India urgently needs structural sports reform. A one time campaign for political leverage assures limited visibility and insufficient reach and becomes self-limiting in its intent towards building a sporting nation
#HumFitTohIndiaFit is an outstanding campaign initiated by the Indian Sports Minister to bring fitness and health into the spotlight. As a youth-centric country, India definitely needs to focus on ways of channelizing youthful energy towards creative pursuits, one of them being sports.
I don't agree with the cynicism surrounding this campaign. There is no doubt that India is a country of extremes where the majority does not have access to gymnasiums and public sports facilities. And I am aware that the realities of everyday life in India do not provide the masses the time or the inclination to chase such dreams. Having said that, the point here is to motivate and encourage Indians towards health & fitness. As we lead our daily lives, it is very much possible to find time to take a 15-minute walk, use the stairs instead of the lift and do a few push-ups and stretches while at work.
Leveraging celebrities from all walks of life to promote the idea of a #FitIndia is an effective lever to ensure wider reach, across all levels of society. The intent here is to create social momentum around personal fitness & health and to encourage Indians to come out to play. In the long term, as this campaign gathers momentum and trickles down to the masses, its impact on awareness-building around fitness will be huge. Remember, a fit nation means lower healthcare costs, high productivity, and a larger sustainable economic gain.
A one time campaign for political leverage assures limited visibility and insufficient reach and becomes self-limiting in its intent towards building a sporting nation. The need of the hour is a long-term vision and a well-orchestrated plan towards "Building India Into a Sporting Nation".
KEY #01: NATIONAL PROPAGANDA
At the very least, a five-year program needs to be developed that focusses on building sports awareness and educating the masses on the benefits of sports, individual & collective health & fitness. This program has to target India's youth, the educational system, the family structure and the local community. Sports stars across disciplines and at all levels of sport need to be propped up as national heroes. The message of the program has to be both inspirational and aspirational while the frequency needs to be rapid, on point and overbearing. This will lend itself towards building an overarching theme for an 'India of the Future' and build 'national momentum towards sports & fitness'.
KEY #02: SPORTING CULTURE
Culture is 'what happens when no one is looking'. It is the psychological & muscle memory that dictates voluntary and involuntary response expressed through thoughts, actions, interactions and even inactions. Changing culture is a generational effort.
Developing a sporting culture in India requires a planned and systemic effort at the grassroots level, deep inside the heart and mind of India. The efforts have to focus on five core building blocks - i.e. (1) the family structure, (2) the interested athlete, (3) the local community, (4) the available infrastructure and (5) the opportunity to play, express and compete and (5) The guidance and mentorship from passionate and committed coaches.
When India's youth feels encouraged to spend time outdoors, sees the plausibility of balance between education, acknowledges a financially viable sports career and feels rewarded in the local community, a new India will emerge that will make sports a 'way of life'.
KEY #03: NATIONAL SPORTS POLICY
India urgently needs a national sports doctrine reflected through a long-term vision for sports, encapsulated as a set of policy guidelines and regulations and administered through our multi-level sports governance and execution structure. While many people believe that the lack of a national sports policy is the reason for our unplanned & misdirected journey in sports, I understand that this is currently a top priority and work in progress.
The Sports Policy has to fundamentally deliver on - i.e. (1) A Long-Term Vision for Sports, (2) Structural Reforms, (3) Systemic & Individual Integrity, (4) Federation Powers & The Representation of Professionals & Athletes in the Sports Federations, (5) Governance, Management & Execution of the Sports Game Plan and (6) Sports Infrastructure - Upgrade & Access
KEY #04: FUNDING SPORTS
In order to find government funding, sports has to find a way to deliver a larger economic & social impact. A structured plan, a set of outcome measures, accountability and self-sustainability are crucial to the funding vision.
Most importantly, a plan to leverage corporate India for funds has to galvanize and incentivize their continued association - for e.g. - (1) Broaden the CSR definition, (2) Thematic alignment of CSR with sports such that women's empowerment and sports development becomes a possibility or skills development and sports coaching become aligned, (3) Enhance the scope of Section VII of the Companies Act 2013 so that salaries of athletes and coaches could be offset against the 2% CSR requirement and amateur sponsorship and local community support expenses could be included, (4) Rationalize taxes and provide tax waivers on sporting equipment, coaching services, sponsorship amounts and ticket prices for all non cricket sporting events and (5) Create a Leaderboard of Corporate India to track who spends the maximum on Sports through the CSR route in order to provide them visibility and to incentivize inter corporate competition.
