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Fight By Flight
A small tale of sports in India, through the lens of those who don't stay here.
It’s been a while :)
I apologize for the weird hiatus. I had intended on taking a much shorter break than this, but a few personal things came up. The last month and a half has not been particularly great for me, and that’s where I sort of learnt what people mean when they say that doing content, especially longform, is tough. It’s consistency that I’ve had trouble maintaining in times like these, especially when I constantly feel like I need a break. And, of course, I won’t lie when I say I’ve been a little scared of maintaining the kind of quality I expect from myself. But I guess if I don’t fail at THAT endeavour, I’ll never learn either. So screw being afraid, I guess?
I do love writing. It’s just the act of getting up to it that’s half the fight, and I think I’ve had my first taste of that struggle. But anyway: I’ve been meaning to write something about sports. Somewhere along the line of all this research, I realized that I’d love to write another story on a certain sport in India. Which is why this has been fun: it’s allowing me to get new ideas in terms of sequels, or new narratives. And I get to talk to people who tell me mind-blowing things that I think you should know, too.
I’ve been struggling to find a backing track for this piece. But, instead of digging through all of Spotify to find something suitable, I found my pick from my own all-time Favorites playlist. A track that, when I first listened to, I knew I’d heard something that I’d listen to forever. As always: if you love reading with some background noise, I think this will do the trick! Happy reading (and watching The Boys :)) this weekend, and I’ll see you folks with another edition of Hot Chips next month, as usual!
Indians like busting balls.
Sure, I should probably tell you something new. But I mean it pretty literally. We love sports. Kicking and hitting balls is an activity we cherish no matter how old we are, where we are, and how much we earn. It’s therapeutic on a bad day, and extremely joyful on an average day. Some of the nation’s most united moments involve a ball. Sometimes a pole vault. Sometimes an air pistol. Hockey sticks occupied a lot of our history. It’s safe to say that we love sports.
Which makes it pretty disappointing that for most sports that are, on some level played globally, we don’t have a smooth structure that allows budding sportsmen to flourish. Besides cricket, hockey, chess and sometimes badminton, there’s little driving encouragement of budding talent in these other sports. At best, it’s a wobbly ladder with missing steps. At worst, it’s a depressing dead end.
And while that’s pretty evident when we see Olympics medal tallies, one might also direct attention to the people who find greener pastures outside the country to try and make it big. Or make a decent living from it, if nothing else.
Only the top 2-3% of the country made more than 10 lakhs a year. The richest of them tend to live in metropolitan cities: places with access to the best sports facilities that the country can offer. This class of people understands that India’s population is 1.4 billion and it grows 1% on average every year. That is a lot of competition, but more importantly, we are making kids at a rate that is massively outpacing how much we invest in sports. So they look outward. And this trend has only just taken shape.
But before we get to the crux of this piece, it is important to understand the overall journey of your average budding sportsperson in this country. Sport in India — be it team or individual — generally has a pretty standard structure at its core. Ideally, one begins at the inter-school level, moves up to district, then ideally play under-15/16 tournaments, get a shot at state, and then at some point, nationals. However, nuances lie in a) how the governing body structures ranking systems, b) how club systems factor into this standard framework, c) how talent gets scouted for each sport, and d) the pipeline to representing your nations.
For example, cricket mostly follows this standard system. As a school student, you begin playing in local tournaments as part of a cricket academy. This academy should ideally be connected to a wider cricket association — that pertains to a certain region (like Bhubaneswar), and organizes tournaments between academies. These cups are eye candy for selectors of the district team, as part of which you play inter-district tournaments. Many districts are grouped together into divisions, which have their own teams and scouts. Post-this, you play national-level tournaments like the Ranji Trophy, or the Duleep Trophy. And if you’ve hit it out of the ballpark at one of these, you could be on primetime television.
Except that structure has also slightly changed with the advent of the Indian Premier League. Now cricketers who have played a minimum number of domestic matches are eligible to sign up for the IPL auction. Of course, IPL is a much shorter, more commercialized format of cricket. But it also serves as a refresher for talent scouts as to who they can continue looking at. And being essentially a league run by owners of a private nature, players get paid more than what they would if they stuck to good old domestic cricket. Of course, a lot of these tournaments will also have an age caveat: like under-15/19.
