The Mittal Champions Trust heralded the era of professional athlete representation in India. For long the job was done by family members or agents to get the athletes deals, ensure the right infrastructure and facilities so the sportsperson could do what they do best - win. But policy decisions and losing out on key athletes resulted in them shutting shop. That is when JSW Sports stepped in.
With former tennis player Mustafa Ghouse as CEO and Parth Jindal as the Founder and Director, the entity has gone from strength to strength and expanded verticals along the way. In 2012 it began its Sports Excellence Program which supports athletes across disciplines and has grown to over 150 athletes now. Some of the high profile names include Neeraj Chopra, Tejaswin Shankar, Tajinder Singh Toor, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia.
Additionally, the group owns football club Bengaluru FC (Indian Super League), kabaddi team Haryana Steelers and has a partnership with GMR group for IPL franchise Delhi Capitals. Long time in the making, the group also unveiled the Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS) - India's first privately funded high performance training centre.
In a conversation with Firstpost, Ghouse dwells on the multiple aspects of JSW Sports, the strategy behind the athletes that they represent, the big money churner in team ownership and how they're placed with under a year to go to Tokyo Olympics.
How does planning and recruitment of athletes work at JSW Sports?
So, the recruitment works in very detailed manner where various departments within the high performance program get involved in evaluating, assessing the athletes, which goes from talent scouts, coaches then technical evaluations by the coaches followed up by the physiology team, the strength and conditioning team, the physiotherapy department, all aspects that get involved to assess the athlete. Different weightage is given to different findings depending on the age, calibre, achievements of the athlete.
Sakshi Malik is represented by JSW Sports.
For example, a younger athlete will be looked at more from a long term potential, more senior athlete will be looked at from a middle to near term potential. And then depending on that, the planning comes into play, identify what their goals will be, what their targets should be, when they will look to peak, which are the competitions over the next 12 months that are important.
Sometimes it gets a little difficult on the planning side, because there are tendencies for things to be shuffled around, new competitions to be thrown in, days to be changed. Which kind of is a little bit challenging for coaches and athletes to prepare. And that's something that we're hoping constant talks with various stakeholders will help us in streamlining a schedule at the beginning of every year so that everyone can prepare.
Who are the people involved in signing an athlete like a Sakshi Malik for example?
For Sakshi you need to go back to 2013. Ramadhar Yadav was incharge of talent scouting and his network would have been identifying young wrestlers that were coming up at that time. And then in Rohtak, where Sakshi was in a camp at that time, her performance was evaluated. I know for a fact that she was third or fourth in her weight category at that stage. No, she was not the No. 1 in her weight category. So we did that and then went through the entire process. The process has gotten a lot more refined and scientific now as opposed to five or six years ago because you have a much stronger team in place. A lot more foreign staff that looks into these departments.
Another aspect of athletes representation is how to raise funds for them. In terms of getting in the endorsements for them?
For funding of the Olympic program, we have a direct support through our JSW Foundation. So, in that sense, we have a clear budget when we are planning on start of the year, on what we're going to be looking at for our athletes. We do have other corporate donors that are contributing to our institute for the long term development of the younger athletes. So between the contribution of the foundation and the other donors we know how we look at supporting everyone involved.
If you're looking at it from a commercial endorsements for athletes perspective, we have a small sales team that goes out and looks for deals for these athletes. But that is really dependent on closeness to big competition, the initial euphoria that starts to build for the Olympics, it's not something that you would see as a year-on-year thing as you would see for some of the more established sports.
So if it's an Olympian, then the propensity to get endorsements for them rises closer to the competition?
Yes we're already starting to see a lot of interest for the big athletes and with brands that have Olympics as part of their marketing plans 12 months from now, they start looking at athletes now so they don't have to spend bigger money if they do win, and they do become famous. But I think, there is a pleasant change. You are seeing a lot more deals for Olympic athletes irrespective of the time of the year. It's starting to happen. I think that is also because of the effort being made by the media on covering them all year round irrespective of it being an Olympic year or not. So there is a lot more awareness and buzz around these athletes irrespective of the time. Brands are looking at the value that the big athletes bring in as opposed to sticking to the mainstream cricketers and Bollywood stars.
How are contractual obligations formed in terms of endorsement? Do brands get into a contract with the athlete and the athlete with you or there is another process?