KEY #05: GAME PLAN FOR FLAWLESS EXECUTION
As a starting point, India has to, at the very least, upgrade and uplift the profile of our national level competitions in order to improve the experience delivered to the participant and to the audience. This, in turn, will incentivize broadcasters to associate with sports and help bring sponsors and advertisers to the party.
Building and leveraging technology in sports is another critical element that needs to happen in order to drive the back-end of data consolidation, analytics and sporting events. Technical skills and management capability within Sports Federations need to be the fundamental glue that binds the sports ecosystem together. A separate effort needs to be undertaken to incubate iconic sports platforms in India like the Tour De Himalayas, IronMan India, SpartanIndia, BTRIndia so that India starts to simultaneously emerge as a worldwide sporting destination.
The key to success is the centrally driven, integrated and coordinated efforts that are needed to make this happen as part of a Unified Sports Development Program.
Sporadic efforts such as #HumFitTohIndiaFit and #FitIndia deliver incremental spikes and fleeting attention. India needs monumental orchestrated change. This should be the way forward, Mr. Sports Minister.
Technology has to deliver integrated results that will enhance the sports experience and deliver higher audience engagement and better commercial outcomes. For a country such as India, technology needs to be leveraged to widely communicate the message of sports in order to build mass awareness and drive the cultural transformation needed
Technology is an ever-evolving process and we're still three decades away from reaching singularity (defined as machine superintelligence overtaking human intelligence).
Up to 2018, technology has been largely unidimensional in nature. As the next step, wearable devices, artificial intelligence and smart analytics are needed for seamlessly integrating technology with application to guide the next stage of evolution and to ensure higher relevance to human society.
But for now, technology is a great enabler. It is deeply embedded in our everyday lives. Our daily routines, health, travel & work schedules, weekend appointments, social interactions and our work commitments are all enabled through some technology, program, device or application.
Over the last two decades, the application of science had led to a rapid evolution of sports equipment, footwear, clothing and accessories. However, the rate of technology evolution has been slow paced.
In many ways, humans have hesitated and resisted in adopting technology in competitive sports. Their major argument states that the sports' too much reliance on technology will inhibit natural competition and reduce the thrill of competition.
STAGE01: SPORTS & TECHNOLOGY TODAY - LIMITED APPLICATIONS
Here are four ways in which technology has started to impact & transform sports, although on a restricted basis:
STAGE 02: SPORTS & TECHNOLOGY TOMORROW - SEAMLESS & ENHANCED
As technology adoption, reach and acceptance improves in India, the next stage of Sport-Tech will aim towards a seamless integration of different platforms to deliver integrated data and analytics to enhance the total sports experience in the following manner.
SMART ANALYTICS & ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE SUPPORT:
In the future, technology has to deliver seamless and integrated results that will enhance the sports experience and deliver higher audience engagement and better commercial outcomes.
For this to happen smart analytics and artificial intelligence support will be critical. Individual data points from stand alone and independent systems (1-4) will draw intelligent co-relations to create smart insights. For e.g.
India needs a wide range of sports reform. This article attempts to capture the scope of reform needed to help India and its athletes achieve their sporting potential & ambition in the long term
In order to leverage India’s demographic dividend to our advantage, India has to find a way to integrate sports into our every day. Sports has the power to heal, build character, resolve differences, unite people and create cohesiveness within a nation. Change through sport creates a deeper granular impact that prepares future generations and helps integrate people, cultures and religions.
Sports develops life skills defined as “abilities that enable individuals to succeed in different environments be it school, home and local communities”. A few examples of life skills include coping with success and failure, self-discipline, performing under pressure, managing thoughts and emotions and time management.
