Doing Sports in India

Shuttler Kidambi Srikanth’s stunning victories in the Indonesian Super Series Premier and Australian Open this year are certainly worthy of celebration, but they should also provoke some introspection on the need to strengthen the institutional foundations of the country’s sports industry so that India becomes a more consistent performer on the global stage. Indeed, badminton is a good example of these challenges. The two women Olympians Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu, and the three top men’s players Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth and H S Prannoy — of whom the first two have bagged three of the six Super Series tournaments played so far this year — all have one thing in common. They are proteges of national chief coach Pullela Gopichand's training academy. This fact may enhance Mr Gopichand’s much-deserved reputation as a brilliant coach; he is to Indian badminton what at one time Nick Bollettieri was to world tennis. But this dependence on one person, no matter how exceptional, serves to underline the need for a robust institutional base to deliver sustainable performance in sports. 

The ever-modest Mr Gopichand rightly points out that much more work needs to be done structurally for India to reach the consistency of China and its dominance of world badminton. Though he may not realise it, his academy is the pointer to the kind of “structural” revolution that is needed. Steady successes in the sport have encouraged the mushrooming of badminton academies, most of which are running to capacity. True, few of them impart world-class training and fitness regimes yet. But their existence represents a far healthier environment for the sport than the earlier reliance on the government-administered badminton associations.

There is a mistaken notion in India that greater government spending on sports is vital for the country to emerge as a vibrant sporting nation. Recently, former Indian hockey Olympian-turned-politician Pargat Singh told the media that the Narendra Modi government must increase spending on sports. India spent less than one per cent of its budget on sports compared with 10-15 per cent in China, a level to which we should aim, he added. In fact, Chinese dirigisme is exactly the wrong model to follow, and India's politician-infested sports industry has foundered for precisely this reason. 

In short, Doing Sports successfully is analogous to a dynamic Doing Business environment. Instead of the state-directed sports promotion model, rooted in brawny nationalist thinking, India would do better to recognise sports as an industry and emulate the best practices of developed countries, where governments focus on creating the enabling environment for the private sector. The US Federal budget — and state budgets for that matter — has negligible expenditure on sports, and this applies to many European countries as well. Baseball, American football and basketball in the US or football, Formula 1 and tennis in Europe derive their vibrancy from the surpluses in private industry, creating an ecosystem that interacts with the school and university systems to spot and bankroll talent. 

In India, Subhash Chandra’s Indian Cricket League, the concept of which the cricket board purloined to create the Indian Premier League, was the pioneer of a business format that operates at the intersection of government enablement and private sector investment. Several vibrant sporting properties have been created on the same lines since then, kabaddi, hockey and badminton being prominent examples. All of them widen the market for sports in a fundamental way, and make them more egalitarian too. This will eventually create the kind of sporting business culture that has kept developed countries at the forefront of world sports.

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