I am going to make a detour from Healthcare and switch to Sports for this column. NCTV is a media company that we built around the core concept of non-cricket television.
As in prior years, India had put up a pathetic show in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Athletes were sent to compete in Archery, Athletics, Badminton, Boxing, Hockey, Judo, Rowing, Sailing, Shooting, Swimming, Table Tennis, Tennis, and Wrestling. In Soccer, Basketball, and most other Olympic sports, India did not qualify.
Having studied the evolution of Indian cricket from a negative 5 lakhs a year sport to a mega-money spinner, I was curious about how to apply the same formula to other sports and turn them into big-money media events as well.
Our analysis was that a television channel that exclusively televised sports outside of cricket, coupled with a systematic effort in coaching, training, and audience-building would be the first step.
We targeted 10 disciplines: Aquatics, Athletics, Badminton, Boxing, Gymnastics, Hockey, Table Tennis, Tennis, Shooting, and Wrestling.
Each discipline would have 50 training academies spread throughout India, all located in smaller towns.
Each academy would be a residential training and competition venue, complete with all modern amenities, and would train 100 athletes. A world-class foreign coach, aided by 10 Indian coaches, would run each program. Kids would be enrolled from age 10 up, and would come from the entire region surrounding the academy. Partnerships with local schools would address their educational needs.
Each academy would be sponsored by a brand like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Disney, or Airtel.
To build the television audience, we looked to the reality TV phenomenon that was sweeping the world, and decided to cast our project in that mode. Every academy had a cast of 125 or more characters, their families, personal stories, struggles, failures and triumphs. A production team was assigned to each academy, and was responsible for bringing out the ‘heart’ of the program.
Programs were designed around coaching and tournaments, somewhat like “Dancing With The Stars”, the popular ABC show. Tournaments were local, regional, state, and national.
In the twenty-first century, India was embracing consumerism at a frantic pace. Our core hypothesis was based on the fact that these consumer brands desperately needed to reach more remote consumers, with whom it was harder to achieve deep brand engagement than with urban consumers.
Our framework of 500 small-town sports academies across 10 disciplines could be a major phenomenon in the region’s entertainment calendar, with local teams to cheer on, local heroes to worship, local stars to build, and local gossip to whisper about.
We raised funds from Disney’s venture arm, Steamboat Ventures, as well as a set of venture capital firms.
The project was rolled out on a region-by-region basis, in local languages. Once the competition spread beyond a state, we switched the commentary and programming to Hindi.
We also staged the project by discipline. By 2010, we had 20 academies in Eastern and Western India, in just one discipline: Tennis. The Sports Authority of India, in collaboration with the state governments, gave us land to build the academies.
Our first twenty sponsors besides Coca-Cola and Airtel, were Pepsi, Nirma, Mastercard, Bournvita, Cadbury, Disney, Yahoo, Nokia, Bharti, Thums Up, Lifebuoy, Liril, Bajaj, Google, Microsoft, HP, Tata Nano, and State Bank of India.
Each sponsored an academy for rupees 1 crore ($250,000) for a branded center for three years, and rupees 50 lakhs ($125,000) a year in ongoing sponsorship. These were branded as Coca-Cola Tennis Academies, Airtel Tennis Academies, and so on. Annual sponsorship included extensive physical branding on location, as well as on the athletes’ outfits. Television advertising rights were sold separately.
Our roll-out ramped up after the first 20 academies. By 2012, we had 50 Tennis centers, and 20 centers each for Badminton, Table Tennis, and Hockey. In each sport, some athletes from our academies were starting to compete and win at the state and national championships that we televised, but did not organize.
By 2015, we launched all 10 disciplines and by 2018, every discipline had 50 academies. In Tennis, the Davis Cup team was entirely made up of athletes who came up through the program, and one of them was in the Wimbledon semi-final. Players in all 10 disciplines were sweeping state and national titles. In the 2018 Asian Games, India had a remarkably good medal tally, giving China a run for their money.
We are looking forward to the 2020 Olympics, scheduled to be held in New Delhi. We are confident that India will win medals in at least five disciplines, and in 2024, India will win multiple medals in all 10.
Meanwhile NCTV, with 25 million viewers, has become India’s most exciting, inspiring sports channel, masterminding and chronicling the story of the country’s rise as a credible sports nation.
This segment is a part in the series : Vision India 2020