GN Focus | India

Game on for Gen Z

From Indian Premier League gear and speciality training for children to protein supplements and football-only channels, India has recently begun to rediscover ‘khel’

  • By Gareth Kurt Warren | Features Writer
  • Published: 00:04 August 15, 2012
  • GN Focus

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Ten-year-old Dhairya Kapoor (left) plays football in Mumbai. Parents in India are now increasingly encouraging their children to participate in games.

When ten-year-old Dhairya Kapoor and his parents talk about his career options, being a professional footballer may top the list.

“My wife and I decided that we do not want a class topper with 95 per cent marks, as long as our son plays a sport seriously,” says his father, Sanjay Kapoor, an Indian businessman based in Mumbai.

“My parents have always encouraged me to follow my dreams...”

— Vijender Singh, Boxer

Dhairya is not only a part of his school’s first team, which won an inter-school under-ten championship among 150 schools in Mumbai, but he is also shortlisted for the Manchester United Development Squad in India’s financial capital. Last year, his parents were instrumental in bringing the team to Dubai to train at the Arsenal Soccer School and play in an inter-school under-11 tournament.

Sport is now a lifestyle choice in India. Families bond over Indian Premier League (IPL) events and regularly compare scorecards of their favourite sports teams, while mothers routinely buy protein supplements for their teenage sons. Big brands feel that having a sports star endorse everything from beverages and mobile phones to automobiles and sportswear influences brand loyalty. With access to football-only channels, IPL merchandise and easy-to-attend games, lifestyle elements of sports that were not a part of the Indian ethos a few years ago are now becoming a part of popular culture.

Many credit the beginning of this culture change to the IPL, a cricket organisation that IMG Worldwide, a global sports, fashion and media business, helped establish. Buoyed by its success with IPL, IMG has now ventured into other sports as well in a deal with business magnate Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance. As part of a 30-year deal, The Basketball Federation of India granted IMG and Reliance Industries the joint commercial rights to the sport in the country, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, franchising and merchandising rights in 2010.

These deals — and the culture and lifestyle they engender — are now prompting young people such as Dhairya to actively pursue careers in sports other than cricket, which has thus far been the only acceptable sporting career in India.

“The IMG-Reliance basketball deal means that there are careers for basket ball players as well — the deal ensures cash awards to 13-year-old players at a sub-junior level,” says basketball coach Shiba Maggon, an Indian basketball player and former Commonwealth Games participant. Maggon is currently the coach of the Indian Junior Basketball Team and is one of the first women to qualify as an international referee. Maggon tells GN Focus that the media is slowly starting to talk about other sports in India. “With the NBA in India coming forward, the game has travelled a long way and we are already seeing a lot of changes. Despite being minor, the big picture is in the making with a professional league planned. That is going to rock India,” says Maggon.

Narain Karthikeyan, the first Formula 1 motor racing driver from India, says that now, with corporate endorsements, pursuing your passion for sport and turning a hobby into a profession is attainable. “Securing sponsorship is easier now, although barring cricket, it is still a mammoth task to convince people to back you. When I started racing internationally, a handful of people knew what Formula 1 was all about, and no one knew what it would take to get there. It was unchartered territory — trying to make it to the pinnacle of motorsport from a country that had miniscule exposure to it,” he says, speaking to GN Focus.

Earlier, sports stars enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame if they won — or almost won — an international event. Today, sports stars are looked after by a team of talent-management professionals. Take Mumbai-based Percept Talent, for instance, which manages everyone from boxer Vijender Singh to wrestler Sushil Kumar, both Bronze winners in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The agency, whose other clients include film star Katrina Kaif, not only secures great endorsement deals for the sportspersons but also manages their media presence, helping create celebrities.

“There is a star in every industry,” says Grishma Shah, Head — Image Management at Percept Talent, in an interview with GN Focus.

India’s leading batsman Virender Sehwag’s endorsements are managed by Professional Management Group, which is co-owned by former Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar. The company signed a five-year deal with Sehwag, which included a minimum guarantee of Rs1bn (Dh66mn), valuing the deal at Rs200mn per year. Similarly, Indian Cricket Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni made $26.5mn (Dh97mn) last year. However, only $3.5mn comes from playing cricket. The rest? Endorsements.

