Shot-putter Manpreet Kaur, 27, was one of India’s 12 gold medallists at the recently concluded Asian Athletics Championships. Her winning effort has guaranteed her a berth at the Athletics World Championships in London later this year, where she will come up against considerably tougher opponents.

After winning the gold in Odisha, Manpreet, mother to a five-year-old daughter, made a plea via the media – to private-sector companies. Manpreet said that she had two sponsors before the Rio Olympics last year, but none after that.

“After the Olympics, I have no sponsors and no support from any private-sector company,” she said, as quoted by PTI. “We are now training from our pocket only and it is hard. We have to look after our home as well as train.”

She added, “It will be good for an athlete to get a sponsor or get financial support from business houses or private-sector companies. If I want to do well but am having financial problems, then we experience setbacks and have to pull back. If there are no financial issues, our minds are free and [we] can do better.”

Manpreet’s plea to corporate India is not surprising considering the relative apathy shown towards track-and-field athletes in India during non-Olympic years. While the nation waited with bated breath to find out who the next coach of the Indian cricket team will be, how many people know who Asian champion Manpreet’s coach is? (It’s her husband, Karamjit).

Private companies in India can easily come to the aid of athletes such as Manpreet, and it need not be purely philanthropy. They can do it as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities.

Three years ago, the government of India, via the Companies Act, 2013, made it mandatory for companies with a net worth of Rs 500 crore, or revenue of Rs 1,000 crore, or net profit of Rs 5 crore, to spend 2% of their average profit in the last three years on social development-related activities.

The Companies Act lists various activities that qualify as corporate social responsibility, such as health and sanitation, gender equality, education and skill development, and rural development. Also in the list is sports development.

Not a priority

When the Act was first passed, companies could only support “training to promote rural sports, nationally recognised sports, paralympic sports and Olympic sports” under corporate social responsibility. In 2015, the umbrella was widened to include “construction, renovation, maintenance of stadiums, gymnasiums and rehabilitation centres” as permissible CSR activities.

In spite of this, sports is still far down the priority list for companies when it comes to choosing CSR areas to invest in. In the 2015-’16 financial year, 1,270 companies collectively spent Rs 8,185 crore on CSR activities, according to the Annual CSR Tracker report by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Development. However, only Rs 57 crore, or 0.69% of the Rs 8,185 crore, was spent on sports development.

In fact, the percentage of CSR spend on sports has decreased compared with the 2014-’15 financial year, when 0.73% of Rs 6,400 crore, or Rs 47 crore, was allotted to sports. Experts said that this was because sport still does not connect with private companies compared with popular CSR activities such as health, education and rural development.

The top eight CSR sectors in which Corporate India invested in 2015-'16
The top eight CSR sectors in which Corporate India invested in 2015-'16

Biggest challenge

“Traditionally most corporates don’t consider sports as a CSR opportunity and therein lies the biggest challenge,” said Maneesh Bahuguna, CEO of Anglian Medal Hunt, a sports management company. “It’s still very much a branding thing – what will I get out of it? Health, education, gender empowerment, writing a cheque to the Prime Minister’s Office is easy. But you really need to have a decent pitch to convince the corporates that sports is also worth investing in as CSR.”

Another reason could be that companies are still figuring out CSR and what they can do with it considering it’s been just three years since it became a mandate. “It took a while for companies to understand what the obligations were, how to go about things,” said Nandan Kamath, principal lawyer at LawNK, a sports and intellectual property law firm.

“Companies are required to create a committee of their own to evaluate CSR proposals,” he added. “CSR is not like textbook philanthropy. It’s not like giving a cheque. CSR has to be a programme, with objectives, a starting point, an ending point, clarity of funding, quarterly reports. It’s not just about selecting 10 athletes and giving them cheques. It involves moving them from X to Y year-on-year. It’s a full-fledged athlete management programme.”