We are with the athletes. If there's a relationship, then we present the athlete to the respective brand and pitch them. There are certain times when it does work both ways. If a brand reaches out and says they're interested in a certain level of an Olympic athlete, then we can present who we have in our program and if that works great. Otherwise we reach out to athletes that aren't part of the program to make sure they get that financial benefit.
What is the percentage share between athlete and JSW Sports? 50-50?
It is a much smaller percentage. We're not in this to make money off the athlete. This is our way of giving back to them. It's a much smaller percentage, which is to cover costs or slight ratio to give back to our foundation so that they can support some younger athletes that are coming up.
How easy or difficult has it been to work with the sports federations and the public bodies that are that are involved?
We've been working with them for the last 7-8 years. Relationships are pretty good all around. Some are more proactive than the others. By and large, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the ministry are very proactive since the last Olympics where they want to do more for the athletes. They're trying to look at it in more inclusive manner where organisations like us can also work together and do what's best for the athletes. So I think from our perspective, we've quite enjoyed our equations with with all stakeholders.
Neeraj Chopra is one of the biggest superstars in Indian athletics. Twitter @g_rajaraman
Every year in the budget, the allocation of funds for sports keeps going down. Do you think that makes your role even more important?
I think everyone has a very different role to play. I think the allocations that are there now for the elite athletes that are preparing for Tokyo is quite substantial and I think that's good enough amount of budget available for them to really get what they want. And without complementing that, there's really no way the athletes should feel that they are not getting sufficient support. Maybe we do a lot more for younger age groups which is something that now with the Khelo India Youth program is starting to get some attention. So if we see that then maybe you will see a much wider base to the pyramid, and you will see better athletes coming through at a younger age. So I think that's something that we can look to improve across the board where athletes at the age of 13-14 are getting the right guidance, training, advice and direction to stay on the right path.
Is there a specific reason behind focussing on wrestling, track and field and boxing?
That's because those are where most of our senior athletes are. We also have a very detailed Judo program. We will see a lot of results coming through for the Paris Olympics and we already have a list of performances in junior and cadet events at the National and nation level. So we're quite bullish on that being a standout sports for us in the in the next few years. If you look at it right now, athletics, boxing and wrestling are the three elite sports that have the maximum amount of athletes for us.
We started out with five sports. The other two being Judo and swimming. The swimming program has not kicked off to full strength yet. The others are getting a lot of attention and financial investment from our side.
Arpinder Singh trains with a activator belt at the Inspire Institute of Sports in May 2019. Image courtesy: Amit Kamath
The thought process was that sports like boxing and wrestling were sports that India had already shown a lot of success in when we started our program. And we felt that by further enhancing that we could do a lot more for the sports. Judo was another sport which is very similar to wrestling, there's a lot of similarities in training, in body types and and strength levels. And if you look back, maybe 10-12 years ago, the Judokas were doing fairly well at the Asian level, which is pretty much the world level because Asia is where most of the powerhouses are.
So we thought that it would be a good sport for us to look at reviving and really pushing through and really glad we took that decision because the younger kids are really shining in Judo.
When it comes to athletics and swimming, those are the two core sports when you think of Olympics with so many medals in both sports and events under that. We felt that it was important that we do something for the core Olympic sports. So that was the thought process behind the five sports right at the beginning. And we've kind of stuck with that, not added too much more. Because it's very easy to dilute but we wanted to consolidate and do justice to these sports before we added on.
We are now doing a little bit for some of the other sports. We have a collaboration with the National Rifle Association [of India] (NRAI). And we provide some financial support. And we're looking at a few other sports now.
In terms of background checks on athletes to begin for 2024 Paris Olympics, with five years to go, when do you plan to get everything in place?
So we would like to believe that the core group of athletes that we've been working with over the last couple of years, is going to get fine tuned into the group that would be getting the maximum amount of attention going into Paris. Obviously, we will keep our eyes and ears open for other athletes that kind of jump out of nowhere and have the potential and the promise to go the distance. But right now from the 150 athletes that we support, the coaches have a very clear idea of which ones they would filter into their their core group.
Was Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS) an idea that came in the middle to work on infrastructure for the athletes and suitable machinery for everyone to train?