However, it’s a little different for individual sports. Tennis is governed by the All India Tennis Association (AITA), which requires all players in the country to register with them. Unlike in cricket, where you have a shot at being scouted for something bigger, much of development in tennis is self-driven, because your standing depends on your national ranking. It holds 4 kinds of tournaments, all of which are worth different ranking points:
Talent Series: a regional tournament for only players that are ranked by AITA, usually hosted in a tier-1 or tier-2 city
Championship Series: a tournament open for all — including unranked players.
Nationals, which is essential for selection into junior teams (and eventually, the Davis Cup team)
Of course, the road beyond this is international, wherein one has to register with the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
But this pipeline hasn’t yielded a lot of great results for a sport like tennis. The last, and only Indian female tennis player to break into the top 100 singles ranking in the world is Sania Mirza. India hosts only one ATP 250 Tour, and depending on the circumstances, that’s hosted in Pune or Chennai. By the end of 2021, we had no one in the global top 150 of male tennis players. While CoVID made things worse, a lack of widespread infrastructure for tennis was always prevalent. That’s also true for a lot of other sports. We have had only one player get drafted into the NBA. Our best finish in the Olympics 400m hurdles continues to be PT Usha’s 4th in the finals heat. That was 38 years ago. Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur became only the 9th Indian ever to reach the finals heat of any individual track and field event.
And it goes without saying that without public or private funding, the wallet fells heavy when you’re travelling as a tennis player.
In fact, sports scholarships in India are few and far between. In the last 4 years, the government has been putting its might behind the Khelo India program, for kids aged 17-21. In Q1 2020, the Sports Authority of India released ~Rs 8.3 crore as part of an out-of-pocket allowance fund for nearly 2800 athletes across 21 disciplines. In units, you could say that each player was entitled to 30K a quarter — Rs 1.2 lakh a year. Apart from this, another Rs 5 lakh every year is spent on the training and residence of each of these athletes at Khelo India centres, but that is not cash in hand they can use. Besides this, however, there’s little dough for barter. There may be state government initiatives — like Delhi’s Mission Excellence, providing ~Rs 4.4 crore to 77 athletes. What is unclear is if this is all cash. Meanwhile, Punjab pays Rs 12000 annually to Olympic athletes who apply for the scheme. Haryana pays Rs 84000 for the whole year to gold medal winners in international events. Not every state in India is equally blessed to prioritize a bag for sporting.
Which also brings us to how much the Centre spends on sports in any given year in India. The annual budget for India this year set aside more than Rs 3000 crore for sports — a ~10% increase from last year. But what’s more interesting is how that allocation has been historically split, as displayed in this chart courtesy of a few sources:
How is SAI different from Khelo India? I had the same question as you did. Khelo India’s primary offering is that of its annual Youth Games held between all the states and union territories. Work seemed to have begun 2015 onwards, but the first Khelo India games started in 2018. While SAI received an allocation of upward of Rs 650 crores in each of the last 2 budgets, Khelo India eclipsed the same by at least Rs 300 crore more. SAI is supposedly responsible for training national teams, developing sports infrastructure, equipment and coaching personnel development, scouting, and implementing schemes under the Ministry of Sports. Like Khelo India. Which, in its website, has quite the overlap with SAI’s mission. Overarchingly, it wants to inculcate fitness and activity in the youth of the country. But its marquee offering continues to be the games, and the allowance it provides to its athletes.
These schemes are also subject to the condition that athletes meet all eligibility criteria year after year: in no way is this meant to be a stable income stream. The Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS) gives its athletes an out-of-pocket of Rs 50000 to its core Olympic athletes, and just Rs 25000 to its developmental athletes.
However, without a recognition of the possibility of its harmonious coexistence and eventual integration with the (extreme) pressure of education, Khelo India may not achieve the impact it wants to. Indian education and employment have a very messy relationship. Convention states that the best route to a well-paying job in India is a top-tier technical degree, or an MBA if need be. Managing a sports career with performing well in a gutting exam like the JEE (or CAT) is brutal, to say the least. The alternative option to that is looking for educational quotas in both public and private institutions. Colleges in Delhi University have a separate quota for student athletes: usually 5% overall. However, sports seats are unevenly spread across departments, with in-demand courses like economics being much choosier. And within Delhi University, which is not known for its technical prowess, well-paying jobs are only split within the top few colleges in North Campus.
