Reflections on Indian sports in IPL season

What is it about sports that lifts our spirits? At its best, it reflects human endeavour in a relatively pure form largely untainted by life’s ambiguities. If you are faster than others in a 100 meters race on a given day, you win. It offers a clear result.

When one watches participants ahead of a sporting event, whether at the Olympics or at a neighbourhood athletics club, one can feel the emotions coursing through their veins. When the event finishes, one sees the participants letting go their emotions. They may otherwise be physical specimens of humanity with glistening bodies and rippling muscles. But in that moment when they finish their event, artificial boundaries and barriers stand dissolved. In that moment, when they believe they have done as well as they could have, they are the best version of themselves. As spectators, in that moment we can feel the magic of sports.

That magic was felt collectively by the nation in 2021 when Neeraj Chopra won a landmark gold in javelin at Tokyo, again when our women and mens’ hockey teams reached the semi-finals, and again when many of our athletes went beyond their limits to produce memorable performances. That magic inspires us to strive to do better in our lives.

What has worked in Indian sports and what has not
Wherever we have had one or more role models, an entire generation of sportspersons follow in that sport. Cricket, chess, hockey, shooting, badminton, and to a lesser extent, boxing, wrestling, weightlifting and archery stand testament. Of course we now have a track and field star in one of the most elite of Olympic sports. It has been reported that there is a major upsurge in the interest in javelin across the country since Tokyo — javelin facilities are much in demand, including from enthusiastic parents who want javelin lessons for their children. But do we have the infrastructure and the coaches to meet that demand?

Most of our role models have emerged through the support they have received — whether from family members some of whom may themselves have had unfulfilled sporting careers, from access to sports infrastructure, the right inspiration or the right coach at the right time, or many times a combination of such factors.

Many government organizations and government owned companies have pitched in. Sports infrastructure has come up over the years but it is nowhere near adequate to cater to a large and young population. Creation of infrastructure has been triggered more by national and international competitions rather than creation of grassroots infrastructure. The performance of our sports federations has been distinctly underwhelming with some exceptions. The entire sports federation structure needs a relook.

The private sector has chipped in, and has started making significant contributions, but typically more when the sporting talent has been “discovered” and less at the early development stages. Private academies run by former sportspersons have done well but more as islands of excellence. Notably, the armed forces, subject to their own limitations, have played a major role in the development of Indian sports at a pan India level.

A left field suggestion
In our sporting history, there is undeniably only one sport that has permeated through national consciousness so far. This has often been perceived as a weakness and as a sign of the lopsided development of Indian sports, but perhaps it is time to use it to our advantage? The question is can we leverage the popularity of cricket to boost other sports and sporting infrastructure?

In the last fifteen years, one big contributing factor to the development of Indian cricket has been the IPL. While it has its share of critics, it cannot be disputed that the IPL has leap-frogged over traditional selection systems for domestic cricket which have not been entirely transparent. With a more professional set up, it has unearthed talent in remote corners of India and fast tracked talented cricketers giving them opportunities like never before. It has given the Indian national team for men the luxury of a deep bench strength in both white ball and red ball cricket which other cricketing nations have found hard to replicate and have been envious of.

Similar leagues have been attempted for other sports, but with limited success, the exceptions being the soccer and kabbadi leagues. Why not then build further on the IPL? It may be a somewhat radical suggestion, but each IPL team owner could consider supporting and promoting at least one sport apart from cricket. The chosen sport could have a geographical connection – for example, the Punjab Kings could well seek to give hockey a push, the Chennai Super Kings may consider chess, the Sunrisers Hyderabad may think about badminton and for KKR, football may be a good fit.

Being involved in more than one sport (with cricket at their core) will offer IPL franchises synergies that will potentially benefit them in multiple ways. In addition to financial support, the IPL franchises could leverage their well-oiled promotion and marketing teams to promote their chosen sport. They could hire talent scouts similar to those they have for cricket to unearth talent in the chosen sport. Stories of such sportspersons could be showcased at the annual IPL events. The annual IPL extravaganza could then become a broader celebration of sports over a two month period every year.

The focus of the IPL must unquestionably be cricket, and the IPL competition would still be limited to cricket, but other sports, indeed all stakeholders, can have much to gain.

It could be argued that we would be placing an undue burden on the IPL franchisees by expecting them to spend their time and energy on promoting sports other than cricket. The authors are not advocating that support for other sports should be mandated in any manner – on the contrary, this may be something for the franchisees themselves to reflect upon as a part of their evolution.

Given the way in which the IPL and the franchisee brands have developed since 2008, there is a unique opportunity for them to transcend beyond cricket into other sports. There is an opportunity for them to become brands that reflect the dynamism and vitality of talent in Indian sports that, much like cricket, is simply waiting on the wings to be harnessed and presented on the international stage.

The authors are corporate lawyers at S&R Associates. The views expressed in this article are personal.

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