Hit or miss?

Mumbai’s maidans might well have been the cradle of cricket. Our eyes still grow misty over ‘our boy’ Sachin. And we will pull every string to get a ringside view at Wankhede. But how has the city fared on the whole as one that encourages sport?

Not too highly, believes Digvijay Sinh Kathiwada - Co-Founder, Kathiwada Arts and Sports (KAS) and Founder, Sportsqvest. “The unfortunate bit is that as a city, as a civic society, as policy makers, we have given absolutely no access to the citizens of Mumbai to love, enjoy or excel at any of them.

Every other sport—besides football or cricket which require poor barren maidans and cheap infrastructure—requires you to be elitist to have the privilege of participation.

As a global megapolis, that’s downright embarrassing. Some will argue, Mumbai doesn't have the space, well, whose fault is that? Counter argument, have you seen the quality of the little playing space we have?”

Kathiwada declares that the municipal authorities and policy makers should be shamed, yet it’s not an important enough topic for us to worry about.

“Compare ourselves with Delhi, you can walk into Siri Fort and rent world class infrastructure for a basic fee be it tennis, badminton, squash, cricket, basketball - and anyone can book it. Where are we in this race? Everything is private, everything is shut out.”

Yet despite the challenges, the bond forged continues to survive. “The city has had a rich history in all sports—prime example being the first ever cricket Test was played here and some of the best players across disciplines have been from Mumbai, be it tennis, football, hockey, squash etc.

Mumbai is a crowded, challenging city to live in and I feel sport helps survive that, by letting you channel your energies on the field, learning to trust other teammates, in collaboration etc.,” points out sports features writer and editor, Arun Janardhan.

Mumbai’s history is filled with marque sports tournaments, reminds Ujwal Deole - Chief Operations Officer, KheloMore. “It goes from early days of the Rovers Cup, Bombay Quadrangular Cricket Tournament, Horse Racing Leagues followed by Kingfisher ATP tennis tournaments, Squash Leagues and most recently Mumbai hosted the first Mallakhamb World Cup.”

And while cricket continues to dominate, there has been a massive shift towards non cricket sports in Mumbai, both in terms of participation and viewership, he points out.

“This can be clearly witnessed at the latest 16th edition of TATA Mumbai Marathon, 2019 where a record participation of over 46000 runners was recorded. With the introduction of various leagues such as Pro Kabaddi League, Premier Badminton League, Indian Super League etc., the city is moving forward towards other sports such as badminton, football, kabaddi, hockey etc.

The finals of PBL in the 2013 edition at Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel stadium in Mumbai was jam-packed. With the presence of global badminton icons, the league witnessed revenues as high as Rs.40 crore in its fourth edition and viewership of approximately 40 million via television and Hotstar streaming.

There has also been a growth in football culture in the city. It was amazing to see a packed stadium at Mumbai Football Arena in Andheri when India was playing the intercontinental cup last year. Various academies such as Soccer Schools of Excellence, Footie First, FSI and Sporko, Barca Football academy etc. are making significant contribution towards the city’s football culture.

The Pro Kabaddi League’s inaugural season also witnessed massive viewership of around 435 million with U Mumba being the team from Mumbai.”

The city has various gymkhanas and clubs, he points out, where people actively play sports such as badminton, rugby, tennis, chess etc. With the infusion of more funds, sponsorships, private investments and better governance and revenue models, the day won’t be far where other sports start developing larger commercial as well as emotional footprint in Mumbai.”

The increasing role of technology and digital media has undeniably affected the distribution and viewership of sport. Arun Janardhan believes it has eliminated the need for scheduled viewing—people don’t have to sit in front of a TV but can watch sport from anywhere, anytime. He adds, “It has increased access—now the best leagues in the world, like the EPL, NBA, La Liga—are all available digitally.

Decreasing data costs has made it possible for people to watch entire matches on their devices. News, updates, information are all instantaneous now, which allows followers of sport to be clued in at all times.”

Admitting that tech has played a massive role in accelerating the ‘want’ for sport in one’s life, Digvijay Sinh Kathiwada is unimpressed by the evident burgeoning of SportsExpos and Pro-Leagues in the city. “Expos are few and barely significant.

Though it must be said that ‘fitness’ as an industry has captured the imagination of millions. Besides IPL and a little kabaddi, we barely get anything as a city because of the lack of quality infrastructure and twisted rules,” he rues.

Neither has sports done much to help uplift Mumbai’s impoverished and oppressed communities, he believes. “That’s the unfortunate bit. We've done too little for them. They have risen despite the system not because of it. NGOs are credible with their work in sport, cricket for the blind, football for the underprivileged and so on.

But as a society we've done nothing, our policy makers have made sure it couldn’t be any worse,” he puts it bluntly. Arun Janardhan, on the other hand, feels, “It’s not about finding fame and fortune. Sport has helped several boys and girls find employment, in the Railways and the Public Sector among others.”

Today, the very definition of sports is undergoing change, with the advent of newer technologies such as Virtual or Augmented Reality. Ujwal Deole believes this helps athletes improve their performance through simulated training sessions to give on field experiences digitally in order to bring out their best.

“The three-dimensional systems can help athletes work on aspects that require change, for example, their technique,” he points out, while VR enhances and improves the overall experience of the audience.

Even as Kathiwada confesses that the term ‘virtual reality’ makes him squirm— “It’s either virtual or it’s real. It can’t be both. Let’s not apply this to sport, it will be a lie,” Deole reminds, “ESL One Mumbai was held in NSCI, Mumbai in 2018. This is a virtual video game tournament. Staggeringly people paid Rs.500 to Rs.2500 to watch this video game tournament!”

As the lines blur, it’s clear that the sports culture in the city is evolving at a pace unimagined. Panel discussion ‘Sports and the City’ wasconducted by Avid Learning

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