You may remember Ronnie Screwvala from his television days when he launched the first cable TV network and went on to build a conglomerate – UTV. Currently, his focus is sports as he believes that sports empowers youth.
Sharing his belief is Supratik Sen who is a professionally trained athlete and has also been a member of the Indian national rugby team.
In 2014, the duo launched U Sports with an objective to be in new emerging spaces which is also online or e-sports.
“The first venture was kabaddi where we built the U Mumba team and this is the seventh season. We have been in five playoffs and three finals and won it once,” remembers Sen.
“The idea was to do sport which did not exist in the framework. Why we chose that, to a certain extent by design and also the fact that if you are in cricket you will not be able to do anything new. The IPL teams are at a whole new standard and globally Indian cricket is making international cricket really tick. So, for us it was about the new sport spaces,” he added.
For their first venture kabaddi the initial investment was around Rs five crore in running the team for a year.
“From the second season onwards we were break-even and moving forward we will be losing a bit of money but it won’t be staggering. Now the teams are Rs 10 crore -Rs 12 crore and we recovering equal amounts. If we make it to the finals and win then there is an upside to it. We spend around close to Rs 12 crore and we recover around Rs 10 crore to Rs 11 crore,” explained Sen.
Their second venture was football which was in 2014-15 during which U Sports trained 50 young boys in Germany who are playing in ISL and I-league teams.
“The entry point is being discussed with ISL so we will get a team there,” added Sen.
Sen and Screwvala then went onto exploring other sports streams like volleyball, table tennis and also e-sports.
“In e-sports we are venturing into two places one is the creating of a platform where top gamers in India can play that was the objective when we did U Cypher season 1 which was in 2018. We are looking at season 2 with new games being added and we have come up with U Mumbai e-sports team,” said Sen.
Explaining the idea behind exploring emerging sports, Sen pointed out the math saying in general if we look at Indian Premier League (IPL) one would need Rs 200 crore to run a team. Now, in kabaddi the television ratings is half the number of what cricket gets today. And when it comes to cost it is right now at Rs 10 crore to Rs 12 crore and at a later stage it would be at Rs 30 crore to Rs 50 crore. Hence, the economics is clear.
Plus, he said that ticketing has grown over the years for kabaddi. He said that initially they would send buses out but now people really want to come to watch the sport.
Talking about table tennis he said it is much smaller. “We are seeing a five year horizon to break even and go positive. It is early days but it will evolve,” he added.
“Table Tennis currently is at around Rs two crore and volleyball around Rs four and half crore. Give or take we are losing very little money and we are in these spaces because they will evolve. Football we did lose some money but we see a holistic brand can be built with few facets,” added Sen.
U Sports is betting big on e-sports and currently they have three teams in the running -- Non-strike, Dota and PUBG.
“We have a training centre at the office premise, we have gaming stations, we are also looking at gaming house. We will expand into League of Legends. We are looking at Fortnite and Free Fire and maybe Arena of Valour, these are new games,” said Sen.
He added that “incubating these games is important because players need to see a career. So, the tournaments if you look at pan-India, the prize pool have gone up from 2012 to 2014 onwards from touching Rs one crore at that time now close to Rs six to Rs seven crore. And I would say in the next three years it would be anywhere between Rs 10 crore to Rs 20 crore and I am being conservative.”
He pointed out that DOTA prize money pool as of last year was 36 million dollars and a top team could get over eight million dollars and that means per player close to Rs two million dollars. This can be used for funding business, education.
“The player is getting a head start which is why the British and American universities are giving e-sports scholarships,” said Sen.
“Here in India, players are making close to Rs 50,000 a month. We are offering three sets of counter strike players money where 15 players will make Rs 50,000 per month and then we are saying continue with your education,” he added.
E-sports is U-Sports new venture but they have bigger plans and this includes motor sports.
“Motor sports is our focus zone. We are looking at electric. But there are lot of facets that need to fall into place. It will need some time to arrive there but we have spoken to the right specialist. We have spoken to Karun Chandok, Narain Karthikeyan, CS Santosh, the best guys in motor sports in the country. We are only waiting for the right time,” said Sen.