Along with the increase in fame, non-cricketers are also starting to benefit financially from endorsements. Last month, The Times of India revealed that Saina Nehwal, the Indian badminton player currently ranked five in the world by the Badminton World Federation, commands a Rs10mn (about Dh661,000) endorsement fee.

In order to create the sports stars of the future, the Sports Authority of India is set to spend a whopping $178mn to prepare young athletes for the 2020 Olympics, reported The Times of India. The scheme will identify talent between the ages of 13 to 15 and provide them with the best training over the next eight years in order for them to successfully compete and win at the 2020 Olympics.

Brands such as Coca-Cola India pump money into numerous sport events across the country — the Street Cricket Championship in April this year, the Coca-Cola Cricket Cup last month, and the 2010 Coca-Cola Celebration Cup (football) to name a few. The prizes for both cricket tournaments were Rs500,000 and Rs1mn respectively, while the winners of the football tournament took home Rs50,000.

Despite the massive difference in terms of the prize money, sports other than cricket are slowly starting to gain fame. Boxer Vijender Singh, for instance, has endorsed Nike, Mountain Dew, Siyarams and Gillette. In an interview with GN Focus, he says, “I do enjoy the limelight. People now recognise boxing as a sport, understand and even follow the game; when I walk out, people now identify me.”

Brands such as Fila, Boost, a health food drink, and adidas are aligning themselves with sports stars in order to promote the fitness aspect within the lifestyle of Indian youth. These partnerships are a win-win for all parties. Dhoni rakes in $23mn from his list of almost 25 endorsement deals which include PepsiCo, Reebok and Sony. Fila recently signed a Rs80mn endorsement deal with Virender Sehwag to add to his portfolio of adidas, Zandu Balm, Boost and Rasna, among others.

This alternative career as a celebrity takes care of the fear of retirement, while earlier the maximum shelf life of a sportsperson was around 35 years, unless a career-ending sports injury hit first. Now we can see 63-year-old ex-Indian cricket team captain Sunil Gavaskar smiling at us from billboards on Shaikh Zayed Road, promoting home furnishings and building equipment.

This preoccupation with sport reflects in preparation as well. “Most training centres now have adequate equipment and have immensely improved on their facilities. Parents are more involved and encourage their child to participate in sports at college and state levels. Sports are no longer considered just an extracurricular activity,” says Shah.

“Parents have now started to give sports a chance as a viable career option and look after their children’s diets, and their coaches keep track of the food they eat — junk food is no more,” says Kapoor.

The economic growth of India is also responsible for the renewed and much-needed attention to sport. Aditya Patel, the first Indian to compete in and win a 24-hour endurance race at the Nürburgring, a Formula 1 racetrack in Germany, says, “The way the country’s automobile industry is growing, I’d say there are some fruitful rewards waiting for us out there.”

It seems to be a matter of time before India rewrites sporting history. Besides, many parents have already picked up the pen to do so. As Kapoor says, “We parents not only think of sports as a career but we also make it possible for our children. Even if they want to be a Rooney rather than a Tendulkar.”

Ring of influence

“My uncle Vinod Sangwan has been my inspiration; he was a boxer but could not make it to the Indian team. My brother gave up boxing because the family could only afford to have one of us involved in the sport. Today, I feel proud to have reached this far.”

— Sumit Sangwan, the 19-year-old boxer who competed in the 2012 London Olympics

“Being the youngest boxer to qualify for the Olympics is a dream come true. I was interested in taking up athletics and football until I saw Mike Tyson on television and that is when my interest in boxing grew. I was just awestruck by his charisma and the way he made boxing look so stylish.”

— Shiva Thappa, the youngest Indian boxer to qualify for the Olympics

“When you’re representing your country at the world’s biggest sporting event, the feeling is exceptional. My brother has been my biggest influence; I took up boxing with him. My parents have always been supportive; in fact, they had encouraged me to take it up as a mainstream profession.”

— Vijender Singh, the boxer who won Bronze in the 2008 Beijing Olympics

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