India’s Cricket Victory: Can It Lead to Success in Other Sports?

India has just won the Cricket World Cup. Everyone — from industrialists to state governments and the country’s cricket board — is going to great lengths to reward the cricketers for their success. The adulation will likely encourage a generation of schoolchildren to participate in the sport and view captain M.S. Dhoni as a role model for coolness under pressure and the desire to be a good citizen. But cricket is not enough, says Ignatius Chithelen, managing partner of Banyan Tree Capital Management, a New York-based investment management firm. There must be adequate investment in other sports, too, Chithelen argues in this opinion piece.

One highlight of watching India’s victory over Sri Lanka in the Cricket World Cup final last week was the time when the TV cameras focused on several tribals at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai. They were relatives and friends of Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. When Dhoni was growing up, his father, a tribal wage laborer-turned-electrician at the government-run Mecon (formerly Metallurgical & Engineering Consultants) in Ranchi, could barely afford to feed his children a good meal. Dhoni had no formal coaching and his supporters had to ask for free bats for him from suppliers. So his 91 runs not out and calm focus as captain, which also earned him the Man of the Match award in the final, was the ultimate reward for his parents, relatives and other early supporters in the small Jharkhand town.

There have been some notable achievements by Indians in sports on a world scale, like Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi’s numerous tennis Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles, Viswanathan Anand’s World Chess champion status and Saina Nehwal’s No. 3 ranking in world badminton. But at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Indians won only three medals: a gold in shooting and a bronze each in wrestling and boxing. In contrast, host China won 100 medals, including 51 gold, while Brazil won 15 medals, including three gold.

At the Bottom of the Barrel

In men’s field hockey, India’s traditional strength in a major sport, it last won an Olympic gold medal in 1964, excluding the 1980 Moscow event, which was boycotted by major rivals. India last won the World Cup hockey title in 1975. Since then, it has not placed in the top four, finishing eighth at the 2010 World Cup. Amongst other major sports, in men’s soccer India ranks 145 in the world, 50 in basketball and in volleyball 37. So, while the cricket victory was impressive and deserves to be celebrated, India has to figure out ways to improve performance in other sports, in keeping with its status as an emerging world economic power and a population of 1.2 billion.

A major reason for the success of India’s cricket team is that cricket is a big business in the nation. India is by far the largest commercial market for the game. The Indian Premier League, which attracts the world’s best cricketers, earned US$135 million in advertising revenues in 2010 for its 50-day season. Major Indian businessmen paid hundreds of millions of dollars for many of the teams. Some of the money does trickle down to the successful players in the form of lucrative fees for matches and team contracts, as well as advertising and other types of endorsement income. Dhoni, already the highest earning sports star in India and in world cricket earning an estimated US$10 million in 2010, will likely earn millions of dollars more per year for leading his team to World Cup victory. With a generation of young boys in India aspiring to be the next Dhoni or Sachin Tendulkar, cricket will continue to attract the most talented pool of athletes in the nation.

As in developed countries, it is likely that other major TV-friendly spectator sports will also become big businesses in India. The pursuit of these new markets has apparently led Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance to team up with IMG, the US-based talent management agency. IMG Reliance will reportedly pay around US$140 million for 15 years of commercial rights to a new professional soccer league that it will promote in India. IMG Reliance is also reported to have made a deal for the commercial rights to a basketball league in India. In 2010, IMG Reliance selected 29 Indians, from ages 11 to 14, including the entire under-15 Indian soccer team and some basketball and tennis players, for training at IMG’s camp in Bradenton, Florida. Such training and the new leagues will very likely improve the quality of India’s soccer, basketball and tennis performance at international competitions.

Government Support Is Needed

But for other sports, which may take a long time to turn into major moneymakers for private investors, if they ever do so at all, world-class training has to be funded and organized primarily by the government. Government-backed sports institutes should hire world-class coaches to train young kids in sports like hockey, boxing, badminton, athletics, swimming and wrestling, a centuries’ old native sport still practiced in many Indian villages. The institutes can be modeled after similar facilities, established by the Australian and the U.K. governments, which have produced many of the leading athletes in those countries, including Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, a five time Olympic gold medal winner. These institutes can be funded by Indian sports ministry grants or, if feasible, through revenues from the lottery, as in the U.K., as well as in cooperation with private donors. The Tata Group, for instance, is funding the development of some world-class Indian athletes, with tennis star Paes being one of their success stories.

Dhoni apparently realizes that he was lucky to win the lottery of cricket. An estimated 45% of students in Ranchi’s high schools do not graduate. Dhoni and other prominent locals are trying to motivate the students and their parents that finishing high school is an important first step towards improving their economic well-being. Realizing the value of education and trying to serve as a good role model, Dhoni has registered to complete his college graduation.

Dhoni’s example of climbing the Indian cricket ladder by consistently proving his worth on the field shows why promoting meritocracy is essential to winning in sports, as well as other activities on the world stage. And his cool manner in leading India to victory is illustrative of his view that playing is more important than winning, and winning on the field is more important than verbal duels.

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