"The Secret of Change is To Focus All Your Energy, Not On Fighting The Old, But On Building The New"
Investments in sports is a collective effort towards nation building. It empowers communities and develops skill & improves national health. In time, it leads to a healthy and vibrant ‘youth force’ that propels the country forward. Most importantly, sports unites communities, builds national pride, changes mentalities, creates community icons and breeds next generation leaders.
Sport has the potential to be used as a vehicle for sustainable social change. This is critical as India marches forward, in its journey to fulfill its economic potential and social promise,
Grassroots sports development is the single most important sports development priority for India. All stakeholders have to find a way to collaborate towards this intent for India as a country to realize its sporting ambitions
India ranks a lowly 103rd on the Global Human Capital Index and 29th on the Global Sports Impact Index. The correlation between sports and quality of human capital of a country is a direct one. This itself should be enough incentive for India's policymakers to take this seriously, if we are to emerge as a dominant world force, in the times to come. And therefore we have to do more.
Statistics indicate that while 42% of our population participates in cricket, the average participation for all other sports (Badminton, Cycling, Running, Football, Volleyball, Tennis, Swimming, etc) is below 13%. Clearly, Indians, at large, have never been the 'sporty type'. Sports is not engrained in our psyche. Neither is it an integral part of our everyday life. The passion for sports has only resided in a small percentage of the population.
Unless India makes a structured effort to broad-based sports & increase participation at the grassroots level, we will continue to lag behind, not just on social development & youth inclusion parameters but also deliver limited success at world sports events. But we must remember that the goal (health & fitness) is sequential and definitely more important than the outcome (Olympic medal).
Research also suggests that the sports industry is poised to grow at about 20% over the next decade and contribute between 1 - 5% of India's GDP. In addition, national sports programs such as Khelo India, the efforts of the various sports leagues and most importantly, the focus on health & fitness are all contributing to growing awareness and improving participation. Girls and women are participating in sports and winning laurels for India which is a wonderful sign from a national development context. The ladies constituted about 45% of the CWG 2018 team and won 42% of the medals.
While the sports ministry has to lead the charge, other stakeholders i.e. corporates, entrepreneurs, national federation, state-level associations, equipment manufacturers, media & service providers have to come together to develop & promote the cause of sport. My visual thoughts on the same are captured below:
CLARIFICATION: My intent here is not to complicate and muddle the matter. As a starting point, one needs to have a 'vision and a big picture plan'. And then, of course, true success lies in the implementation and execution of the plan. However, visually depicting something like this is tough (and articulating it simply is even tougher) and therefore please bear with me as you read through the explanation.
The Journey of an Athlete begins with school & community participation, progresses through the zonal & district levels onwards to representing India at the national & international level. However, this journey, from interest in sports to participation to potential and then to excellence is a long and tough road and success rates are as low as 2 - 3%. This journey has two distinct phases - (1) Participation and (2) Performance Excellence, and is important because it equips the youth with life skills that help shape core elements of the personality. All the athlete expects from the ecosystem around him is support, best wishes, encouragement and inspiration. We should be large-hearted enough to give it.
The Journey of a Nation towards emerging as a sporting superpower needs investment in a structured program focussed on grassroots sports development. This will deliver numerous benefits, one of which is the National Sports Talent Repository, which, when nurtured, delivers international sporting success, youth icons, Olympic glory & national pride. We have to demonstrate the passion & the will to participate in this journey. And hold others accountable who are not aligned to this nation's purpose.
KEY COMPONENTS OF THE GLASSROOTS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM
(#1) BUILD AWARENESS & LAUNCH PROPAGANDA:
A national campaign on creating awareness around sports participation & benefits has to be launched. This needs to be as prominent, far-reaching, expansive and impactful as the Swachh Bharat Campaign. It specifically needs to target the 08 - 15 year age group in order to build the social momentum towards sports & the outdoors. There is enough evidence to suggest that active kids do well in life and there are compounding benefits.
The campaign has to sell a dream. It needs to address the aspirational, excellence, life skills and iconic status possible through sports. It needs to encourage the youth to pursue sports as a career with the opportunity to wear the tricolor and represent India as the ultimate dream. This effort needs to be sustained over the next 3 - 5 years.
