It was a casual, off-the-cuff remark by a friend that re-sparked the entrepreneurial instinct in Saumil Majmudar, co-founder and CEO of EduSports, one of India’s first school sports enterprises. The year was 2003, and Majmudar’s friend was lamenting how his six-year-old son was turning into a couch potato due to lack of opportunities to play and participate in sports. Majmudar, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai and the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, was then working with software firm FutureSoft. An avowed sports buff, he saw an ideal opportunity to combine his passion with a business venture.

Majmudar had previously dabbled with entrepreneurship — but without success. That didn’t dishearten him, though. He brainstormed with friends, raised US$21,000 (through personal savings, friends and family) and set up SportzVillage in Bangalore. The idea was simple: To offer students a fully-fitted venue for sports activities for use during after school hours and vacation times.

As the concept caught on, Majmudar realized that there was “a bigger opportunity in going directly to schools.” In January 2009, he set up EduSports, offering in-school sports and physical education (PE) programs, including developing curriculum, training the instructors; managing the equipment; monitoring programs, and completing assessments. EduSports’ programs are delivered during schools’ PE classes and the schools pay the company around US$3 to US$4 per child, per month.

By the end of 2009, about 15 schools (including some chain schools) signed up with EduSports, and in January 2010, Seedfund, a Bangalore-based venture capital fund, came on board with an investment of around US$1 million. Currently, EduSports reaches out to more than 175,000 students in 270 schools across 82 cities in India. According to Majmudar, EduSports has 350 employees and broke even at the end of 2012. But he is tight-lipped about current revenues. “We expect to touch US$18 million turnover over the next four years,” he notes.

Playing to Win

“There is greater realization among parents that sports education is not just about reducing obesity or losing weight,” says Bharati Jacob, founder-partner of Seedfund. “It teaches children strategy, team play, focus and determination, about [winning and] losing — skills that are relevant in real life. EduSports is making PE a core subject, just like science, language or math.”

According to the “Indian Education Sector Outlook — Insights on Schooling Segment,” a report released by New Delhi-based research and consultancy firm Technopak Advisors in May 2012, India has the largest kindergarten to grade 12 population globally. The study estimates the Indian schooling segment, valued at US$44 billion in 2011, to reach US$144 billion by year 2020. There are approximately 1.3 million schools in India, with private schools accounting for 20%. The rest are government schools.

“Given that there has been a 5% increase in the number of schools year on year and an increasing focus on sports and PE, the robust growth in sports education and management is expected to continue,” notes Majmudar. He adds that “policy-level interventions by education boards and state governments to make sports an integral part of education is playing an important role.”

The “Skill Gap Study for Sports (2012-2017, 2017-2022),” a report by the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), recommends that sports should form an integral part of the school curriculum and the performance of the child should be graded. The report suggests that in the initial period of implementation, the subject may be considered an extracurricular activity, but eventually, a child should be promoted only if he or she achieves minimum marks in sports.

In June 2012, Majmudar launched EduSports Momentum, a structured sports and PE program for government-run and other bottom-of the-pyramid schools. While no school has signed up for this program as yet, Majmudar believes it is only a matter of time.

Spotting the Opportunity

Many others have also spotted the potential business opportunity in sports education. Take KOOH Sports, a Mumbai-based company whose investors include leading mortage lender HDFC and software services firm Tata Consultancy Services. Founded in June 2010 by Susir Kumar and Prabhu Srinivasan, senior corporate executives who between them have worked for companies including HDFC, Intelenet, KPMG and General Electric, KOOH has engaged with 30,000 students across 30-plus schools since inception.

In an interview with business daily, The Economic Times, Keki Mistry, vice-chairman and CEO of HDFC, said he believes in KOOH’s vision to bring structured curriculum, technology and infrastructure to schools as a way of motivating children to come out and play. “While as a group HDFC has been associated with sports franchisees, we were keen to find a way to create impact at a grassroots level,” Mistry noted.

KOOH has two main programs to improve fitness and sports ability — Kid Fit (covering kindergarten to grade two students, KOOH is offering this program in partnership with the U.S.-based sports foundation of the same name) and Get Atheletic (for grades three to eight). The training comprises a minimum 72 sessions in a year and the fee varies between US$2 and US$3 per month, per child. KOOH’s portfolio includes training students in individual sports. The company also holds events for corporations and runs sports academies. Its total revenues are around US$2 million, and the firm hopes to reach US$20 million in five years.

Pointing to India’s poor performance in international sporting events — in the 2012 Olympics, India won six medals, the country’s best-ever haul in the Games — Gaurav Mashruwala, chief marketing officer at KOOH Sports, says the company aims to “evince interest [in sports], nurture talent and give it due exposure. Our next step is to start sport-specific development centers. In cricket, we have tied up with the Rajasthan Royals [an Indian Premier League team] and are also opening centers in four or five locations across the country. We have plans to enter the athletics and football segments, too.”

Mashruwala highlights another area of concern. “We are losing children to technology. For kids of this generation being in front of a screen matters more than going out to play. The obesity rate in Indian children is alarming and a real wake up call.”

