Since the launch of the Indian Premier League back in 2008, many sports in India have embraced the idea of an IPL-style league. While a few of them have succeeded in making an impact or surviving, a lot many have simply folded up given the lack of a proper revenue model.

The main school of thought, however, is that these leagues actually bring in money to the sport with players, coaches and eventually the ecosystem benefiting from the cash influx. While this is true in the short run, it is also true that such benefits can only be reaped if the leagues sustain themselves for a certain period or they end up being detrimental to the cause itself.

It was precisely why the launch any new IPL-like franchisee-based league is looked at with a lot of skepticism in India as one is never sure how long the league will survive or whether the team owners will be invested in the project long enough to reap the benefits of the business model and what exactly it will contribute to the sports ecosystem.

For example, the Premier Badminton League, Pro Wrestling League and the now suspended Hockey India League witnessed a change in ownership of a few teams almost every year while even the cash-rich Indian Super League is facing challenges with team owners starting to make some noise over the mounting losses every year.

During a recent interaction, Parth Jindal, director of JSW Sports, even hinted that India was probably not ready for too many leagues and it would be prudent to invest wisely.

But Vita Dani, who is the co-owner of ISL team Chennaiyin FC and co-promoter of Ultimate Table Tennis League, believes the opposite is better and explains how the leagues have actually helped Indian sport.

“If you look at sports, I won’t mention cricket. Look at football. Suddenly there is a growth, the amount of money the players are getting. If you look at kabaddi, same thing. If you look at badminton, it’s the same story. If you look at Table Tennis, they are earning a lot more than what they ever did.

“I don’t need to be high-handed here but they are earning more thanks to some of the platforms like UTT. And it will only go up. And as they do well internationally, they will get more sponsorship. It is a chicken and egg story. And they are motivated. Today, a lot of players are motivated because they want to be part of UTT. Because there is visibility,” said Dani, who admits that her venturing into the business of sport was merely by chance and not by design.

But isn’t the moot point being sustainability and growth?

Dani has a simpler solution for the same.

“We have to bring down the cost. So if you look at the UTT model, it is really low on cost. Look at the franchisee model, it’s low on cost. Look at the operating model, it’s a centralised model, again low on cost. We are trying to make it compact,” she says insisting that the UTT league has managed to cut down almost 20% cost by the third season which kicks off on July 25.

“For me, if the franchise is not happy then I am not happy as a league. It’s very simple. If they make money or have minimal loses, then I know they will invest in the game,” she adds.

This season, UTT league has tweaked the format by restricting the event to a single venue from, reducing the number of foreign players in each team and giving the teams a city-based feel for the first time.

“Bringing in more partners, whether its equipment partners, whether its sponsorship, whether it is sports nutrition. And people don’t mind contributing in small ways. So it’s a start,” she adds.

All encompassing model

While that is something almost all leagues are trying to do, what Dani and her team have done differently is to invest a considerable amount of time and money in the overall development of the sport by going beyond just organising a franchise-based league. The philosophy being: only if the sport grows then it can become commercially viable over the years.

11Sports, the parent company that runs UTT league, also sponsors all the national ranking tournaments in India, conducts an inter-school competition and a couple of city-based leagues, supports academies and now even conducts a coaching program in 11 BMC schools free of cost.

“We started top down and bottom up approach simultaneously. We actually started the school program in about 21 states even before we started the league. The winner of each state comes to the national championship. That started a year before the league. Then, we started the international league. Then we started an international tournament, in fact, it started a year before the league.

“During the last one and a half years, we started the academy support. So an academy which does not have a mental fitness trainer, can we provide them with that? Or they don’t have a nutritionist on board... whatever they might need. Some of them need financial help to get a better coach or whatever. That we have done,” she adds.

On the commercial and branding side, all these ventures would now have a common UTT branding, unlike in the past where 11sports name was used for other ventures.

The company is also in talks with Sports Authority of India to run a table tennis excellence centre in Kandivali, Mumbai for quite some time now and Dani is hoping that things would materialise in the near future.

“We have to keep pushing and we have to keep trying and I am sure everybody has their own constraints and their own sets of issues to deal with. And the good part is they are also not giving up. They are also trying to find a way around. And everyone has to protect their own interest. Today the government would not want to lose out on land. So it’s only fair. If it moves faster it will benefit more, nothing else.”

Corporate Social Responsibility

Dani, through the ELMS Sports Foundation, runs a Centre of Excellence in Gujarat which has about 250 residential athletes in seven different sports. The foundation also conducts coaching classes for the coaches and a physical literacy program in the state as part of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility mandate.

Though the government added sports to the CSR mandate in 2014, not many companies have come forward to invest in sports and that has meant that grassroots development hasn’t really taken off.

While Dani admits that there is a problem, she prefers a different approach. “Every Corporate has a family and every family has a child. And if that child is playing sports then you are sorted. If not, then you just have to work a little harder. That’s all.”

Dani would know because her initiation in sports was because her son, Mudit, started playing table tennis and has a major interest in many other sports.

But the one question that the corporate world has been asking everyone requesting them to invest in sports is what is the return on their investments: ROI?

While Dani insists that to get an ROI in sports one has to be invested in the project for at least a decade or two, she also questions the logic behind the argument itself. “Any business you start, you don’t start making money from day one. You have to give it some time. Same thing in sports. Sometimes it’s tangible, something it’s not tangible. But it’s a passion, no? People invest in music, right? What is your ROI on music? Why don’t people say that? How do you quantify that success?”

Dani believes that the right way forward is to invest small and take one step at a time rather than looking to invest in stars for instant ROI.

“We got to start somewhere. It need not be the best. It can be the fifth best in the world, it can be 10th best in the world, it’s ok... Let’s start somewhere. You cannot suddenly from school level and reach Olympics. You have to go to district, cities, state, national, international and then CWG, Asian, world whatever, I mean in the right hierarchy.

“Take baby steps and see can we go there; when we take baby steps, we don’t need to make such a large investment. Everybody need not put crores and crores of rupees. You can do it with few lakhs also. Support your local team. You don’t have to go out of your way. How much will you end up spending there,” she adds.

UTT’s city-based leagues work on the same model and the Mumbai Super League has been running for five years now and even has the participation of the veteran players.

Dani, however, insists that there was no way any other sporting venture should compare itself to cricket as the biggest source of revenue in sports comes from broadcasters and India currently does not have the sports culture like Europe or America where people are happily willing to pay to watch sport live or on television.

“That change in mindset has to happen. Every time I am asked to speak on sports at any platform, my target audience is always the parents as this value system comes from home. If that happens, we are sorted.”