Lastly, some private institutions offer their own versions of sports scholarships. Apparently, 10% of the Indian contingent at the Tokyo Olympics last year was from the Lovely Professional University. It so happens that LPU provides a sweet kicker to each of its Olympians: full ride, free stay, free food, and supplements. The institution has a point system for its athletes on scholarships. And not only have they been building some envious sports infrastructure, but they also bagged a project worth 9 crores from the European Commission to lead a group of institutions to research sports education in India. LPU was also the leading private university in terms of medals won at the Khelo India Games 2020. One of those 11 athletes won a gold medal, too :))
Another route to a job (that might have been popularized in a cricket biopic or two) is getting a government gig through a sports quota. Applications for it may even often require just matriculation results. However, entry level government jobs don’t pay well. Below is a snapshot of a certain kind of post in the Indian Railways. While explaining how pay bands and grade pays work will take up unneeded space, here’s a spoiler alert: it’s not great, especially for someone who will likely have represented India internationally in a junior competition. Your starting gross monthly pay as a 12th grade pass in a Railways team could be somewhere in the Rs 15000 bracket. With a graduation degree, it might be just a little more. As a hawaldar in, say, Pune Customs, it’s Rs 25000.
When it come to corporate, few India-based corporations and PSUs have dedicated sports programs as part of their CSR. Sports occupies anywhere around 1.5% of the total CSR budget of an Indian private limited company — this was less than Rs 300 crores in 2020 for all companies combined. This may not be evident in the cash awards these corporations hand out to winning sportspersons after major events as reward. Or the sportspersons they sign on as brand ambassadors. They may love to pick the fruit, but they haven’t show determination in nurturing the seeds. Even within companies that do have some semblance of a sports budget: the easier route is to fund sports excellence (in the form of funding potential medal-winners) instead of sports development (in the form of grassroots initiatives). This is also because it’s easy to quantify the impact of the former in CSR reports.
One of the most notable of them happens to be Reliance. The telecom giant has two marquee programs: the Youth Foundation scholarship (for football and athletics) and the IMG-Reliance scholarship (for tennis, football, and basketball). The latter usually takes 11-15 students and sends them to the famous IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida — which has given us Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, multiple NBA drafts (including Satnam Singh — India’s only NBA draft to date), and many players in the US Women’s soccer team. [Side note: Would recommend Open — Agassi’s autobiography. He had a very, very tumultuous time in Bradenton.]
Both Tata Steel and Jindal Steel have been devoted to not just funding sports excellence, but also building its own facilities.
Jindal built the 42-acre Inspire Institute of Sport in Vijayawada, for training athletes in 5 disciplines, and opened a nascent institute for sports management studies in the country. And, of course, it has 3 franchises in 3 different sports: Bengaluru FC, Haryana Steelers, and Delhi Capitals.
Tata Steel had known all the way that sports was the future, launching the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation in 1984. It trains 2500 kids every year in 19 different sports at the JRD Sports Complex in Jamshedpur. It has built centres for football, hockey, and most famously archery — giving us a few Olympians in the latter.
There is Indian Oil pays 12K/month as part of its scholarship for 3 years to kids who are 19 or younger.
The GoSports program, which is sports-agnostic, has a 5-stage selection process. Its latest cohort took in only 26 athletes.
The best way to describe the grand landscape for sports in India is that it grows too slowly. The lack of a holistic vision, a collaborative effort between the state and the corporate, a stable and respectable income stream, and integration with education leave sports development broken. India has always wished to use sports as a means of soft power, but it grandly falls short of any sort of flex at events like the Olympics, or other global tournaments. Something about not asking what one can do for India, but what India could do for them.
The Indian market for abroad education has only been growing every year. RedSeer estimates that 770K Indians were studying abroad in 2019 — a 75% increase from 440K 3 years before it. Although the number of student visas issued was halved from 2019 to 2020 due to CoVID, the growth story of Indians going abroad to study has bounced back like it never left.
And within that market, there exists a niche but interesting subsection of student athletes who are looking to North America and Europe as destinations for their careers.
It’s no surprise that these kids belong to the top 1% of families in India. They reside in metropolitan cities: most commonly, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. They will have access to the best training facilities that India could possibly offer, and even that would not be enough.
I spoke to a Mumbai-based admissions consultant who works for a well-known firm primarily specializing in general abroad admissions. Their take was that even though their firm only received a handful of applicants who want to take the sports route to going out of India, the trend has been increasing in the last few years. Canada, US and the UK happen to be the most popular targets. For the US, one ideally needs to be eligible to register with the National Collegiate for American Athletics, or the NCAA. Like most sports leagues, the NCAA is 3-tiered, and depending on what institution you play for, you could be a Division I, II, or III athlete. Nationality is not a bar for eligibility. It’s also why someone like Somdev Devvarman actually won the NCAA Divison I tennis championship in 2007 AND 2008, as a student in the University of Virginia. This is a huge deal by American (or any) standards, because at least in college tennis, it places him in the same board as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, each of whom have won it once.
