uSports, co-founded by Suprathik Sen and Unilazer’s Ronnie Screwvala, is working towards providing promising athletes, from sports such as kabaddi and motorsport, a platform to build their careers on.
In 2014, when Suprathik Sen began visiting schools across the country to engage under-15 (years of age) talent for kabaddi and football, he was often faced with anxious parents questioning the feasibility of pursuing sport as a career. To each one of them, his response was this: “A career as a sportsman can be viewed on par with an Ivy League qualification. Imagine this. If your child is a sportsman, in a decade, he can earn close to 5,00,00 Euros a year. Can a banker earn as much in such a short span of time?” Of course, such strong conviction and belief in sport as a profession comes from Sen being a sportsman himself for ‘as long as he can remember.’ A professional rugby player for years, Sen admits that pursuing sport kept alive his love for fresh grass and open spaces. “I even pursued my education simultaneously and ensured that my grades were above average throughout. When you can combine both, it’s a dream life,” he adds.
The entrepreneurial streak hit Sen when he realised that sports marketing and more specifically, providing a platform for athletes and sports persons to build on their career was lacking in nearly all parts of India. Hence, post a five-year stint with Red Bull as its national head of sports and events, Sen decided to turn entrepreneur with uSports, a venture focussed on futuristic sports marketing and talent grooming. He partnered with Ronnie Screwvala (the founder of UTV Group, Unilazer Ventures and Swades Foundation) to set the ball rolling.
Today, supported by parent company Unilazer Ventures, uSports has three sports under its umbrella; kabaddi, football and motorsport, termed uMumba, uDream Football and uMoto 250 respectively. The company currently has 15 employees on board, comprising a pool of talent across the functions of sales and marketing, technical and management personnel. The vision for Sen and Screwvala is to combine developmental sports programmes and integrated mass media collaborations to build the future of pro (professional) sports in India.
Delving more into the business, in this story, Sen shares a series of anecdotes on the various strategies uSports has adopted to disrupt this space in India.
(As narrated in first person)
Grabbing an opportunity
When we entered this space we were among the first few players attempting to disrupt. Hence, we began with an endeavour to reinvent Kabaddi for the simple reason that it is a sport that every nook and corner of the country can relate to. To give you a simple example, when I am talking to my mother, I need to explain cricket terms such as leg before wicket or a no ball. But I needn’t explain how Kabaddi is played because she has seen the family play the sport in the U?h?na (backyard in Bengali) of our house. That’s the opportunity we capitalised on. From there, step two was to search the length and breadth of the country to identify a pool of talented players and step three was to identify a strategy to market our initiative.
When we entered this space we were among the first few players attempting to disrupt. Hence, we started with an aim of reinventing kabaddi, a sport that people from every nook and corner of India could relate to.
In fact, the first marketing strategy we adopted to market our athletes was to go the social media route with Facebook. We created a uSports page and posted photographs of the our initial days; of how we put together the first junior and senior team, of playing in mass and soil and more.
Eventually, this itself turned into a marketing journey and by the time we got into the first season of Star Sports Pro Kabaddi League (June-July 2014), the sport became an urban phenomena.
Zoning in on football and motorsport
The strategy we adopted for football was similar to the one we adopted for kabaddi. We were looking at mass appeal and we wanted to identify undiscovered talent. To fulfil this, for the first season of uDream Football, we partnered with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (a German association football club based in Hoffenheim) and identified a pool of 15 U-15 footballers across 51 regions. These athletes were sent to Germany to train at the TSG Hoffenheim’s youth training academy, where along with professional sports training, they were also given access to CBSE schooling at a German University.
When we branched out into Motorsport our strategy was different. We weren’t looking at a team or a single athlete but a league of our own. uMoto 250, as we have termed it, will be a close circuit racing league which combines motorcycle racing with tourism to create a mass consumer product. Slated to kick-off in late 2016, the league will initially host 350CC and 600CC to 800CC bikes. We see this as a potential opportunity because we feel, in terms of racing, we are one of the largest manufacturing and consumption markets across the globe and this will become aspirational if it’s set in the right perspective with the right responsibility (in terms of safety gear, professional support and more).
Come the turning point
When we participated in the first season of Pro Kabaddi League, I was distributing tickets to children in my apartment complex. They outright rejected it because they didn’t see it as a something they would be interested in. I was left with no choice but to give them away, along with a few jerseys to the watchman’s son. A year later, when we launched the second season (in 2015), there were a queue of children standing outside my house, waiting to buy the tickets. In a year, Kabaddi Touch and Kabaddi Quick (types of kabaddi game) became a popular sport among children.
In another instance, I once went to Sharda Ashram (the school where Sachin Tendulkar studied) along with one of my Kabaddi players, Vishal Mane. The moment we entered, a thousand kids mauled him. That’s marketing for us. I don’t think even Tendulkar was received with as much enthusiasm! (Laughs)
Looking back to look forward
Everyone who handled the sports portfolio at Red Bull (my previous employer) is either an athlete or has had something to do with sport in the past. We were a team of 65 national managers who would meet once a year and jam. The good part about Red Bull was the ability to do something small yet create a massive impact in terms of how a particular sport is perceived. And usually, we do it for the younger lot (16 to 19 year olds), an age group that not many people are looking at, right now. However, what they don’t realise is that three to four years later, when you back these promising athletes at the right time, they will give you momentum to rediscover the sport like no other. I gained this insightful perspective when I was with Red Bull.
Stepping into the future
We want to build a differentiated sports business, where we focus on sports which are unique and not yet very popular. In the near future, we want to add a fourth division to our business; e-sports and e-gaming.