(#2) PARTICIPANT/ATHLETE EXPECTATIONS:
Participants/athletes who associate with sports do have some baseline expectations. To begin with, they expect to be treated with respect. And they expect that their blood, sweat and tears are acknowledged with some reward & recognition by the concerned authorities when they deliver exceptional performance and results. They expect the system to create opportunities & platforms for them to perform their craft and to sustain a career doing so. And as they progress from demonstrating potential towards becoming an emerging star, they expect to be supported on multiple fronts, including specialized coaching, gear & equipment and financial assistance. We have to remember that a 'hungry stomach can murder passion'.
(#3) GRASSROOTS PARTICIPATION & LOCAL COMMUNITY CONNECT:
Unless schools and communities are seamlessly integrated into focus, this plan will not bear fruit. For this to happen, local community influencers, key personalities, participant families, the local sports community and the local governance machinery has to come together as one. Today, there are grass root development agencies that have built a deep understanding, and strong connects that have to be leveraged to make this happen.
The second step is to understand the local community in terms of its historical association with sports. For example, if a region in Punjab (say Amritsar, Gurdaspur & Kapurthala) is historically known to produce hockey players, focus on hockey in that region. Don't create an archery program in this community as it will defeat the purpose. At the same time, if another region in Punjab (say Moga, Muktsar & Faridkot) has strengths in weightlifting & athletics, then focus on that. The third step is then to test the youth of this community using a standard measure to understand basic physicality, level of fitness, natural orientation and interest levels in a particular sports discipline and then encourage individuals to adopt a sport and to add relevant sports programs into that community.
(#4) BACK END EXECUTION SUPPORT:
Grassroots sports development needs an exceptional program manager & event orchestrator to coordinate across multiple parties such as state associations, local media, sports facility owners, participants and the community to bring this to life. Quality has a price. As they say, 'if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys'.
Obviously, one has to deliver high levels of engagement and stickiness with the local communities such that this becomes a family 'must attend' event over time and sponsors and advertisers look forward to associating with this platform. With a new market opening up, corporates, sports equipment manufacturers, media owners, technology enablers and performance service providers will be more than willing to invest time and money towards growing this market.
Critical to both program and execution success is the vertical and horizontal linkages that need to be created and enabled through technology. For example, player participation, results by competition at different levels, athlete development program, profile & progress report, coaches & support staff, athlete injury record, etc have to be integrated into one common database across sports, across age groups and across states.
(#5) MEASURE & MONITOR IMPACT:
If grassroots sports development is integral to the development of India as a sporting nation, then we must "measure what matters". Therefore we have to set sports development goals. And if we don't, structural and systemic inefficiencies, human greed and personalities defeat the intent over time. While the goals can be set internally, measuring outcomes & impact is best done by an independent outside agency to remove bias.
'What we sow today is what we will reap day after'.
Systemic and cultural change is a slow process and bears fruit over time. We need to have the patience and the resolve to ride out this journey. But we have to build a thought momentum from today.
As more of us join this journey and participate in this debate, our voices will reach the right ears. Till then we hope, and we pray and we keep knocking on the door.
A critical analysis of Indian sports leagues and the purpose as the well as the impact they have delivered across the sports ecosystem in India. Is there a way for leagues to deliver greater effectiveness and impact on sports development in India?
Purpose Versus Impact
Around 2005, Cricket was already a religion engrained into the soul of every Indian. The game had created a trail of iconic stars over many decades. India had already won a World Cup in 1983, hosted the1996 World Cup tournament in India & finished runners-up in the 2003 World Cup. The BCCI was already a dominant force in international cricket. The Indian team under Sourav Ganguly had emerged as a dominant force in world cricket and we had started winning abroad. Brands were aggressively leveraging the sports and its ambassadors to reach consumer pockets. Cricket coaching stables such as the ones run by Ramakant Achrekar, Lalchand Rajput & Bishen Singh Bedi were hotbeds for grooming talent. The MRF Pace Academy in 1987 and the National Cricket Academy in 2000 strengthening the institutional backbone. And although the domestic structure of Indian cricket was not fully developed, India was still producing the likes of MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and a pipeline of high potential talent. And to top it all, we had Sachin Tendulkar.
