by Haider Ali Daud Khan
The author is the Founder & CEO of Strawberry Sports Management (www.strawberry-global.com)
Sports is a rapidly growing global industry yet many countries may not realize its true potential. Pakistan is no different, where the status and role of sports has not been mainstreamed. Pakistan has ruled the world of sports as the champions of various games from time to time. The current plight of sportsmen is deplorable to say the least. Other than our international cricketers, the rest of the sportsmen live in obscurity and lack of appreciation. So, is there any light at the end of this oppressive tunnel? The answer is a big YES!
A sports league for national or international sports is not a new phenomenon. Leagues and their teams have, at times, grown into larger-than-life presence and developed an amazing fan following that’s generational. The version of the sports leagues that gained popularity in South Asia revolves around in-organic birth of city based team franchises. These have gained considerable popularity over the years. Whether they address the void in sports in the long-term remains to be seen, however, they have certainly made their presence felt through superior engagement and gravitas. The players get appropriately remunerated while Sports Federations get the much needed financial space to plan and execute their annual calendars.
Let’s review a case.
Ever since its first demonstrative international exposure during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Kabaddi is today being played in thirty-five countries (including England, Spain, Denmark, Australia, USA, Canada and Japan). Each year teams from these countries lock muscle and mettle in this combative team game, played on a rectangular or circular court, either outdoors or indoors.
The continuously increasing popularity of Kabaddi is a phenomenon worth understanding. The creation and development of leagues around Kabaddi can be held responsible for firing the interests of athletes worldwide. For instance Canada has over a dozen federations managing their own teams while Iran and Spain have several. India’s Pro Kabaddi League has given a totally new dimension and scale to the game. Another reason for its growing pervasiveness is that it is often referred to as the “game of the masses” due to its early popularity in Asia and its simple format and minor variations.
Moments of glory for Kabaddi in Pakistan can never be described as “few and far between”. Since 1956, Pakistan has actively participated in Kabaddi Championships ranging from Asian Kabaddi Championship, to SAF and World Cup level games. And Pakistani champions have brought in their flow of honors and gold medals over the years, winning against India; and then again in 2014, a silver against India in the 5th Kabaddi World Cup. Pakistan is the current Asian Kabaddi Cup and Asian Beach Games Champions. The list of winning medals in various championships both national and international is indeed praiseworthy.
Gone are the days when only cricket and football players were household names – many thanks to technology and media (social included). Today’s typical household would actually be howling for their preferred sports and athletes. Sons may be rooting for wrestling and combat sports (Salman Ahmad: Mr. Musclemania and Baadshah Pehalwan Khan: The National Wrestling Champion), dads could be favoring anything from Tent Pegging (Malik Ata Muhammad Khan: Chief of Kot Fateh Khan) to (Munir Sadiq: The Professional Sailor), while the women might be envying Samina Baig – The First Female Mountaineer or Maria Toorpakay Wazir – The No.1 Female Squash Player of Pakistan, or perhaps Sana Mir – The Female Cricketer Sensation, or even the Skiing Sisters – Arfa Wali & Amina Wali. Yes indeed, sports today has a lot more to offer than just cricket, hockey and squash.
It is true that professional sports leagues, with its derivative businesses such as athletic apparel and media conglomerates, have become multi-billion dollar industries, but the vision is not and cannot be limited to just ground zero level. There is more to professional sports leagues than meets the eye. In addition to being consumed traditionally through in-stadia experience and on-air broadcast; sports has developed a strong and thriving ecosystem in the form of online LIVE telecast, content sharing and fan engagement. For instance, investors have consistently been attracted to Europe’s Premier League football clubs. This attraction has often been based on the prestige of owning a Premier League football club, seen by many as a “global trophy asset”, providing enhanced business profile and access to important relationships.
Apart from being an economic engine, sports business also provides opportunity to participate in the globalization and internationalization of a nation, as it surpasses the barriers of verbal communication and provides common language for appreciation and culture reflection.
Performance in sports at an international level has become a matter of national and political prestige. More than that, I remain fascinated by the possibilities that sports leagues offer – for instance, as a platform, the sports league has unparalleled power that at times surpasses political constituencies and binds nations together – it’s that magical! The good news here is that private sector can carve out a profound role for itself in this journey by taking the lead in conceiving and executing various initiatives including sports leagues while the State provides the enabling environment. So, instead of waiting and expecting the State to take the initiative, it is up to the citizens and private sector to bring in a level of imagination, forward thinking and best practices to the sports around which the whole nation can rally.
There is no doubt that sports leagues will be successful, as they offer the perfect recipe for a nation starved of quality entertainment, but the long term dividends can possibly be reaped only when all the stakeholders nurture these national brands called sports leagues with love, grit and humility. From there shall emerge possibilities far and wide ranging and interesting; ones that galvanize around our youth and offer them hope and pride. At the end, you see, sports was never sports; they always had a purpose and liberating character. As someone once said, “if you want something very badly set it free. If it comes back to you it’s yours forever, but if it does not it was never yours to begin with”. The nation fell in love with sports in the past, and if this happens again there is every chance sports shall be theirs forever. A nation of 200 million plus people that has defied existential threats, poured its heart into putting others needs ahead of its own, won laurels globally in science, art, culture, defense, and more just cannot get it wrong.