IIS was the first decision that was ever taken when it came to JSW Sports. Everything else has been subsequent to that. In the first meeting itself, there was a very clearly outline that the biggest gap we have right now is lack of high performance training facilities for athletes, and those in the age of 12 to 18. That's when they needed the most, that's when they fall by the wayside. So that was the first pitch that we made internally and it was accepted by the group, the Foundation, everyone involved. And with construction projects, it takes two and a half three years, if not more. And that's what was happening under the radar from 2013 end and 2017 when we had the first batch of athletes move in.
To expand we're working on a small project in Hisar (Haryana) where we are revamping and refurbishing existing training facility and that will have a smaller program for boxing and wrestling. We have MoUs in place with the Odisha government for swimming which we hope to kick off post the monsoon season.
We've been saying this from day one: we're two geographically diverse for one center to be sufficient, we need two dozen such centers. Now as a corporate we have made big investments in one center, we will need other corporates to hopefully step up and and do the same and maybe in their own states or in their geography but simultaneously we will always going to have a model where you would have smaller facilities in different parts and we're starting to implement that now.
Shifting to third aspect of your business and probably the most financially viable aspect in team ownership. How did that strategy come about?
The first one was the football team in Bengaluru FC. We were approached by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) saying we want to get corporates involved in in the I-League at the time and we really would love if you guys would consider taking a team. Everyone is very passionate about football and we wanted to do our bit to see Indian football grow and improve and we felt that it would be a good idea to to take a team in the I-League. We did our homework, our research in terms of the popularity of the sport in Bangalore, it was a city that is we are familiar with as a group because our maximum investment are in the state of Karnataka. So we had a scheme that we were looking at a city that didn't have football teams already. Kolkata was a no-go, Goa was no-go, Mumbai and Pune were a no-go.
Haryana Steelers in action against Jaipur Pink Panthers in the Pro Kabaddi.
So Bangalore seemed like a good fit for us. Not to mention that till a few years before we were there, there were teams which used to get a huge fan following. And huge crowds when they played. There was a culture of this sport that had died down in the last four or five years before we came in.
So football what was the first one. It started off small, but it was extremely successful and continues to be successful for us performance wise. It gave us the confidence that we have the ability to run a team in a professional manner and impact the the national team performance in some way. Then some kids have gone on to play for the country and that was the ultimate goal for us.
That then led to the formation of the kabaddi team when the league was expanding. They reached out saying that we would really like for you guys to evaluate it, look at it, obviously very successful as a league. Kabaddi has taken everyone's fancy in the way they have made the sport very cool, intense and exciting to watch. We took that opportunity up and team from Haryana. The league is extremely well run and everyone seems to be hooked on to the sport.
And then we always felt that cricket was the missing piece when it comes to the commercial side of things. And we've been pursuing an opportunity for to enter into the IPL multiple times, have had conversations going on. Now. finally, were able to get a deal with the GMR group. So now we're in the IPL as well.
In kabaddi, most of the teams are reportedly breaking even and some are going into profit. Is that true for Haryana Steelers also?
The ones that are probably breaking even or in the green would be the initial lot. I think the four new ones that have come in, will probably be at that same position in a year or so. Which is fine. It's the road map that was presented to us. Three-four years for a sports team to break even is very acceptable.
How are Delhi Capitals and Bengaluru FC placed financially?
Delhi Capitals is a very different ballgame right now. All IPL teams are extremely profitable after the last media deal with Star (Network). There's no concern on that one. Football is a longer road. There's more going on on the football side of things. But there's a lot of effort being put in by the league and all the other stakeholders involved on how do we get to a stronger financial solution for all teams. I mean globally football teams take much longer. So we are aware of that. But we're working closely with the league to see how we can fast-track that.
What are your thoughts now on moving from I-League to ISL given the controversy?
From our perspective it was a smart move. We were always wanting to be in the league that was recognised by the AFC (Asian Federation) and that gave us an opportunity to represent in Asia if we did well. When ISL started getting that recognition, it was time to move over. There is still this debate between the ISL and I-League and I hope that they can sort it out as soon as possible because that will help everyone focus on growing the sport. From our perspective, we are going about doing our things, we have our goals, we have a plans in place, and we will keep working on that.
What is the long term vision for JSW Sports?
We would like to build our business into one of the premier sports companies in the country. And we do believe we have that platform now in place, considering we have three very good teams in the top three leagues and also the Olympic program starting to take shape. So I think over the course of time, we will try to consolidate it all and and see how best we can grow further.