Sports' informal licence raj

Last Updated: Sat, Sep 17, 2011 19:10 hrs

It is unlikely that the office-bearers of Hockey India watched the Rugby World Cup that is currently under way in New Zealand. They should have, if only to see efficient sports management in action. Rugby is not a sport that transfixes world sports audiences. Few countries with large populations actually play it at the international level — although India and China are members of the global rugby federation, Argentina is probably the most populous participating in the current World Cup. Yet, the inaugural match between New Zealand and Tonga saw 1.6 million people out of New Zealand’s 1.9 million TV audience tune in to watch. That’s about a fourth of its population of 4.4 million. Now guess how many Indians tuned in to watch when the Indian team defeated Pakistan 4-1 in the World Cup in March last year. Less than one per cent.

Nothing illustrates the dismal inability of Indian sports to break the cricket barrier in spectator perception than this. And this is in spite of some fairly respectable achievements in non-cricket sports. In hockey alone, the Indian men’s team has been one of the most successful in the history of the game. Yet, the difference between the incomes of any Indian hockey player and a top rugby player would be stratospheric (a leading English player recently married the grand-daughter of Queen Elizabeth, to provide one index of the kind of circuit in which they can afford to move). Where rugby and hockey are wealthy institutions elsewhere in the world, Hockey India is unable to gussy up enough money to adequately reward the winners of the inaugural Asian Champions Trophy.

At the heart of this inability to move beyond cricket is the way the country approaches sports management. Everywhere else in the world, sports is treated as an industry, an integral part of the entertainment business, with the potential to generate money — lots of it — for everyone. This basic premise has ensured that the sports industry is an entirely privatised activity that has a healthy spin-off when a sport is played at the national level. Players (including athletes) earn the bulk of their income from playing for privately-funded clubs and associations and are eager to play for country mainly for the honour. Politicians never interfere in the administration of these associations unless they do something patently wrong or illegal. In India, by contrast, it required intervention by the sports minister to sort out an inter-federation dispute in hockey, but India has suffered the humiliation of losing the right to host the hockey World Cup.

It is possible that the colonial origins of cricket have coloured our attitudes to sports in general; it is jingoistic activity, replete with overtones of national pride. And because the business is not run professionally, politicians have moved in to take control. But consider that the head of the New Zealand rugby association that is hosting the current World Cup is a former cricketer (Martin Snedden, a contemporary of Richard Hadlee) and a lawyer. The head of former hockey world champions Australia’s association is a banker and former hockey international. India suffers neither a shortage of private funds, enthusiasm or potential talent. If the government and politicians exited the sports business, India would stand a good chance of emerging as world class challengers in a host of non-cricket sports, just as it has in other industries.

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