INDIAN SPORT IS on the cusp of a new age. If recent trends are anything to go by, Indian stars are now winning medals in almost every international competition across sports. And the fundamental reason why this is now a reality is that there is a lot more money in sport. With direct intervention from the prime minister, sport is now a priority for the government and the results have started to show.
On the positive side of the ledger, the funding for sport in India has increased. In early 2016, India was spending about ₹11.5 per Indian on sport (with about ₹1,541 crore in the Union sport budget). By 2019, this spending had increased to ₹16.5 per Indian (with an overall sport budget of ₹2,216.92 crore).
What does this mean in real terms? The National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) was set up by the government in 1998-99 with just ₹2 crore in its corpus. In the two decades since, it has raised over ₹240 crore (with roughly 38 per cent coming in from private sources, 35 per cent from government-owned companies, and the rest from
the government itself).
Overall, as the sports ministry reported to Parliament, funding for the training and participation of elite athletes in international events through the support given to sporting federations went up almost fourfold between 2014-15 (₹130 crore) and 2019-20 (₹482.5 crore budget ceiling).
For Tokyo 2020, in particular, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) announced in December 2018 that ₹100 crore had been earmarked for the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), which identifies elite athletes and supports their training. The TOPS itself was set up in September 2014 and became operational by mid-2015. Abhinav Bindra headed its selection committee through all of 2017 when 220 athletes were funded by the scheme. In 2016, the TOPS spent ₹19.9 crore on athletes in 17 sports. This spending increased to ₹28.17 crore across 19 sports in 2017-18. By September 2019, 89 sportspeople, including several para-athletes, were being funded in 12 sports.
What do these numbers mean at the ground level? Let’s take the example of badminton national coach Pullela Gopichand and his academy in Hyderabad. “The total players in the academy,” he said, “are not much actually. It’s about 160-odd. But, overall, the number of players who are playing badminton in the country has grown exponentially. The government has been supportive. For the SAI Gopichand National Academy, they gave about ₹5 crore in funding from the NSDF, which was very good. Also, for the Gopichand Academy, we have about 50 players supported by the government in terms of food and accommodation. So overall, food, accommodation plus tournament exposure for these 50 kids is huge support from the Government of India. In the last few years, whether it is elite players or the academy, I definitely would say that the top players should be very thankful for the tremendous support we have got from the government,” argued Gopi.
Second, there is a lesson to draw from cricket, which grew as a business because of the money that television brought into the game. Cricket reigns supreme in India, but in the last few years, the country’s market size for sport has also grown significantly. The industry’s size expanded from $1.7 billion in 2013 to about $2.7 billion in 2018. This is important because sporting infrastructure requires money. In 2018, the managing director of Star India at the time, Sanjay Gupta, told the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) Scorecard forum that the sport industry’s size can expand to about $10 billion by 2023-24. “Over the last few years, the kind of activity around the business of sport has been tremendous,” he pointed out. “There are now over 15 domestic leagues in the country—across kabaddi, football, kho kho, badminton—from just two, five years back.” When television starts focusing on sport and creating stars, it has a knock-on effect in terms of aspiration. In the case of badminton, as Gopichand points out, the catchment area has increased: “I think what used to be about 30 or 40 players in numbers, has actually gone up to around 2,000-2,500. So, the number of people playing the game seriously has increased by, maybe, 100-200 per cent every year in the last few years, especially in the 13 to 15-year sub-junior categories. These are amazing numbers and the quality of players who are playing at a certain level has gone up as well. Earlier, 10 years ago, there were, maybe, 10 kids who could actually play a serious rally. That number has gone up to a thousand now. So, I think, the overall standard of grassroots-level badminton has grown drastically.”
What is also a welcome sign is how some states have taken to sport and are now investing considerable wealth in creating world-class infrastructure. The one state that has taken the lead in this regard is Odisha
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And all this has been possible because of the money that has come into sport. Even rewards have grown exponentially for medal winners and sport stars now earn considerable wealth in the course of a successful career. Take the case of Neeraj Chopra. He is now one of India’s highest-paid stars. Chopra received nearly ₹15 crore in the form of rewards after winning a gold medal in Tokyo and is now one of India’s most sought-after celebrities. The same applies to PV Sindhu. Her two Olympic medals have made her one of India’s best-known global stars and these athletes now come close to film personalities in terms of earnings.
What is also a welcome sign is how some states have taken to sport and are now investing considerable wealth in creating world-class infrastructure. The one state that has taken the lead in this regard is Odisha. Having undertaken multiple visits to the state and seen the infrastructure, I can say with certainty that Odisha will soon be the sporting capital of India in terms of infrastructure. With 22 hockey pitches spread across Sundargarh, Rourkela, and Bhubaneswar, football, shooting, badminton, and India’s first athletics indoor stadium, the direct involvement of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has gone a long way to making the state stand out in the sporting domain. Vineel Krishna, sport secretary and the man who leads this revolution, says there is still much to do. “The hockey World Cup should be a signature event. We had put a lot of effort into staging the U-17 women’s FIFA World Cup and the results are for all to see,” says Krishna. Multiple public-private partnerships and the involvement of stars like Abhinav Bindra and Gopichand have added heft to the Odisha model. And behind all this is investment. The wealth invested by the government has made a fundamental difference and one can hope other states will soon follow this template and help in making India a true multi-sporting country.