Changing the Face of Sports

By Ayaz Memon

Reading my posts on this website, an acquaintance called up and asked if I had become an evangelist for the NBA in India. I explained to the acquaintance that sport was a passion, and seeing India become a sporting nation a priority, whatever else it may include.

It’s difficult to explain to outsiders why India remains among the more impoverished (for honours, medals, titles et al) nations in the sporting world despite a billion-strong population and an economy that has been growing at a robust rate for the past decade and more, never mind a blip or two like the recessionary trend in late 2008-early 2009. Why is the country starved of champions?

The cricket team is of course ranked number 1 now, Vishy Anand is chess world champion and in Beijing in 2008, an individual gold medal was finally won. But does that do justice to the potential the country has? What is it that is being done wrong, and what can be done to improve the situation is something that occupies my mind continuously.

Take the recent imbroglio between hockey players and the federation. The players went on strike, refusing to train for the World cup due in 6-8 weeks because they had not been compensated for achievements dating more than a year back. Remember, this is old payments due, not fresh money being asked for.

Of course, the players also then pressed demands for a graded contract system and revised daily allowance. Officials saw this as threat and lack of patriotic feeling, but that is bunkum. Asking players representing the country to play for 800 USD for an entire tournament (8-14 days), and less than 20 USD daily allowance is not just daft but diabolical.

A few days after the hockey controversy had simmered down, came the story that India’s only Olympic individual gold medalist Abhinav Bindra might quit his sport, shooting, because the national rifle association was insisting that he break away from his training in Europe and come to India to participate in their program. When he did once, the program was postponed, and Bindra’s training for the Commonwealth Games was thrown out of gear.

The reason why I have written extensively about hockey and shooting here is to highlight the utter lack of understanding of sports in several federations and the constraints under which Indian sportspersons have to perform. Indeed, so apathetic is the situation (barring in cricket) that it is a wonder that some Indians have gone on to become world-beaters.

The sporting ethos in India needs to change. Fresh people and fresh ideas have to come in. India is a young nation, with a robust economic climate and a newfound aspiration to find its place in the global world. Sports remains one of the most exciting and rewarding ways to achieve this.

This is where the NBA can be of help to India: not necessarily because of the sport it represents, but more because of the way it has gone about conducting its business. I used the last word of the previous sentence deliberately, because in India, sports has hardly been seen as business, more as pastime: the government provides some grant, officials hang on to office for power rather than passion for the sport, and players fight heavy odds to eke out a living or at least some glory.

That might throw up an occasional champion by fluke, but unless there is a proper protocol in place for sustained excellence, the method is doomed to fail. My experience with the NBA suggests that theirs is the act that sports federations in India would do well to follow. The NBA has positioned basketball in the world of infotainment with an admirably high degree of efficiency; and this efficiency stems from passion, not just a hankering for a pastime.

The NBA plays for big stakes, and provides great stakes, especially to its franchisees and practitioners. The business model is strong and attracts investment. Players are built up and marketed as stars, spawning an entire industry of merchandising and collectibles. There is a robust system for spotting and nurturing young talent, and it also allies itself to social causes. In effect, it has built up a fascinating ecosystem with the best virtues of sport, business, entertainment and social development.

I have been impressed enough to install a hoop in my farmhouse just outside of Mumbai. Does that make me an evangelist for the NBA I wonder?