Moneyball: Stop the Race to No.2 Sport

Finding Sport No.2 is one of India’s favourite games. The moment there is some reasonable excitement within any sport other than cricket, there is a rush to point towards it emerging as the number two sport in the country. Just this week, when asked by a media person if badminton has become the “ideal number two sport” for India after cricket, Olympics silver medallist, P V Sindhu said: “Yes, definitely. After cricket, badminton has got its due recognition.”

A month or so ago, after the opening day of the fifth season of the Pro Kabaddi League, the managing director of Star India, Sanjay Gupta, said: “I believe this is the first big year for sports beyond cricket. The spectacular growth in viewership for Kabaddi is testament to this journey. It is heartening to see the response VIVO Pro Kabaddi has evoked from millions of fans across the country, cutting across geographies and demographics and I am truly overwhelmed by its success and rapid rise.”

As cricket (read men’s cricket) continues to grow and tighten its stranglehold over the monies pumped into sports, every other sport is aspiring to capture the number two position and maximum share of the pie allocated to what is categorised as “non-cricket sports”. Football, basketball, hockey, golf, tennis, wrestling are among the other contenders. With a great showing in the recently concluded World Cup, women's cricket also joins this category of sports and its players who are constantly in the hunt for sponsors or patrons to grow the game.

The last few years has seen various leagues in these sports providing the impetus for growth. While it has brought each sport a lot of attention and attracted few brands, it hasn't provided any one of them the exponential growth that is required to establish it permanently in the mind space of marketers.

The first round in this race has gone to kabadddi, though Sindhu’s recent heroics on the international stage has propped up badminton big time. If the numbers given out by its organisers are to be believed, the opening day for the fifth edition of Pro Kabaddi league garnered 60 million impressions with a cumulative reach of 50 million. The ongoing season has four new franchises who will play 130+ matches spread over more than three months. The claim is also that it is India's biggest “non-cricketing sports” league.

Football won't be amused. We have been having a longer I-League for years now, the geographical spread is much more, and interest levels are as high or even more than that of kabaddi. But no TV numbers to match that of the Pro Kabaddi. Move on to the Indian Super League (ISL) and things are much better. The third edition of Hero ISL in 2016 received a total viewership of 216 million, a rise of 9 million over 2015. The final was watched by over 41 million fans, which was 41 per cent more than that for the previous year’s final.

This year, both the ISL and I-League will run concurrently and will extend to over four months, before an impending merger into one premier league in 2018. But prior to that, India will host the under-17 World Cup beginning first week of October. This event, with India getting direct entry as the host country, is expected to raise the profile of football and give it the stature it deserves. Yes, No. 2.

To boost its chances, the Indian team’s head coach, Luis Norton de Matos, has even included two NRIs in the team. Namit Deshpande (USA) and Sunny Dhaliwal (Canada) are expected to provide more firepower to a team, which has to take on USA, Colombia and Ghana in the group stage. A decent performance against these teams is an essential step to growing the sport.

The dependence on “outside” talent reinforces the importance of homegrown stars, and regular wins at the international level for any sport to grow in value. While Sindhu might be making waves now, Saina Nehwal laid the foundation with her multiple titles and rise to the World No.1 spot. Similarly in tennis, the wins from Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza set the ball rolling, but there is no one in the horizon to carry on the torch. Women’s cricket finally needed a monster innings from Harmanpreet Kaur to be noticed.

But the rise of such stars sporadically is not sufficient for any of these sports to retain the attention of brands. Unless the momentum is maintained with the rise of more stars and title wins, the sport will continue to languish in the sponsorship and broadcast rights sweepstakes. It needed a Sindhu to build on Saina’s achievements for badminton to finally get some acknowledgement. The recent supreme performances from the likes of Srikanth Kidambi in the men’s category has only aided the rise of the sport.

The irony of the fact is that each of these non-cricket sports has huge participation and viewers, the numbers, which could easily be the population of a mid-sized country. But since its success is measured against the mammoth following and popularity for cricket, it dwarfs in comparison and draws little attention from sponsors.

When badminton gets pushed up as the number two sport, it undermines the inherent value that kabaddi, or football, or basketball has for certain brands. It also puts too much pressure on isolated events to perk up the ranking of the sport in the pecking order. If Sindhu hits a bad patch and suffers a string of losses, or goes title-less for few months, badminton will slide down. And with that will go all the gains that both she and the sport notched up, while at the ground level the following for badminton will continue to see a rise. Or with the football season around the corner, all focus will shift there and don’t be surprised to see it not only take the number two spot, but even be termed a strong contender to dethrone cricket.

The stakeholders in each of these sports is doing themselves a disservice in this quest to be the number two sport, with cricket as the benchmark.

If each of these sports starts exiting from the “non-cricket sports” category and focuses on reinforcing its own identity and monetising its captive ecosystem of players and followers, the value they will derive in both the short and long term will be much more and steady, a necessity to raise its worth independent of the growth of any other sport, including cricket. This will culminate in a vibrant multi-sport nation, which is what a country of our size should be.

(The writer is co-founder, SportzPower & The Fan Garage)

CP Thomas