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Transforming India’s sports landscape

This article is authored by Suryaprabha Sadasivan, vice-president and Aashna Kothiyal, senior associate, Chase India.

The adage “cricket is not just a sport, but a religion in India” is familiar to every Indian. However, a gradual but positive transformation has occurred in India’s sports ecosystem in recent years. The country has achieved remarkable success in various sporting events, from the Tokyo Olympics 2021 to the recent ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup. Additionally, the astounding popularity and success of cricketing leagues like the Indian Premier League have resulted in investments and sponsorships in other sports. Hockey, kabaddi, football, and more are gaining popularity, viewership, and a dedicated fan base in India. More importantly, it has demonstrated a huge potential to empower women and girls.

This shift in the sports landscape can be attributed to multiple factors like progressive policies, changing mindsets, private sector participation, and increased recognition of sports as an economic growth driver beyond being just a source of entertainment.

One noticeable change over the years has been the increased emphasis on sports by the Indian government. Initially, sports did not have a dedicated policy in the early years after Independence, as the focus was primarily on literacy, public health, and self-sufficiency. However, this began to change when India started participating in prestigious events like the Asia Cup and Cricket World Cups, leading to the formulation of India’s first sports policy in 1984, which focused on raising the standard of sports in the country.

In 2011, India introduced the National Sports Development Code, a significant departure that recognised sports as a national priority and a vehicle for social development, inclusion, and employment. Moreover, government sports budgets have gradually increased in the past decade, reflecting a shift in priorities and acknowledging the societal value of sports. In 2023-2024, India witnessed its highest-ever sports budget. Despite that, several barriers remain that need to be addressed for sports to realise their full potential in India.

Several states in India have developed their own sports policies, recognizing the importance of sports. Haryana’s remarkable contribution to India’s international medal tally is attributed to its comprehensive sports policy. The policy promotes excellence and encourages mass participation by providing access to sports facilities from the village level. Incentives like job opportunities and cash prizes are offered to medal winners. Moreover, Haryana leads in utilising sports for social inclusion through the Dhakad program, establishing sports centers to address challenges like drug addiction and promote sports participation.

Interestingly, Odisha, known for its unwavering support for hockey and sports in general, has no dedicated sports policy. Instead, the state has a broader youth policy that strategically utilises sports to achieve larger policy goals for the youth population. This has helped integrate sports curricula into schools and colleges and made it a part of everyday life. Increased importance placed on sports for overall youth development has helped turn it into a job-creating industry.

Different states in India are actively developing innovative sports policies, giving a strong impetus to the sector. Recently, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh introduced new sports policies that aim to promote excellence, encourage mass participation, and address social challenges. Such efforts are propelling the growth and development of sports across the nation.

Despite the considerable progress of India’s sporting journey, India’s sports system faces challenges, particularly chronic underfunding. Despite a sports budget of approximately ₹24 per capita, it falls short compared to the European Union’s average allocation of around 100 euros or ₹8,000 per capita. To address this, the government should seek increased private sector contributions to the National Sports Development Fund through corporate social responsibility initiatives. Introducing schemes like an “adopt a stadium” programme, similar to the successful Adopt a Heritage model, could boost funding through public-private partnerships.

In addition to receiving more financial resources, those involved in the sports industry in India must develop strategies that tap into India’s favorable demographic dividend and promote sports as a viable livelihood option in the country, with a particular emphasis on ensuring gender equality. According to a study conducted by Northeastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd. on mainstreaming sports as a career, most athletes in the Northeast region aspire to secure government jobs, lacking awareness about alternative career paths. This cultural mindset is something India must overcome, and the private sector can contribute by collaborating with educational institutes to create sports courses, providing scholarships to young athletes, and raising awareness about diverse career opportunities.

Furthermore, India lacks a clear objective or strategy for hosting and bidding for major sports events. Hosting such events not only catalyses the development of world-class sports infrastructure but also significantly boosts the overall sports ecosystem while diversifying the economy. Many leading sporting nations and, more recently, countries like the UAE and Qatar have well-defined goals and policies in place to attract and host major sports events. Given India’s capability to host events like the G20 summit, a strategic approach should be developed in this regard.

Sports governance in India faces challenges like corruption and lack of transparency. A shift from bureaucratic regulation to an entrepreneurial approach is needed to unlock India’s sports ecosystem’s potential. Regulation should align with social and economic demands, allowing market forces to drive innovation and growth. While the government should provide frameworks, enabling market forces will foster efficiency and drive the sports sector forward.

India’s sports policy is still evolving, offering valuable lessons that can be applied to other sectors. One significant lesson is the power of collaborative partnerships between sports agencies, federations, and corporates, which have played a vital role in revitalising sports in the country, underscoring the value of public-private partnerships.

Furthermore, the development of India’s sports ecosystem owes much to behaviour change campaigns like Fit India/Khelo India, which have successfully brought sports to rural and remote areas, promoting participation and awareness while mainstreaming sports as a career.

There is a growing recognition within sports agencies and departments that involving sports professionals in sports administration is crucial. Realising the need for specialist expertise ensures informed decisions are made, resulting in more effective and knowledge-based policies. This emphasis on expertise can serve as a model for various other sectors in the country, promoting better decision-making and outcomes.

This article is authored by Suryaprabha Sadasivan, vice-president and Aashna Kothiyal, senior associate, Chase India.

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