Brand visibility

Experts said that companies have hardly explored the depths of what they can do with CSR in sports, and this is their own loss considering the publicity that they can gain from it. “Sports, unlike other ​areas of CSR, ​provides companies far greater​ visibility,” said Aman Dhall, a former athlete who is now a marketing, communications and CSR specialist.

“Sports has an instant ​and emotional ​connect with society, and it helps companies with enhanced social reputation in the​ eyes of the public and the ​media,” he added​​​. “Companies look at it ​for achieving wider marketing goals on the smallest of budgets possible. It ​also ​makes them look​ good in ​documentation, as it show​s them as angels of sport and human development in annual reports.”

Kamath said, “If you want visibility, sports is probably the cheapest real estate there is. Imagine how tough it is to get recognised for doing something in rural development versus how sport is covered in the media. The media is always chasing a sports story and it’s always sold as a human-interest story.”

Kamath quoted the example of shuttler K Srikanth, who has leapfrogged into the world’s top 10 after back-to-back Superseries title wins this year. Srikanth is supported by the non-profit GoSports Foundation, of which Kamath is a managing trustee. “Our clients who have supported Srikanth right from the start, the excitement level in them for having been part of that journey is very apparent,” he said. “They are so happy that they took this risk.”

K Srikanth won back-to-back Superseries titles this year (Image: AFP)
K Srikanth won back-to-back Superseries titles this year (Image: AFP)

Success stories of athletes such as Srikanth also build a positive image for companies that support them. Companies can then get a lot of mileage out of their branding efforts with the athlete. “Some companies look at CSR as an obligation, but others see it as more of an opportunity to seek positive stories, have brand stories come out, and help the nation,” said Nikhil Sharma, CEO of Anglian Management Group, a sports management company.

Slow off the blocks

Most experts The Field spoke to said that private companies have been slow off the blocks to invest in sports, but are slowly warming up to it. Private companies can undertake CSR either on their own or via an eligible, accredited third party, which can either be non-profits such as GoSports and the Olympic Gold Quest, or firms such as the Anglian Medal Hunt Company.

Third-party companies are required to also meet criteria such as having worked for three years and be audited. These companies receive money from clients who have to undertake CSR and manage the operations for them. “CSR has become the primary source of funding for the GoSports Foundation,” said Kamath.

Among the private firms who manage their own CSR operations is the JSW Group, one of India’s largest business conglomerates. The company launched a sports excellence program in 2012 which, according to its website, currently supports 39 athletes across sports such as track and field, boxing, wrestling, judo, swimming and tennis.

“We were very clear that we wanted to start helping Indian athletes,” said Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports. “When the government included promoting Olympic sports as part of the various activities in which you can put your CSR money in, it fit well with our philosophy and we’ve been doing it for the last three or four years now.”

In January 2016, luger Shiva Keshavan, who was a five-time Olympian at the time, announced that he is pulling out of the Luge World Championships and the World Cup circuit because of “lack of funds”. Keshavan had won a silver medal at the Asian Luge Championships in December 2015 and two golds in the Asia Cup. Yet, he was out of funds.

Shiva Keshavan pulled out of the 2016 Luge World Championships and World Cup circuit because of “lack of funds” (Image: AFP)
Shiva Keshavan pulled out of the 2016 Luge World Championships and World Cup circuit because of “lack of funds” (Image: AFP)

Among the many people who read of Keshavan’s plight was Giriraj Mall, director of Mallcom India, a company that manufactures personal protective equipment. “I did not have any knowledge of luge or Shiva Keshavan,” Mall said. “I felt really bad about it and I started talking to him. The amount that he needed was fine with us and we also confirmed that this can be treated as a CSR opportunity. So we went ahead with it. It was a beginning for us and we are very keen to support more sportspersons in the near future.”

In the 2016 Asian Luge Championships, Keshavan won the gold. He will compete in the 2017 World Cup circuit in his bid to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea. Apart from Mallcom, Keshavan has even credited Hero MotoCorp and Micromax for supporting him in the last 18 months.

His plea was heard. Is anyone listening to Manpreet (and perhaps thousands of others)?