When Siddharth Pandey returned to Delhi in 2010, six years after working in Sydney, he seemed happy to be back. But one thing he sorely missed: taking off to the nearest park to play football. “Unlike Sydney which offered enthusiasts enough public spaces for sports, the only options were to play with neighbourhood kids on busy streets or at extortionately priced, high-maintenance, members-only sports clubs,” Pandey says. “I realised that people had the will to play, but the legwork involved repelled them. They didn’t want to be bothered with logistics and infrastructure; they simply wanted to come to the pitch and bat.”
FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
Pandey could have sat on the bleachers, lamenting the state of sports in India. Instead, he became part of the solution. He started Leh Leh Sports, a company that helps young, working urban adults to play sports like badminton, tennis, volleyball and cricket. Similar initiatives have sprung up in other cities. Sport365 in Delhi (and soon in Mumbai), My Sportz Network in Bangalore, Great Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC) in Hyderabad and Duplays in Gurgaon all come to the rescue of those stuck in a cubicle all week.
INCLINED TO PLAY: Sport365 organises the venue, the team, even the nosh, so you can play.
Most companies have been founded by sport aficionados. “Being active in sports all my life, I was dismayed at the apathy towards sports infrastructure for young adults in Indian cities,” says Ajay Gupta as he explains why he started Sport365 last year.
“It was hard not just to find a suitable place but also to put together a team for a match. I was even rebuked for wanting to play a sport at my age.” The company’s popularity, however, has silenced critics. It offers a platform for working professionals to play and learn traditional sports, makes available the necessary equipment, schedules matches, arranges for the venues, puts together a team, and provides refreshments too.
No penalties: Lost a match? You can still photobomb the winners as they pick up their trophy and confuse everybody!)
For most of the companies, the spirit seems to be: play your best, forget about the rest. “Anyone who wants to enjoy a few hours of sports is welcome,” Gupta says. “All we need them to bring are sports shoes and sportswear, we provide everything else.” Matches might last a day, or be part of week-long tournaments or even month-long championships.
Lots of refreshments: From glucose biscuits, bananas and oranges to beer and a lunch box.
GHAC, a non-profit adventure club, organises volleyball, cricket, tennis and swimming tournaments and is also known for its annual biathlons and triathlons. “Last year we had 300 participants,” says Suresh Kochattil, the 50-year-old organiser. “We hired the Gachibowli stadium for its world-class swimming pool. We even have volleyball and cricket championships that last over two to three weekends.” Each company has its own gameplan for hooking in participants and giving them what they want. Duplays has divisions like Beginner, Recreational and Competitive for varying levels of skill. “These people used to play and had been itching to get back to the field but could not find an opportunity,” says the managing director Dhruv Swamini. Sport365 offers introductory group lessons for skill-based games like golf. GHAC chooses to let everyone try everything every time. “In any sport, we’ll have a 27-year-old football pro in the same team as a 35-year-old novice,” says Kochattil. But they hold separate sessions for experts on weekdays, and open weekend activities to everyone. It seems a good move. GHAC’s weekends see a lot of young IT/ITES employees (women included) looking to keep fit.
Cool maal: Not just trophies, medals and certificates, win sports merchandise, beer, hampers or vouchers and trinkets. Leh Leh Sports also offers discounts on beer.
Participants have found unexpected thrill from playing as part of a team. “Girls are also allowed to participate, which makes the event more fun and chilled out, rather than outright competitive,” says Yaman Navnakha, a 28-year-old freelance photographer, who joined Leh Leh Sports to relive his childhood passion for football. Rakesh Shashidharan, 29, a tech employee who grew up playing squash in a cricket loving nation, has found much-wanted company at Sport365. “I especially enjoy the assorted nature of participants,” he says.
“We have doctors, students, pilots, managers, teachers, all of who come together to enjoy the game.” Siddharth Zutshi, who works with a consumer durables company in Gurgaon, says his highlight is the privilege of playing under the floodlights as a member of the club. “As individuals, the best my friends and I could manage was to play in one corner of a ground. But being a part of this club I could enjoy the thrill of playing in a fully equipped stadium.”
BUSINESS OF PLAY
But for the organisers, it’s all work, all play and no pay, yet. “Things aren’t easy at all,” says Gupta. “Venues are hard to get and are very expensive. Many locations we rent are government-owned and rents are exorbitant. The process is time consuming and exhausting.” For Swamini of Duplays, finding good, affordable venues and professionals to work with is the hardest part of the job. “In Gurgaon, there are no public sports facilities; private ones charge a bomb and are typically open for members only. Most of these are owned or managed by people who do not have any experience in sports and can’t provide quality support,” she complains. Kochatill of GHAC however says he’s never had those issues. “One major reason for this is that we give them assured business, but at a break-even cost,” he says.
Sport365’s fees start at Rs. 200 for a two-hour game and with all companies, profit is mainly attached to attendance fees and sponsorships. “Since our aim is to encourage people to play, we keep the fee as low as possible. Hence, we are yet to make a profit,” explains Swamini whose Duplays charges barely Rs. 100-150 for an hour of volleyball, basketball or football.
Free coaching: Professional training is occasionally provided for swimming, tennis and other sports. Peer coaching is popular.
Both organisers and participants are profiting in other ways. Apart from getting a more fun workout than the boring ones you would do at a gym, they also find sports-loving friends. “People have been able to find a team to play with and hang out with after the games,” says Swamini. And everybody goes home more relaxed. “Most young GHAC members have stressful jobs and are looking at ways to break free,’ says Kochattil. “A high-intensity outdoor sport helps them let off some steam.”
From HT Brunch, March 17
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