Supratik Sen, CEO & co-founder, U Sports, talks about the sports leagues in India and the ambition of U-Sports.
This season for league sports is reaching a fever pitch with the twelfth edition of Indian Premier League (IPL) only a few days away, and India's top football league, the Indian Super League (ISL) having recently concluded with the Banglore Football Club crowned as champions.
But that is not all. Volleyball will be the latest sport in India to spawn its sports league with the inaugural edition of Pro Volleyball League. It saw six teams participate over 20 days, with the Chennai Spartans emerging as the league's champions. In terms of geographical representation, the Pro Kabbadi League (PKL), with 12 teams is even bigger than India's largest sporting league — the IPL.To get know more on the these thriving sports leagues, we interviewed Supratik Sen, the CEO and co-founder of U-Sports, which owns PKL team U-Mumba since its first season, and Pro Volleyball League team U-Mumba Volley.
- Could you shed some light on why PKL became such a great success, considering that only a few years back it was a rural sport?
SS: Kabbadi has an appeal with the masses, as it is a high intensity sport which can be played anywhere. I have seen kids dressed as wrestlers playing Kabbadi. The sport can be played on small grounds, in alleys, classrooms and even on beaches. It is a contact sport that makes it appealing, with the league having spent efforts to take it to masses.
2. U-sports recently got its Volleyball team, U Mumba Volley, to compete in the inaugural edition of Pro Volleyball League. What made U-Sport venture in Volleyball?
SS: The universality of the sport. Volleyball is an Olympic sport and the sport's governing body the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has 221 affiliated members, numbers that are close to football. So this is an opportunity to encourage a universally popular sport in India.
3. PKL has proved to be of great success. Do you see Pro Volley Ball league following the same trend?
SS: Every sport is unique. Every sport league has a unique market. If we turn our heads towards US, we have around 6-7 great leagues for different sports such as basketball, baseball, American football, ice hockey and Nascar, all of which are doing well.
We should not be comparing numbers from Pro Kabbadi League to that of Pro Volleyball league. There has to be a separate scale for every sport. It is too early to pass judgement on a league as new as Pro-Volleyball League. But we are expecting great things from volleyball in coming seasons. Consistency is the key.
4. Sports leagues in India have been called “glamour events” by few sports writers. “Do you agree?
SS: Absolutely not. Sports writers are there to critique and that is their work. But sports league help in encouraging talent. The leagues give the performers a stage to perform, and make a decent living for themselves. It makes for competitive sports, and it generates a lot of engagement.
5. The franchises participating in leagues in India remain active only for the duration of the league. In such a scenario how do players benefit during the off season?
SS: It is true that duration of leagues is limited, but we are moving towards where leagues will be played for a longer duration. It has happened with PKL recently where the season now spreads over three months, meaning that the players are with us for a longer span. These players also have their day jobs, while these deals that Kabbadi players are getting more lucrative. Top players in PKL are now drawing salary in bracket of Rs 2 crore to 3 crore. So, the players are now in that zone where they need not worry about the off-season.
6. Sports Leagues is a competitive space. There have been cases of sports leagues not meeting numbers. What keeps U-sports motivated in such case?
SS: Yes it is true that some sports leagues have failed in India. It has happened with table tennis or hockey. Multiple reasons lead to failure of sports leagues, but we are not here to compete and we want to explore the hidden sporting potential of India. Hence we tried kabbadi first and now with volleyball.
7. Do the sports leagues have viewership in towns, villages, towns, tier-II, tier-III cities?
SS: Yes, India is now a country where TV is easily accessible, with live broadcast is helping to take sports to even the remotest of areas. Also, the digital platform is a major boost with apps like Hotstar and SonyLIV and mobile becoming cheap, the viewership in these areas have gone up. Digital is the way ahead to boost sports viewership numbers.
8. How does U-Sport plan to integrate itself with schools and local community level and building engagement with the ground level audience.
SS: With U-Sports having its teams into multiple leagues, there is lot of overlapping of sports and that is keeping the ground level audience engaged for a good stretch of a year. PKL now happens over a period of 3-4 months, so that helps us in keeping the sports fans active. We do go to schools to encourage the idea of sports.
9. How is the current infrastructure for a sport like volleyball in India?
SS: It is not that great. Also, the numbers are low. We need more volleyball stadiums in Mumbai which are better equipped, and I would want open maidans in a city like Mumbai which is easily accessible to every one.
10. Do we see team owners of the teams in sports leagues coming up with their own high performance centers?
SS: Yes, that would be great. Every owner wants the players of his/her team to be professionally trained, to be learning newer things everyday, and be supremely fit. But setting up such centers involves a lot of financial investment. Once the money starts pouring in through TV, we would love to have high performance centers of our own.
11. How is the government support for league sports?
SS: It is good. It is because of the government that sports leagues have come up in past few years.
12. Do you buy into government's idea of Khelo India.
SS: Yes absolutely, it is a great initiative. It is just into its formative years, but I can say that it has helped in encouraging the youth of our country engage in sports. And the fact that our sports minister is a former olympian helps in managing and guiding these games to its intended goals.
13. Do we see U Sports being part of any other sports leagues?
SS: I would love to have a team in the football league, I-league. The financial model of I-league easily permits ownership to put a team together in a budget of Rs 30 crore to Rs 40 crore bracket. The returns that we then get from TV makes it an exciting prospect. The I-league teams get tremendous support and their is always a great story coming from the league.
14. What are the long term goals of U-Sports?
SS: We at U-Sports want to explore the unexplored or the hidden potential of India. We want to look into sports which can go big in our country. Cricket is already there. We have to promote good healthy sporting culture in India.
15. A message that you want to send out to the sports fans.
Ans: I would want the fans to keep enjoying sports. Also, I want a mega city like Mumbai to have large open maidans where children can play any sport of their choice. These maidans would encourage the right attitude in children towards sports. I am sorry to say this, but Mumbai doesn't have these large maidans anymore. All the open spaces that once existed has been given for real estate development. I would love to see large sprawling grounds where children play for as long as possible, whichever sport they want. The facilities which are available to play sports in the city charge fees, which makes them beyond the reach of many people. Maidans will help inculcate right attitude in our children. After all, sports is an entertaining way to educate kids.