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Hoops and home runs in India

  • The National Basketball Association became the first US sports franchise to enter India in 2011
  • Major League Baseball is setting up with grass-roots programmes and an IPL tie up to help introduce baseball to India

MLB India coach Avinash Kadam coaching children at Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Vidyamandir school.
MLB India coach Avinash Kadam coaching children at Mumbai’s Priyadarshini Vidyamandir school. (Photo: Jaideep Vaidya)

Kunal Singh, 14, picks up a baseball bat for the first time and heads over to the home plate. His team needs four runs to win and there is only one batter left after him. He reaches the home plate and takes his stance, pointing the bat downwards and placing it near his feet.

“Hey, this is not cricket," says coach Avinash Kadam, as he runs over to Singh and corrects his stance, pulling the teenager’s hands up to the level of his eyes with the bat behind his head. “There, now swing with all your might."

In cricket-crazy India, pointing the bat downwards and placing it near the feet comes naturally to children and adults alike. It’s one of the many cricket habits Kadam has tried to correct in thousands of schoolchildren he has coached in Mumbai since July.

However, it is this very fixation with cricket that Kadam’s employers, the US-based Major League Baseball (MLB), are trying to tap. The 26-year-old is one of 10 baseball coaches contracted with the American professional league as part of MLB First Pitch, a grass-roots programme that aims to introduce the sport to schools across the country.

Headquartered in New York, the MLB announced in July that Delhi would be its base in India, in addition to offices in Mexico City, London, Beijing and Tokyo. The league has tied up with a cricket franchise, the Indian Premier League’s Delhi Capitals, to help introduce baseball to India.

However, as Kadam would testify, it’s not going to be simple. “Baseball being a bat-and-ball sport is an advantage but it’s also quite hard to make people forget cricket techniques and rules," says the Mumbai native, who started playing baseball at the age of 17 at Rizvi College. “In baseball, how you hold the bat, how you pitch the ball, how you run, everything is different."

The MLB has its work cut out in India, says senior sports management professional Joy Bhattacharjya, since the league does not have any global stars. “In India, we don’t follow sports, we follow heroes and teams," he says. “The NBA (National Basketball Association) always had big names like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant back in the day. Today, there are guys like LeBron James and Stephen Curry. But the MLB doesn’t have a big star like that."

Undeterred, the MLB will relaunch Million Dollar Arm, a talent-hunt contest for baseball pitchers in India, along with First Pitch. It was first organized in 2007 by Los Angeles-based sports agent J.B. Bernstein and was the subject of the 2014 movie of the same name. The MLB also aims to stream one game free each week on Facebook in India. Currently, MLB matches are not available on Indian television.

The NBA model

The comparison between the MLB and NBA is pertinent, considering they are the two American leagues that have set up shop in India. The NBA has an eight-year head start, having opened its first India office in 2011, in Mumbai. Since then, the basketball league has invested heavily in the development of basketball at the grass-roots level. The league has created a pipeline for youngsters to pick up the sport in school and get a chance to play at the elite level when they are older.

At the bottom of the pyramid is the free-of-cost Junior NBA programme, which introduces basketball to schools across the country by integrating it with their physical education curriculum. “Since starting off in 2013, we have reached 10 million kids and 10,000 coaches across 10,000 schools in India," says Diane Gotua, vice-president of global business operations and interim managing director of NBA India till the appointment of Rajesh Sethi earlier this month.

Above the Junior NBA is a network of tuition-based advanced basketball training centres called the NBA Basketball Schools, which are present in 30 schools across six cities. The NBA Basketball Schools charge children 2,000-3,000 per month for coaching.

At the top of the pyramid is the NBA Academy in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, which houses the 24 best male basketball prospects, aged 14-17, from across the country. The academy also organizes annual short-term camps for girls. “We have 14 players from the academy who have made it to the Indian national teams, junior or senior," says Gotua. “We have kids getting scholarships to schools in the US. Our hope is we get a kid drafted into the NBA in the near future."