And contrary to how most student-athletes in the US make their way to college: Devvarman’s schooling was in Madras. Here’s some low-res evidence of how he took Isner for a spin in a final with a tiebreaker. I might want to look at collegiate tennis as a new obsession:
In fact, some of India’s best athletes are products of the sports route to a good education in the US. Jeev Milkha Singh, arguably one of India’s most successful golfers, studied in a Division II institution named Abilene Christian University, and also won the Division II gold championship. In the same vein, Shiv Kapur studied in Purdue. Grand Slam winner Mahesh Bhupathi was part of a NCAA Division I tennis team named the Ole Miss Rebels. The one glaring pattern is that these athletes are most likely to be found in sports most associated with a lack of affordability or mainstream attention in India: golf, tennis, basketball, and from what I’ve been told — swimming and squash. And very evidently, more likely than not, it would be an individual sport.
Of course, consultancies that specialize in exactly this kind of admissions exist. CASE’s forte lies in guiding their kids with the entire process of becoming a student athlete, especially in the US. They boast of their clientele having been admitted to places like Purdue, University of Michigan, Boston University, King’s College London, UBC, University of Toronto, and McMaster, among others. It was founded by an electrical engineer named Vikram Anand, who was fortunate enough to experience US education and decided to make it easier for others from his country to avail the same.
Prep for an Indian kid aiming for the sports route usually begins from 9th grade, by which time they would need to at least be a district-level player, if not yet state. Unless one is a national-level player, good grades are a bit of a pre-requisite. The college you may be headed to expects you to be a multihyphenate and make use of both your brain and your brawn. Kids approach college coaches in the US by sending them videos of their trials. If the coach likes the kid, then they make a case (not necessarily a guarantee) for them to the admissions team of the respective college. Of course, the kid still has to go through the whole 9 yards of submitting a college application: the essay, the SAT/ACT score, the school transcripts, and so on. But the coach’s backing is holds a lot of weight: sometimes by way of pitching you for a scholarship.
Besides general academic counseling, CASE primarily provides two kinds of services:
College recruitment: which begins from 11th onwards, and covers every step — reaching out to coaches, helping you create trials videos, shortlisting colleges, essay consulting
Athlete development: which starts much earlier, ideally from 9th grade. In this package, CASE helps you manage your academics and sports together through mentoring, scheduling — basically being a one-stop shop for junior athletes until they get their admits by the 12th grade.
Among Indians taking the sports route, to absolutely no one’s surprise, STEM and business management degrees are the most popular degree choices. Well-paying jobs are relatively easier to find in the US. However, the real question is if the degree is just another backup option, or if it takes priority at some point over a career in sports. The funnel to becoming pro gets dangerously narrow — to the extent that only 1-2% reach that highest level. Combined with the fact that at many places, your scholarship does not depend on you succeeding levels (though you may need to play collegiate), students from India are obviously more tempted to rely on getting a stable 9-to-5.
Naturally, there is another barrier to getting a 9-to-5: the ability to get a work visa. Each of these countries has a stay-back option post-completion of the degree. It’s now easier to get a work visa in the UK or Canada. But H-1Bs from the US are a different story altogether. The ones that come back to India usually end up joining the family business if they have one.
And is there anyone who even decides to play for India after an education abroad? The answer is that it’s not unheard of. For example, Dalima Chhiber, a defender in the India women’s football team, did her masters’ at the University of Manitoba in Canada — after turning pro. If student athletes do come back, they’re likely to have played football. They come back to participate in the I-League or the Indian Super League.
CASE started 5-6 years ago with a very limited clientele. While the Great Indian Dream continued to get bigger at ~20% every year, the sports route did not see a similar inflection point. However, a reassessment was made due to CoVID, during which CASE started handling a clientele 4x what they used to 3 years ago. They charge anywhere between 1.5L to 2L per student per year — well beyond the budget of anyone not in the top 5% of India.
It’s interesting that CASE saw a bump during CoVID and not after. What could have possibly been the rationale behind taking a risk like that? For one, training facilities in India were in complete lockdown. That in its first few months, the government was inefficient in the way it completely disrupted activity while handling the pandemic, must have played an important role in such a decision.
