In a country where cricket dominates the sporting scene in terms of financial muscle and media attention, is there hope for regional sports and talent? They can get there – with a little help from brands.

The World of Organised Sports

Sports, for the spectator, is a lot like politics. Everyone has their team, is passionate about it to varying degrees, and avidly follows their games and personalities. Performances are routinely dissected and analyses delivered on what can be improved. While this has been true of sports throughout history, what has changed in recent times is the commercial attention that has amplified some sports above others.

Sport, as a product for an audience, is perfectly set up for the commercial marketing world. Big money follows some sports, with a vast ecosystem of gaming leagues, teams, contracts, media attention, sponsorships, advertising, merchandise and more.

Sports like cricket, football and basketball have polished their presentation, and shaped the way the game is played. They have been moulded for TV, have acquired codes for standardisation and for generating loyalty in audiences, and have become cultures unto themselves. FIFA and European football, American football, basketball and Canadian hockey have all developed this model over the years. Today in India, cricket is a leading example of this format with T20, the IPL teams and its seasonal cycle of media promotion, merchandise and digital activity. Indian field hockey and the new pro kabaddi and badminton leagues also follow a set template of teams, competitions and publicity organised around them.

As Indian marketing teams become increasingly familiar working with organised sports leagues, where is the opportunity for those Indian sports that are currently on the sidelines?

The Hurdles for Regional Sports

In a country like India, infrastructure, equipment and physical space are the primary constraints that hinder both a sport’s popularity and its pursuit.

It is interesting to note that hockey went from being a consistent Olympic gold sport in India – with a winning streak of six Olympic golds at one stage – to nowhere the moment fields switched from grass to synthetic. Indian football was doing well, even at the Olympics of 1948, until a rule against barefoot playing literally changed the game for players. Indian cricket can count itself lucky that the sport is not played on Astroturf, that bats are made of cheap wood, and it does not matter what shoes one wears since there is limited running involved.

It is ironic that only individual sports such as wrestling, shooting, badminton, and boxing have won India medals in the last few Olympic games, with as many women winning as men. Each of these triumphant individuals has faced her own challenges in representing India – spanning applications, selection and  finances – and has succeeded despite the odds. None of them have major commercial backing, other than individual athletic sponsorships.

Given this scenario, what are the prospects for developing sports that lie outside the realm of mainstream popularity? While we are absorbed with organised team spectator sports, it is interesting to note the activity in the wider world of Indian sports.

There are several sports that are played and have a huge following across the country even if they are commercially unorganised. These include basketball, volleyball, billiards, table tennis, badminton, chess, wrestling and archery. There are also local sports such as the martial art of Kalarippayattu from Kerala, the gymnastics of Malkhamb from Maharashtra and the swordplay of Gathka from Punjab. Other regional sports are yet to reach even these levels of visibility. For instance, there are games of physical prowess from the Northeastern states – e.g. Inbuan and Insuknawr – along with numerous other martial and smaller sports from all over India.

While some are challenged by a lack of resources and limited access to facilities and equipment, others have a perception problem. Organised attention is often not forthcoming to indigenous sports, because of our perception regarding their lower ‘glamour’ quotient, and our difficulty in viewing them as legitimate sports.

Countries like Japan and China celebrate their indigenous sports. These not only enjoy access to better infrastructure but also a positive feedback loop through cultural visibility in film, TV and books. Indian storytelling, on the other hand, is still limited to cricket and hockey. Their lower media and pop culture status presents another major hurdle for local and indigenous sports to build traction.

Play for the Community…the Audience Will Follow

To overcome these challenges, we need to work with the environment in India.

The opportunity for a brand here lies in seeding deep engagement with the community that plays it and the players that emerge from it. It is centered around telling their stories, and potentially building an entirely new property.

Engaging with local games and smaller sports allows a brand to easily build regional visibility. Sustained engagement can further trust, nurture relationships and create equity that go beyond marketing and advertising results.

One tactic is to pick sports that are known but not heavily supported. These have the twin advantages of familiarity and following. What they need are organization and resources to grow their audience. Providing a path to professional leagues could work really well for sports such as badminton, table tennis, volleyball, athletics and kabaddi.

The other option is to pick local sports that are largely unknown outside their region. This could be an exciting way to drive local conversa­tions – in part because it is unusual to see corporate engagement of this form and also because it may serve to pique the interest of surrounding communities and regions. There are numerous athletic, martial and community sports in India that are suited for this model.

Lastly, supporting champions from within the community – whatever sport they play – as role models and spokespeople is a good way to build connections and conversations at the local and national levels.

There is vast potential for building engagement with communities by partnering with them in something they are already vested in – play and sports. Looking beyond an urban audience with its global taste in sports to regional communities that are ready for inclusion in a sports culture, may allow brands to plant their feet early and firmly within this new movement. Digital and mobile technology can open the door to build interest, start conversations and get the ball rolling. Whatever route a brand takes, the payoff is likely to be increased recognition and relevance in these communities. It is an idea worth huddling over at the next strategy session.

Sameer Rajadnya is Communication Design at The PRactice.