In some of the countries the NBA operates in, there is a professional league above the academy in the pyramid. India does not have a professional league, even though the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) had reportedly signed a 30-year agreement with IMG-Reliance in June 2010 handing all commercial rights related to Indian basketball, including the development of a pro league, to the latter. But infighting in the BFI has ensured the league has not materialized.

“A pro league is highly critical because we want to show a child who loves to play basketball a path to turn pro," says Gotua. “The NBA is very far away. It’s critical to have that bridge. The pro league is a missing piece but I guess it’s just a matter of time before it comes up."

Stepping up broadcast

In the absence of a pro league, the NBA and its broadcast partner, Sony Sports Network, have over the years stepped up their efforts to make sure Indian audiences can at least watch top-quality basketball on television. From just three live games a week five years ago, NBA fans in India can now watch as many as 14, including every match of the Conference Finals and Finals. The NBA has also been scheduling five weekly games for prime-time broadcast in India at 10pm on Sundays for the last two seasons.

“This past season we had close to 100 million viewers," says Gotua. “We have about 300 regular-season games on TV. 85 of those games also come with Hindi commentary, which accounts for about 25% of our viewership. We are looking at expanding to other local Indian languages as well."

In December, the NBA announced that the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings would play two pre-season games in Mumbai in October this year. This is a huge deal, says Gotua, because NBA games are broadcast in over 200 territories around the world, but barely 10% of them have actually hosted matches.

It took Gotua’s predecessor Yannick Colaco over two years to convince the NBA bosses. “The pre-season games are just an indication of the level of investment the NBA is going to put behind India," says Colaco, who resigned in March after six years at the helm.

“The next big task is once the games are done," adds Colaco. “How are you going to leverage that noise, that excitement, to get more partners in, get more fans engaged? How do you accelerate growth post the games—that’s the challenge."

An NBA Basketball School session in progress at Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School.
An NBA Basketball School session in progress at Mumbai’s Jamnabai Narsee School. (Photo: NBA India)

Different strategy

The MLB has a long way to go before it can think of hosting matches in India, but it seems to have taken a cue from the NBA by starting a grass-roots programme. However, the MLB will have to follow a different strategy, says Rohan Chopra, co-founder and chief operating officer of India On Track, a sports management company that is handling MLB First Pitch and the NBA Basketball Schools in India.

“Basketball is a well-known sport in India," says Chopra. “Most schools have a basketball court, no matter how good or bad. The NBA’s agenda was not to promote the sport but strengthen the connection of NBA whenever anybody thinks about basketball."

But the MLB is a completely different ball game, adds Chopra. “Barring a few of us in the metro cities, very few people know about baseball. The MLB wants to first popularize the sport at the grass-roots level. If baseball becomes popular, MLB is synonymous with it anyway."

Through MLB First Pitch, the league hopes to introduce baseball to 300 schools across Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru through free workshops in the first year. “In year 2, perhaps, we will start with organizing some tournaments and opening some training centres," says Chopra.

Bhattacharjya, who is currently CEO of India’s Pro Volleyball League (PVL), is not sure the similarity between baseball and cricket, and the association with Delhi Capitals, is going to help the MLB. “They are just trying to get decent publicity out of it," he says. “A partnership with Delhi Capitals would give them association with a product that Indians understand. It will make headlines because of DC. Whether it helps them or not is to be seen."

The association with cricket might even prove counterproductive for the MLB. Would Indian sports fans really want to watch another bat-and-ball sport? The MLB has to think long-term, do its homework, and have a very specific India strategy that goes beyond cricket.

At the Priyadarshini Vidyamandir government school in Mumbai’s Kandivali suburb, Kunal Singh, getting his stance right, swings his bat and connects. The ball goes sailing over the makeshift fence, earning his team three runs. His teammates scream in delight, “Arey, chhakka maara (He has a hit a six)!" Kunal loves this new sport, which he had only seen on television before in the Japanese anime series Doraemon. “It’s a great game because you get full tosses all the time and it’s easier to hit sixes."

Jaideep Vaidya is a freelance journalist who writes on the business of sport.

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