India is home to more than 100 indigenous sports. Of these, kabaddi (“touch rugby without a ball”) is the most famous. Depending on which sources you believe, even chess is said to have its origins on the sub-continent. For centuries sport was only a past-time and the country more known for its religious virtues and Mahatma Gandhi.
Cricket was only introduced to the country in 1858 when the British colonialists arrived. The sport quickly grew in popularity, but apart from producing players like Bishen Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar, India was never an international force. In 1983, everything changed.
It is no understatement that when Kapil Dev became the first Indian captain to lift the cricket World Cup on 25 June 1983 at Lord’s (they defeated the mighty West Indies by 43 runs), sport in India and cricket in the world changed forever.
In 1993 the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) received its first ever broadcast rights fee for an India-England series. Until then, astonishingly, the BCCI paid television stations to broadcast games! Today, Star India is paying the BCCI just under US$1 billion over a five-year deal to broadcast all matches in India.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) started in 2008 and provided the impetus for the accelerated growth of sport in India. Firstly, a slew of other professional leagues followed in its wake over the past decade: Pro Kabaddi League, Indian Super League (football), Premier Badminton League, Hockey India League, Pro Wrestling League, Pro Volleyball India and Ultimate Table Tennis, to name a few. The latest addition to the roster, Ultimate Kho Kho League, elevated another popular indigenous game, kho kho, to the realms of professional sport.
Secondly, the IPL and other professional sports leagues have created an industry worth an estimated US$91 billion in 2019! The IPL alone contributed US$4,5 billion to this amount. Various sources consistently rank the tournament in the top 10 of professional sports competitions worldwide. For a league only 14 years old, spanning only two months a year and with only eight teams playing around 60 games, this is quite an achievement. Over the past decade Indian conglomerates like Tata, the Reliance Group, Vivo and RPSG Group have invested billions of dollars in India’s sporting infrastructure, leagues, grassroots development and high-performance programmes.
A country can only do well in sports when it receives support from its government. The IPL’s third positive spin-off was to open the eyes of the Indian government to the possibilities of sport. The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, personally launched the Fit India Movement in 2019. It is a nationwide initiative encouraging people to stay healthy and fit. Fit India actively encourage Indians to participate in physical activities and sports, and make it a part of their daily living.
Despite India’s raging Covid-19 pandemic (so vividly brought to our attention over past few weeks) and the huge losses for sport associated with it, India’s sports industry is expected to continue its rapid growth in the near future. With the IPL and government initiatives leading the charge for 1,3 billion people, of which only 5,5% currently actively engage in sport, India is a slumbering giant of the sports world.