Growth of Non–Mainstream Sports in India by Mazhar Nadiadwala

With the globalized and digitized world that we live in, many forgotten sports today are coming into the limelight and receiving more recognition, writes Mazhar Nadiadwala.


India is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world with a population following a wide range of religions belonging to different communities. However, the one thing that always unites Indians across every social barrier is their love for sports. Cricket, one of the most popular sports in the country, is somewhat of a religion in the country with almost every Indian flocking towards their TV screens for an India – Pakistan match. While cricket has achieved phenomenal success in the country, it has also shadowed the potential of other sports in the country. However, with the growth of the sports industry and increased representation of India in leading international tournaments of these non-mainstream sports, these are emerging as the new favourites among the avid sports fans in the country.


In a country dominated by cricket lovers, football only enjoyed little and localized recognition in regions such as Kerala and the North Eastern states, especially West Bengal, the hub being Kolkata. While the sport is an extremely popular and a giant industry internationally, the popularity of the sport in India has only risen in the past decade. While the international football leagues like the English Premier League has always grabbed eyeballs of avid sports fans, India today also has its own national leagues like the India Super League, launched in 2013. Since the league began, studies show that the interest for football in the country has risen from 30% to 45% from 2013-17. An indoor format of the sport, Futsal has also recently been introduced in India. This format, which is already popular internationally, has gained huge popularity in metros specially where spaces and grounds is a constraint.


In recent times, the biggest overnight success has been that of Kabaddi as a crowd-favourite. Launched in 2014, Pro Kabaddi League has today evolved to one of the most-watched sports in the country. The rugged sport, originally limited to the rural population, is now the 2nd most watched sport in the country after cricket. The sport has made its mark as a leading mainstream sport actively competing with football for the second spot.


After the entry of National Basketball Association (NBA) in India in 2017, the sport has received wide acceptance among the Indian audience and is today, slowly gaining traction. This year, marks the first ever NBA tournament which will be a testament to the growth of this non-mainstream sport in the Indian culture. The NBA tournament is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated sports events of the year.


Another non-mainstream sport that has today gained considerable popularity is cycling. While earlier only considered as an activity for the low-income group of people for commute, today, cycling has evolved into an adventure sport of its own. Specialist biking stores have opened up across the country to cater to the growing audience of cycling as a sport. Tournaments such as the Hero MTB Himalaya has been key in putting cycling on the sports pages in the country.


The past decade has been revolutionary for Indian Badminton, especially in light of the success of Indian athletes like Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu in the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. The secret to bringing a sport into the forefront in a widely populated country like India is the right representation of it on international fronts. With Indian players making their mark in both the men’s and women’s category of the World’s Top 10 in the world, badminton is today a widely accepted sport. National tournaments like Premier Badminton League is one of the driving forces behind the success of the sport in the mainstream sport section.


Currently, India has the biggest fanbase of WWE, the world’s biggest wrestling event, after USA. The tournament receives 335 million unique television viewers per year. Closer to home, national level tournaments like India’s Pro Wrestling League has become one of the biggest sports events of the year. The popularity of wrestling was further fueled by the representation of the sport in leading Bollywood movies like Dangal and Sultan. Such mainstream representation propelled the sport into the limelight more than before and is today, a sport that many in rural regions aspire to be a professional in.


While many still find it hard to consider poker as a sport, the popularity of poker tournaments is rapidly rising in the country. Professional poker is not just an abstract concept but a reality in modern India. An industry that is rapidly springing startups in the virtual poker space, the sport is extremely popular, especially among the millennial generation. Studies show that more than 50 lakhs Indians today have active online poker accounts. Tournaments like India Poker Championship 2019, World Poker Tour 2019, etc. have allowed poker to turn into a mainstream sport in the country today.

With the globalized and digitized world that we live in, many forgotten sports today are coming into the limelight and receiving more recognition. Rustic sports like Kho-Kho are also gaining traction with established professional tournaments like Ultimate Kho-Kho arising. The past decade has been witness to almost 16 new sports league emerging in the Indian landscape. With the vast population of India and the varied cultures present, there is a scope for many regional sports to become more prevalent in the industry. What is needed for the sports industry is financial support from Government as well as brands in creating avenues for potential talented athletes a stage to hone their talent.

(The article is written by Mazhar Nadiadwala, Managing Director, Dome Entertainment)

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