Moneyball: Year of Attaining Maturity

In a country where sports is still in its infancy, with miles to run before reaching a decent industry size, most developments during a calendar year can be termed as ‘defining’, or ‘critical’ or ‘landmark’ moments. Each announcement, win, deal, debacle can have a greater impact on the future of the industry than it would have had in a developed market. While cricket will continue to make headlines as India retains its global hold over its business, the triumphs in other sports gain importance as they are necessary to give depth to the industry.

One of the key highlights of 2017 has been the expansion of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL). When the league was launched in 2014, there was huge scepticism, and its success has surprised many. But superb packaging and marketing from Star Sports ensured sufficient eyeballs ﷓ so many that the broadcaster decided to buy equity in the league. After experimenting with two seasons in a single year during 2016, the league this year settled into a 12-team affair spread over four months. The PKL has been one of the many leagues that replicated the short-duration Indian Premier League (IPL) template. While each of them termed themselves as leagues, they were nothing but two or three-week long tournaments. By moving into a proper league format spread over a sufficient period of time allowing fans to engage with their teams, the PKL is leading the way.

A similar exercise has been kicked off on the football field. While the Indian Super League (ISL) was another hectic quickie started to take on the official I-League, the efforts have always been to merge the two. It should have happened this year, but didn't for two big reasons – Mohun Bagan and East Bengal (EB). These clubs decided that the terms they were offered for leaving the I-League, or rather entering the ISL, were not attractive enough. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its commercial partners, IMG Reliance, hence decided that both leagues would run parallelly and for a longer duration of five months. Proper league structure, but too many of them paving way for a single ISL in 2018.

One of the achievements of the ISL this year has been the induction of two teams backed by strong corporate houses – the Tata and JSW groups. They add weight to the league along with RP Sanjiv Goenka group which already had a team ATK, in the eight-franchise league. While JSW moved their Bengaluru FC (BFC) from the I-League, Tata Steel launched Jamshedpur FC this year after winning the bidding rights for the city.

The deeper engagement of Tata group with sport during this year is definitely a highlight for the industry. Apart from entering ISL, the group is the title sponsor for the only ATP tournament in the country. What was the Chennai Open for many years, has now moved to Pune and the business group has taken the title rights. Tata Open Maharashtra is the group’s second stint with the tournament as it was the title sponsor for the tournament in Chennai during 2002-2004.

The Tatas, headquartered in Mumbai, has also seized the naming rights for the 14-year-old iconic marathon in the city organised by Procam International. When Standard Chartered decided not to renew its rights, group company Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) moved in and acquired it. This premier business house entering multiple non-cricket sports events with reasonably large money commitment and a long-term view, raises the confidence of other sports to make it big.

However, it needs to be noted that each sport needs to provide the right mix for a corporate to be interested in participating in it and continuing with it. After leading the running revolution, Procam bravely entered the world of P1 Powerboat Indian Grand Prix of the Seas early this year, and pulled off the inaugural season against all odds. But an imperfect business proposition has scuttled a second season. Only serious re-engineering can push the powerboats back into the Arabian Sea.

Similarly, the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), an exhibition event masquerading as a sports league, was finally laid to rest this year. After two successful seasons, and a half-baked one in 2016, the Mahesh Bhupathi-owned event had to shut down. Again, there are talks of a new and workable version on the cards. But we will have to wait for 2018 to see if the legend has an ace up his sleeve.

But new leagues continued to be announced during the year, valiantly entering and surviving a first season. Two poker leagues, a MMA league, and partnership between Kwan and Mediarex Sports & Entertainment, to bring the Global Player League (GPL) to India are some of the highlights.

While the companies involved in sports continued to make news, one of the most heartening announcements was that of two legends coming together to launch a centre of excellence dedicated to them. All England Champion Prakash Padukone and ace cricketer Rahul Dravid inaugurated the high-performance sports centre which aims to produce high quality athletes. The participation of these sportspersons at the development level only augurs well for young talent across sports.

This brings us to the increased focus across sports on grassroots and talent development. The simple mantra that sports is all about the sportsperson and homegrown heroes is hitting in, and all stakeholders are willing participants. The success of the U-17 FIFA World Cup and the inspired performance of the Indian team has brought hope to many. The ‘Leicester City moment’ for India, when the unheralded Aizawl FC team from Mizoram won the I-League title in April this year, beating the likes of Bagan, EB, and BFC, was an eye-opener for many that talent flourishes in all corners of the country and does not spring from money.

The 2018 calendar is another packed one, fittingly hitting the ground on January 1 itself with the maiden Tata Open Maharashtra. The games will continue, but what makes one optimistic is that the industry is maturing, and a strong foundation has been laid this year to achieve greater heights across sports in the coming one.

— The author is a co-founder of SportzPower & The Fan Garage

CP Thomas