With this backdrop in mind, IPL was the right step forward to take cricket to the next level. The success of the Indian Premier League (IPL) on its incubation in 2008 fueled the imagination of investors in India and provided them a template that could be used to grow, promote and commercialize other sports in India. Of course, India decided to blindly copy & paste the template on to other sports without understanding or appreciating the nuances and on ground realities.
Leagues promised a renaissance in Indian Sports. Between 2007-10, when the league template started being implemented across other sports in India, the on-ground realities of sports such as Kabaddi, Wrestling, Tennis, Hockey & Football was in stark contrast to that of cricket. The Federations were toothless, we lacked iconic stars, India was not a dominant team in international tournaments, there was no talent pipeline and the awareness or the grass root network was non-existent. But of course, there was passion in pockets but no sustainable future for youngsters entering the sport.
Rather than developing the framework for sports development from the grass root up and simultaneously strengthen the institutional structure around the sport, India decided to immediately adopt the league format as a way to grow sports. I guess the thinking was that if an iconic platform such as a league is created at the top, youngsters would foresee a future in the sport as a viable career option. And this commercialization of the sport would in turn fuel the development of the sports ecosystem, over time, through a trickle-down effect. Essentially, growing demand would automatically take care of the supply side. Unfortunately, this was wishful thinking. And therefore these leagues have only been partially successful in meeting their objectives.
No one can deny that the leagues have created some careers, developed the sports ecosystem, created employment, brought corporate funding into sports, popularized sports and build an audience base, the larger 'BIG BANG Impact' has been missed. Or maybe we were expecting too much from the league format. And therefore, the truth & the reality is somewhere in between.
HOW DOES INDIAN SPORT MOVE FORWARD?
Having now adopted the league format as a model for sports development (14 leagues incubated - some successful, some active, some defunct & new ones germinating), the only option before the gamekeepers of the sport is to ensure that vertical and horizontal interlinkages are created to strengthen the ability to deliver holistic and measurable results.
REVISIT THE LEAGUE INTENT
If the 'Big Objective' is broad-basing, structured efforts have to be initiated to grow the game at the grass root level. Sports have to be integrated at the school and the local community level by spreading awareness, creating competitive interaction platforms & building engagement and stickiness with on ground audiences. For this to happen, the federation, league owners & credible grass root operators have to come together with corporate support to make this happen. In addition, Khelo India has to extend its focus to the 13 - 17 age group. Programs, schemes, and efforts need to be coordinated and streamlined to deliver specific results.
REEVALUATE THE LEAGUE SUCCESS FACTORS
f the 'Big Reason' is to strengthen the vision for sports development, the Federation & the league owners have to work together to plot a long-term game plan. Isolated measures and silo-ed action has not delivered any credible impact on the sport. And if the 'Big Reason' is the league commercial structure, league owners have to find a way to allocate some long-term money (from one pocket to another) towards grass root development programs to build a talent pipeline. Too much money is spent on buying international athletes and rationalizing this, maybe one option. Most importantly, investors in leagues need to appreciate that the primary purpose of investing in sports in the short term was sports development. And of course, returns on investment will drive long-term motives. But for this to happen, patience is key.
BUILD & STRENGTHEN THE MISSING LINKS
f the 'Big Factor' is developing a talent pipeline and building a robust feeder system, institutional reform within sports has to be planned. While we need coaching factories to a broad base, we also need personalized & specialized coaching efforts to create performance excellence. Access to sports facilities for the passionate has to be cost-effective. Our policies need to encourage participation. Emerging athletes across sports have to be encouraged by the federations, provided financial security and actively adopted by corporates and brands.
VERTICAL & HORIZONTAL INTEGRATION
Vertical alignment between the various levels of play (league, international, national, regional, community & grass root) and horizontal integration of services (playing access, equipment, coaching & performance centers) have to be created. All round visibility creation for the sport and its ecosystem has to be activated in order for sports to become mainstream. Unless this happens, athletes will continue to slip through the cracks. And our efforts and outcomes will be sub-optimal.
While the leagues were never meant to broad base the sport, drive social and community impact and create vertical & horizontal linkages, such is the reality. At this point in time, rather than fight it, and blame one another, the prudent way forward is to now make it work in India's benefit.