Pro-boxing in India would gain if Vijender is world champ: Neerav Tomar

Earlier December, when Indian boxer Vijender Singh landed the last sucker punch at Tanzanian boxer Francis Cheka, it was not just the end of another bout by knock-out, but the beginning of a journey for a lot of Indian boxers. Francis, a former World Champion, had warned not just Vijender, but India as a country.

The African had appealed that he would box Vijender and India to shame, while our own hero was his usual, calm self. “I will put him down with one punch,” Vijender had said. And sure he did, that too in style.

As the houseful Delhi stadium cheered Vijender on, another saga was unfolding --- the arrival and taking root of pro-boxing in India. The man behind this pro-boxing movement in India is a sportsperson himself and has represented India on various international tournaments. Neerav Tomar is a former national squash player who set up IOS Sports and Entertainment in 2005. IOS Sports manages Vijender Singh and is seeing him grow as a professional boxer.

With 16 years of experience spread across playing sports and leading a successful sports management business, Tomar possesses an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of the sports and entertainment industry. He believes that “India will undoubtedly be the next big thing in the international sports and entertainment market” and that IOS is well equipped to provide its stakeholders with tailor-made sports and entertainment solutions. 

Excerpts from an edited interview:

How would you rate the Vijender vs Cheka fight in terms of public following and what has been its impact on the game in India? Also, how did demonetization affect it?

It has been a phenomenal response. We were a little nervous about the demonetization angle and it was difficult to do an event during this sudden economic crisis in the country. As sales in general are down, corporate sponsors are not coming in. Leagues like IPTL and PWL have also been affected likewise. We kept our hopes alive and eventually got a massive response. It was a packed  Thyagaraj Stadium in Delhi. We surely would have had better financial support if not for demonetization, but in terms of public response and the publicity done by Star Sports, it helped to make the event a success. This was the second bout in Delhi and the reception proves Pro-Boxing has arrived big time in India.

We were in talks with a few big names that eventually did not come on board because their individual sales had dropped due to demonetization. But we were able to secure numerous smaller sponsors. We’re here for the long run and we have to sustain in the market.

What was the prize money for the bout?

We’re keeping the original figure under wraps for now but it was about half a million Indian rupees.

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How has professional boxing grown in the last two years in India and how has IOS Sports and Entertainment helped it?

We’ve been pioneers in India for pro-Boxing. We started off with taking Vijender to the UK last year that started his professional boxing career. IOS Boxing Promotions is a separate company altogether, which is entirely focusing into growing the game on Indian shores. We’ve done a good deal with Star Sport for the fights, which is currently under renewal. We’ve signed up Akhil Kumar and Jitender Kumar for professional boxing too and also planning to start an academy in National Capital Region of Delhi for about 40-50 boxers who would take the game forward.

We’re looking to have our own stable of quality of boxers and have regular fights; about 16-18 fights in 2017 in India. We’re looking at cities like Chandigarh, Mumbai, Guwahati, Sikkim and Chennai to hold these bouts and cater to cities that have decent following in boxing. In this regard, some research too has been done. We’re not planning to host any major fight in Delhi as it has witnessed two back-to-back big bouts. In the next one year or so, we need to rotate the championship fights throughout India. Hopefully, Vijender would feature in about 5-6 fights next year.

What was the total audience for the Vijender-Cheka bout if all platforms like digital, TV and ticket sales are taken into consideration?

We’re yet to get the (television) numbers from Star Sports; so we’ll have to wait a little more. The 6,000-seater stadium was packed. Of the total tickets, 4000 were paid tickets and 2000 tickets were given to sponsors and the organisers. We’re estimating a good rating on the TV platform too.

What exactly is the deal with Star Sports?

The first two fights of Vijender in the UK (2015) were shown by Sony Six. After that, we’ve had a one-year contract with Star for six fights. Star has been extremely happy with the numbers after the India show in July 2016 (Vijender vs Kerry Hope). The event got good ratings and they promoted the fight in a big way even while cricket (India-England Test series) was on. We’re going to start discussions for an extension soon. In India, normally, TV channels don’t pay a licensing fee and pro-boxing is probably the only sport that has got a licensing fee clause attached to promotion via broadcast.

Star pays us a gross amount and retains the rights to get the sponsors on board. The whole business model works similar to that of cricket.

Where do you see professional boxing in India over the next two years and would its viewership grow?

I think it has a huge potential as the public has shown good interest in combat sports. It’s a mass sport, is flashy and glamorous. We hope other promoters would come up soon and help us to build the market for the game. Currently, we’re the only company trying to create a mass reach and, thus, it will take some time for the viewership to grow.

Pro-boxing is more like film-making. There’s a story, there’s a build-up and then you reach the climax, which is the fight. Emotions are involved and as we grow, the fights would grow bigger and be more exciting. The Wrestling League (PWL) did pretty well and I think boxing is ten notches higher than mat-wrestling in terms of excitement and energy in the ring. Hopefully, Vijender would fight for a World title in the next one-and-a-half years and that would be a massive moment for Indian professional boxing.

Do we see pay-per-view platform being used in Vijender's fights anytime soon like Floyd Mayweather title bout?

We’re not ruling it out at the moment. We do have plans to introduce the pay-per-view model in India, which is only going to happen once we’ve bigger and grander fights. We’re just a year away from using such a model that is dominant in the US. The plan is certainly on the cards, but it’ll take some time before we implement it in India. With Vijender fighting in America and Europe also, we are still deciding how we go about it.

Are there any major changes you deem important for the growth of the game and its viewership in India?

We need more names, more heroes. Only the first step has been taken and two big shows have happened in the country. Boxing shows of this magnitude have never been seen in India before. We need to have regular fights with involvement of Indian boxers and generate similar kind of excitement. We also need to have a world champion from India. Who better than Vijender to frame it?

What else is in the plans for IOS Sports and Entertainment?

We’re into multiple verticals. We have the Hockey India League wherein we manage the Delhi Waveriders. We look after the overall management, sponsorships and the branding for the Waveriders. We also have the Gujarat Lions’ management in the IPL. So, we’re looking at these two big events in 2017 and would like to focus on them in a positive way too.

We also have a talent management wing, which includes Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and Suresh Raina, among others. We’ve been waiting for the demonetization effect to subside and then start with the IPL dealings. We’ll be entering the market in January for sponsorships for Gujarat Lions. There’s speculation that the market will be affected by a decline in overall sales and, hence, sponsorships for the Lions too likely to be affected.

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