Indian sporting system has come a long way, yet the nation seems to lack collective sports culture at times
Whilst the truth of the matter is that the nation’s sporting scene has grown by leaps and bounds, why is it still in a state where such an anomaly — the Chhetri message — can exist in plain sight? The reason has to come down to a lack of sporting culture.
At the heart of the Indian sporting scene is a contradiction. On one hand, you have seen India’s sports story weaving many a unique tale where it’s not all about eleven men on a cricket field, where corporates have come on board — in their various capacities — in increasing numbers to provide investment and opportunities. This has given rise to a plethora of leagues wherein Indians are able to consume sport that is decidedly diverse and engaging at the same time.
On the other hand, the captain of your nation’s football team, Sunil Chhetri, is asking fans for support before a match.
Whilst the truth of the matter is that the nation’s sporting scene has grown by leaps and bounds, why is it still in a state where such an anomaly — the Chhetri message — can exist in plain sight? The reason has to come down to a lack of sporting culture. Now, this isn’t to state that there is a complete absence of culture everywhere, as that is simply untrue. West Bengal and Goa have a rich history of producing footballing talent; Punjab has always been a hotbed for hockey; the North-Eastern states produce champions from across the aisle, be it football, wrestling, boxing; Tamil Nadu has been a conveyor belt for Grandmasters.
No, the absence here is that of a collective sporting culture where we don’t just get behind our teams but more broadly, we get behind sport itself; where our outpouring of joy isn’t restricted to the Olympics or the World Cup. Rather, it is shared throughout the year.
In order to instill this, we need to encourage sport at a grassroots level. Brands have always got behind athletes from a marketing point of view — brand endorsements, event promotions, cause-marketing — as this feels like smart investing, but thankfully, they’ve also come to the realisation that getting behind the ecosystem is even smarter investing. At the confluence of sport and society is the veritable sweet spot but in order to capitalise, corporates have to show ample patience and — as the Philadelphia 76ers preach so passionately in the NBA — they have to ‘trust the process’.
But for the doubters, the primary questions are always, ‘But can it work?’ and ‘Can we get together and help the sporting scene even if the immediate signs aren’t reassuring?’
To answer these questions, let’s look at two unique instances. The city of Bengaluru has never been known for its exploits in football. Through the 90’s and early 2000’s, the city’s football was represented by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Yet, it is in this city that India’s most interesting football experiment is paying huge dividends. Bengaluru FC is not just the best football club in the country, it is also the best managed. But on their journey, BFC has also elevated the footballing ecosystem in the city — from the fans to the stadium, the training and right down to their approach to grassroots.
The other unique instance was brought about thanks to India’s entrepreneurs wanting to make a difference. When Mark Dharmai — a para-badminton shuttler — wanted to take part in an international event in Thailand, he was short of funds and needed help. This is where Mark was able to team up with Fueladream — a crowdfunding platform — and raise awareness around para-sports whilst also making a plea to him raise funds. The campaign proved to be a tremendous success as Indians got together to help Mark and for his part, the shuttler didn’t disappoint, winning a silver medal. The burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem has played the key-role of a problem solver but it also comes down to providing that tiny bit of support, which to you and I might feel tiny, but to the athlete, our gestures, support, could magnify exponentially. Today, Mark is one of the best para-badminton players on the planet and maybe, brands need to help more Marks.
With the Olympics in Tokyo only two years away, the glare of the cameras will focus on our athletes and rightfully so. But let us not forget the ones who don’t make it as their stories are just as much a part of the Indian sporting story for their stories are a better representation of what happens in sport: an incredibly crystalised version of survival of the fittest. When we think of an improvement, it could be in these stories — defeat at the eleventh hour, lack of funding, impatience in the face of a genuine talent — that we can really learn and build our culture and in the process, our sporting future.
And it can be bright, very bright.
Sanjeev Anand is in-charge of ‘IndusInd for Sports’ and country head for commercial banking at IndusInd Bank
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