sports pagecarries interesting stories and coverage of the game and the players– and not only controversies! But most important, they need to partner with the other stakeholders in the ecosystem with the long term vision of growing the sport – without the spirit of partnership and the vision; the league or the sport will not grow.

The government has a huge role to play - by allocating adequate monies, developing stadiums and infrastructure and putting in enabling policies in place. The government allocates around Rs 1000 crore to Sports (and Youth Affairs) which is the budget for the current year. That number is less than what we will be paying only for one tournament -the ICC T20 world cup - that number is less than the number that Star invests in sports each year. It means that Star is a bigger investor in sports in India than the government of India itself!

It can be argued that Kabbadi is not popular because only few nations play the sport but the same can be said for Baseball as well

The scale of magnitude of the government’s investment should be at least 10x of that number! Why do you ask? More than half of India’s population is below the age of 25 and 65 per cent below 35; Sports has a crucial role to play in youth development and can even be a huge generator of employment. IPL has opened up career options for 120 players; not just 15. Hockey players can now make up to 60 lakhs for one month of play in the HIL; Badminton players can make 50 lakhs for 3 weeks of work; not to mention the production, support and service staff that works on these leagues. When the hockey union went on strike in Canada a while ago, the prime minister of the country got involved because his fear was that a prolonged strike would have an adverse impact on the GDP of Canada! More than anything, it showed the power of sports and its ability to be a huge economic growth engine.

Forget about investment, even simple hygiene factors such as easing procedures can go a long way – it cannot take 38 different permissions just to host a hockey match in a certain venue; increase venues and the number of permissions multiplies!

It’s a vicious circle, since there is no investment, there is no growth and no popularity for local leagues and sports – therefore they attract no money! The common man (or woman) in India does not view “sport” as a viable career option or life choice; it remains a “hobby” to be pursued in free time;

Star has thrown its weight behind building an enduring viewer proposition around local leagues and sports– and in the language of the people. Our tryst with these local sporting leagues has thrown up some interesting results: We partnered with Calcutta Football League, one of the oldest leagues in Asia and in the world with 157 Kolkata based clubs and units to air their league matches on our Bengali movie channel. In the core national male audience, the TV viewership is 4-5 times higher than your average EPL match! Even with the current quality of football and coverage, an East Bengal-Mohan Bagan match attracts crowds up to 70000 in the stadium!

We also partnered with Hockey India League the first edition of which was held in January 2013. The excitement on grounds was to be seen to be believed. For e.g. grounds in Ranchi were completely packed to support their Ranchi Rhinos team which went on to win the league; there was a lathi-charge two days before the match when demand for tickets got out of hand and in fact when the match was on – even the neighbouring stadium that simply had a big screen projecting the match - was full! The excitement rivalled that seen in Wankhede stadium or Eden gardens during high-octane international cricket.

University cricket is another great example – during the Jamia vs Bangalore’s Jain university match, stadium was so packed that it took 40 mins to enter; and the crowd was chanting – not “Sachin Sachin”, not “India India” but “Jamia Jamia”! The pockets of passion exist; it is on us collectively to harness and magnify them.

There has been no attempt to make the viewer experience the thrills, the speed or the skill involved when you watch a Hockey match

The IPL has shown the way in how to mount a successful local league; granted that it was built on an already popular sport – but all the stakeholders have done a great job in coming together to mount it like a spectacle – it is no longer a game but entertainment and a serious alternate to any other movie or television show. Clearly, a “manoranjan ka baap”.

There is a lot more to be done and many challenges to overcome. It will take a spirit of partnership with federations and people with vision to get there - for the benefit of sports, for the benefit of the country and for a healthier and fitter society! I’ll leave you with a small snapshot of the passion of local sports; as I mentioned before, it is for us to build upon them.


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