SBJ/April 18-24, 2011/In Depth

Race under way to become India’s No. 2 sport

Standing half a foot taller than LeBron James, 15-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara is the first Indian basketball player to step onto a court with NBA-worthy potential. When the teenager, who hails from a tiny village in India’s Punjab region, arrived in Bradenton, Fla., in October to begin training at the coveted IMG sports academy, the media wasted little time comparing Bhamara to another seven-footer to step out of Asia: Shanghai native Yao Ming.

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Teen Satnam Singh Bhamara could one day boost the NBA’s popularity in his home country.
Like Yao, Bhamara represents an important chess piece for the NBA’s business goals in Asia. An Indian basketball star could cement the NBA’s popularity in a nation of 1.2 billion, where the growing middle class is hungry for sports and entertainment.

“We were able to learn a lot from our success [in China] and that resonates well for our plan in India,” said Akash Jain, the NBA’s senior director of business development and partnerships in India.

The success of cricket, both the traditional and Twenty20 formats, has spurred a race between Western sports to occupy India’s No. 2 spot.

In 2009, the English Premier League’s Liverpool club financed a soccer academy in the Indian city of Pune, and in December 2010 the EPL sent its trophy on a promotional tour of India. Formula One will debut the Indian Grand Prix at the Buddh International Circuit near Delhi in October of this year. The International Cycling Union sanctioned the Feb. 13 Tour de Mumbai, which drew a smattering of top European professionals.

The European Golf Tour has held its Professional Golf Tour of India every year since 2006, and in 2010 signed a three-year deal with Indian conglomerate Avantha to sponsor an international pro tournament in New Delhi. Major League Baseball organized the “Million Dollar Arm” contest in 2008 to identify pitching talent, which attracted 37,000 participants.

Sam Rush, who manages European business for Wasserman Media Group, said soccer holds an edge in the race for India’s No. 2 sport. In December 2010, the All India Football Federation signed the IMG-Reliance partnership to a 15-year sponsorship and marketing rights deal for the I-League, the nation’s top-tier soccer league. IMG-Reliance, a venture between the sports marketing firm and India’s Reliance Industries conglomerate, also is funding the Reliance Foundation to identify and train Indian youth in soccer, tennis and basketball, and to build sports academies in India.

Aside from marketing dollars, Rush said, soccer is growing quickly at the grassroots level. “The best test of the Indian sporting landscape is to watch what kids are playing in the streets,” Rush said. “Five years ago all they were playing was cricket. Now a good number are playing soccer and other [sports].”

Grassroots growth is also the approach of the NBA, which in December signed a deal with Taj Television to broadcast two games a week on the Ten Sports channel, with rebroadcasts in prime time and live broadcasts of the all-star, playoff and finals games.

Currently the league has one full-time employee in the subcontinent, its director of basketball operations in India, Troy Justice. Jain and a small team of NBA employees are based in the U.S. but regularly travel to India. Justice helped the league launch a three-city youth tournament in 2010, and the league secured automaker Mahindra to a title sponsorship role. For 2011, the Mahindra Challenge will expand to five cities with an estimated 600 teams participating. Jain said the NBA’s goal is to expand to 10 cities by 2014.

The youth tournament’s success story to date is Bhamara, who starred in the 2010 tournament after Justice identified him at an NBA-sponsored pickup game.

“It’s going to take a long-term commitment,” Jain said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

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