Bangalore families give them the best business. Bangalore provides some of the best sports infrastructure in India, thereby providing a massive prop-up to metro-going students. This is followed by Delhi, Mumbai, and then interestingly: the UAE and Singapore. CBSE schools have a considerable presence in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, owing to the perennial inflow of Indians to the “Gelf”.
Students of CASE usually have a template decision tree. They have dream schools, target schools, and safety schools in the target destination(s). But besides that, there will be some options in India that they may want to weigh against their targets and safeties.
The best institutions in India are public. However, getting a seat in one of them is notoriously difficult. For this market, getting into Delhi University, or even a top IIT for that matter, does not take priority. The reason is simple: the effort that would take them to get a 99% in boards, or a top percentile in the JEE, would be better invested in being better at that sport. And a fair amount of preparation can net you more than 90% in the boards (except state, of course). In fact, for these kids, the better alternatives in India are private liberal arts institutions — that are modeled after the dream destinations of these kids. Ashoka, Krea, Azim Premji, and the like. Both counselors that I spoke to mentioned Ashoka as a considerable prospect: even better than Delhi University.
This is a video from their YouTube channel. There’s not a lot to it, and there are barely 50 views. It’s 2:21 in length, and it’s not promotional in any way. All it is, is one of its client’s pitch videos, from his time at the Indian division of legendary Argentinian club, Boca Juniors. Yes, the club that Diego Maradona once played for has a training academy in Bangalore.
College fees in the US fall in $45K-$85K annually. CASE helps that number drop by at least $20K with a scholarship. And this excludes financial aid, which is need-based.
While, of course, it’s obvious, the athletes who get to go abroad to avail themselves of the best opportunities possible, are in the same position with regards to India as well. It’s just that India’s best is not enough, and we’re way behind their counterparts in other nations.
I spoke with a player (who we’ll refer to as S to keep anonymity) who has represented India U-19 in basketball. His natural path was supposed to make it to the senior national team, but circumstances and CoVID unfortunately derailed some of those plans. He had a very poignant story to tell. He met Kenny Natt, who served as the assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2004-07: basically meaning that he coached an 18 year-old LeBron James. Most notably, Natt was once the coach of the Indian senior team. A Chinese parent asked Natt how his 10 y/o kid can make it to the NBA, to which Natt essentially said that it’s too late for the kid to even think about it.
One of the key factors I’m told that doesn’t help budding sportspersons in India is the lack of the ability to sustain one’s career with stable income.
“If I’d played this much cricket, I’d have been making a lot of money by playing the IPL”.
And he’s not wrong. People who’ve played the Ranji trophy can get an in into the IPL draft. Here’s someone who represented the country U-14, U-16, and U-19, captained his respective state, but is currently unemployed because of circumstances out of his control. I’m told that for a given roster of 12 players on the men’s national hooping team in any given year, only 3-4 have jobs. Brand deals don’t come easy for these folks, or for folks not playing cricket. And sports quota vacancies for jobs in the Central/Western/Southern Railways, Customs, banks, or the Armed Forces are very few. National-level medal winners from 64 sports have to compete for spots that would likely be a tenth (or less) of their numbers in strength.
The alternative is relatively less explored. Becoming local coaches could be a viable option for them. Many decide to go to the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, administered by SAI, in order to get a coaching certification. While the certification (achieved after a 1-year training program) makes them all eligible for government jobs in sports management, not all of them get those. They may get first preference for the job of a District Sports Officer, but that’s it.
They may choose to open private coaching centres, which may be a good way to earn money, and is certainly gaining more popularity as a career prospect. But a) basketball is not too mainstream a sport in India, so coaches may not be able to charge a premium to attract kids, and b) there’s no incentive to open a coaching centre in rural areas. It’s why grassroots programs are few and far between. It’s why IMG-Reliance stopped sponsoring basketball players every year.
S is someone who holds two degrees from a top college in India, has represented India internationally in a sport at some level, was one step away from the biggest stage of his career, but is now unemployed. His passion for the sport he plays is very real. He mentions that in his hometown (which is not a tier-I city), his family runs an academy that trains kids free of cost. Because they believe that kids from their area shouldn’t be limited by problems of affordability. It’s this kind of passion that we fail to incentivize and reward.
And he’s just one person. Imagine others like him, languishing in other disciplines we don’t pay enough attention to, and who don’t have the resources to look beyond borders for training. We hear glorified stories of archers using bamboo sticks, or sprinters relying on their uneven fields to train in their villages. The fact that we continue to hear them in such magnanimous yet empty says a lot about how much better it hasn’t been for them in the last few years.
Whose world is this?