Anoop Misra, chairman of the National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation, agrees. He points out that the prevalence of overweight children among 14 to 17-year-olds in urban India increased from 24.2% in 2006 to 25.2% in 2009. Over the same period, obesity increased from 9.8% to 11.7%. “Obesity among children and adolescents is acquiring epidemic proportions…. Regular physical activity in the form of aerobics, sports and physical training, along with a balanced diet, can result in drastic reduction in the incidence of childhood obesity,” Misra says.

A Strong Potential

Jay Shah, director of Mumbai-based The Sports Gurukul (TSG), predicts that the sports education market in India will grow to US$180 million in the next five years, but suggests that the potential is even greater. While there are no firm numbers on the current market size, industry players estimate the current target market to be around 12 million students across 15,000 schools. “Parents have a strong inclination toward sports and fitness. However, most of it is due to the glamour and high earnings of top cricketers and not the real importance of sports,” adds Shah.

Shah founded TSG a decade ago but developed it as a full-fledged enterprise only in 2009. (Until then, the organization primarily ran an academy in Mumbai and conducted sporting events.) According to Shah, TSG trains around 5,000 students at any given time. He has invested US$100,000 in TSG to date and charges US$3 to US$7 per child, per month, for executing a planned sports curriculum. “We have the license for one of the leading PE programs in the world. We shall soon roll it out across the country under the banner of The Fitness Gurukul. I am expecting to net a turnover of US$5 million in five years,” Shah notes.

At Bangalore-based LeapStart, Dev Roy, founder and managing director, expects to partner with 200 schools across 75 cities by the end of 2013. LeapStart commenced operations in December 2009and was operational in 13 schools within 12 months. At present, it caters to more than 100,000 kids in 150 schools across 50 cities. “We have had a 150% compound annual growth rate over the past three years. We are engaged with an average of 650-700 kids per school and charge anywhere between US$3 and US$4 per child, per month,” says Roy.

LeapStart’s curriculum has been designed in partnership with U.S.-based research and public health organization SPARK (Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids). It addresses motor and non-motor skills in addition to imparting sport-specific skills for cricket, football, basketball, athletics, tennis and swimming. Roy, who has an MBA in analytical finance and entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago, has earlier worked with companies such as IBM and Bank of America.

Sanam Merchant, a member of the Women’s Golf Association of India and Asian Ladies Pro Golf, notes the increasing awareness regarding the importance of sports. Merchant set up her golf academy in 2009 in Mumbai and has conducted training programs in the city at Dhirubhai Ambani International School, American School and the Singapore International School. “Senior sports players from India are now performing on international turf. It has made people realize that sports can be taken up as a profession. Positive media coverage of sports events has also fueled their interest,” says Merchant, adding that there is also increased corporate involvement and sponsorship.

Game Changer

Vijaya Sherry Chand, professor at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA), suggests that physical well-being must be seen as a non-cognitive competency that supplements the cognitive competencies represented by academic outcomes like literacy and numeracy. “Access to physical education is an integral part of the Right to Education, at least at the elementary level, and if schools can provide this service professionally, then why not use professionals,” he notes.

Harish Bijoor, brand strategist and CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults, looks at this trend from the perspective of the developmental hierarchy of nations. He observes that while developing economies focus on basic and vocational learning, emerging market economies such as India and China typically focus on basic, higher, as well as vocational education. Developed market economies, on the other hand, look at education in the niches, and sports education comes in this realm. “Sports, dance and music … are niches that are just about emerging in India,” Bijoor says. “Schools, in particular, are outsourcing these realms. It is a big and emerging market. As private schools in India vie with one another to offer specialities in the curriculum, outsourcing such educational domains will be the norm.”

But imparting sports education has its own obstacles. Shah of TSG considers “delivery and execution of the [sports education] programs on-site a formidable challenge.” For Majmudar, “availability of highly-skilled graduates from a sports and PE backgrounds” is one of the biggest challenges. The NSDC report, too, highlights this issue: “Limited help is expected from a PE teacher with no formal training in these fields…. Skill transferability is extremely low even in cases of support personnel like coach, trainer or physio.” To overcome this obstacle, Majmudar is setting up an Academy for Coaching Excellence.

Chand of IIMA draws attention to another important aspect — accountability. He cautions that schools need to be careful about monitoring the outsourcing and the outcomes. “As far as government schools are concerned, outsourcing is not a realistic option,” he notes. “Wherever there are no PE teachers, the regular teachers do try to create the needed facilities. A focus [during teacher training] on physical education and well-being — not as an add-on, but as part of the state’s obligations to uphold the Right to Education — will go a long way in ensuring the physical well-being of our children.”

David Shilbury, professor and foundation chair of sports management at the Deakin University in Australia, was recently in India to hold a workshop organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on sports management capacity building. Shilbury notes that the rise of private players in sports education in India is due to a lack of government policy and programs. “Until the government plays a more active role in sport policy and programming and the provision of facilities at the local level, this void will continue to be filled by private providers,” Shilbury says. “Whether the market has the ability to pay for these services will be interesting, and obviously [have an] impact on the survival of [these] firms… I think it is also fair to say that education policy in India has not placed enough emphasis on sport and physical education in the curriculum. I think this is changing as the role of sport in Indian society continues to enjoy a growing profile.”