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India Inc. and Sports: How impactful are brands and CSR initiatives at the grassroots level?

Has there been a trickle-down impact at the grassroots level in sport, either through brands or CSR funding? What does it take for Corporations to continuously invest in sports?

India Inc. and Sports: How impactful are brands and CSR initiatives at the grassroots level?

Photo credit: CSR Box


Vijay Krishnamurthy

Updated: 17 Sep 2023 1:24 PM GMT

IPL 2023 was the 16th edition of the T20 league. The advertisement rates for brands on television for a playoff game had skyrocketed from Rs 20 lakhs to 24 lakhs for a 10-second spot. As per the official broadcaster, Star Sports, 95 brands were displayed during the 8-week annual cricket tournament, of which 45 brands were new in 2023. The brands ranged across multiple sectors: FMCG, travel, consumer electronics, jewellery, and more. This article attempts to answer the deeper question: Has there been a trickle-down impact at the grassroots level in sports, either through brands or CSR funding?

This article gathers insights from Parminder Gill, Co-Founder of Sportz Village, and Professor Viswanath Pingali of IIM-Ahmedabad.

How can brands migrate from elite to grassroots?

Cricket, especially the popular T20 format, accounts for 85% of the sports sponsorship, and the remaining 15% is spread across all other disciplines, including kabaddi, lawn tennis, badminton, volleyball, and others. And if we were to add another filter of what sports at the grassroots level were sponsored by brands, what can we find?

Children at a Boost emerging programme for school children. (Photo credit: Sportz Village)

I recall during my childhood when Kapil Dev endorsed the health drink Boost. I wondered, "Shouldn't the same product be a better fit for school-going kids playing sports?" I don't recall such a thing in my school in the 1980s. However, times have changed their strategy to deepen their roots at the grassroots.

"Boost partnered with us (Sportz Village) to create an engaging programme for school children, wherein the school nominated 10 kids in the U-14 age. The website Boostcamp.com, the online platform, provided free access to cricket training videos to 22,000 children across 2000 schools in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana," said Parminder Gill, the Co-Founder of Sportz Village Foundation.

Beyond the improvement in cricketing skills that came along, what the programme did was something extraordinary. The programme winners selected by Boost were highlighted for their performance in the School Yearbook, making them the heroes. It was a perfect levelling moment with their counterparts who excelled in academic subjects.

“As part of the on-ground implementation, Sports Village conducted a talent scout programme, and eventually, a 6-month scholarship was awarded to the selected children," added Gill.

The power of Corporate Social Responsibility

One of the clauses in the Companies Act 2013 (CSR Policy) includes a specific mention of sport. It reads, "Training to promote rural sports, nationally recognized sports, Paralympic sports, and Olympic sports." A broad outline that is inclusive of multiple sports, both at the grassroots and elite levels.

However, the CSR spending towards sports between 2014-15 and 2020-21 comprised less than 1% of the cumulative, with healthcare and education initiatives capturing 51% of the total pie.

Photo credit: National CSR Portal

"Although physical education and sport are closely linked to a child's holistic development, the correlation is indirect. Therefore, CSR Committees find it difficult to compute the return on investment (ROI). Suppose the sports organizations can communicate the impact metrics such as improvement in student attendance rates, health metrics such as BMI, and linkages to a child's academic performance. In that case, it becomes easier for both Corporate donors and school leaders to believe in the intervention of sports programmes at the grassroots level," said Professor Viswanath Pingali, a faculty in the economics department at IIM Ahmedabad.

This is not an argument to compare sport against health or education, but instead about the deeper understanding that sport at the grassroots level is indeed linked to the health and education of a child. The Physical Education (P.E.) sessions in schools are meant to achieve multi-dimensional outcomes – sporting skills, health, well-being, and life skills such as resilience, collaboration, and teamwork.

"It is not surprising that within the sports sector, other non-profit organizations that nurture elite athletes for global competitions like Asian and Olympic games have succeeded in CSR partnerships with Corporations. An athlete winning a medal or improving their world rankings is a self-explanatory metric. Neeraj Chopra winning a gold medal at the Olympics is an easily understood milestone at all levels. However, the upliftment of millions of children through sport is a long-haul project, and some Corporates may not have the luxury of time, energy, or money," said Professor Pingali, whose research interests include digital markets and healthcare.

Way Forward

Grassroots sport, which includes school sports programmes, is less compelling for brands to invest due to inconsistency in organizational policy-level mandate. Regardless, it is encouraging to observe some brands have gone deeper within the ecosystem.

“One possible opportunity for brands is to use sport to amplify the social impact towards the cause they deeply care for – girl participation, child health & fitness, youth leadership or sports excellence - this by investing directly in schools/ grassroots/ community-based sports programmes as part of their social marketing or CSR mandate. We have worked with brands like Red Bull, Reliance Foundation, Boost, Coca-Cola, Tata Tea, Kinder Joy, and more - in these areas," said Gill.

As for CSR-funded programmes, the interdisciplinary thought of using sport as a vehicle to achieve multiple outcomes within health and education is paramount for more extensive social impact.

“Positioning of sport as part of the broader development mandate of CSR funders - beyond sports excellence or athlete development - in areas such as health, education, gender equity, and youth development is very critical. Although it has not exactly been easy, in the past few years, we have seen several large corporates such as HCL Foundation, Chambal Fertilizers, KPMG, Decathlon and many others coming forward to support sport as a tool to drive broader transformation at the community level," added Gill.

Thus, it is evident that Corporations are willing to work towards societal good as long as programme objectives and impact assessment are understood at the outset. That’s the learning from both Brands and CSR spend in areas of education and healthcare. If sports organizations can provide clarity, purpose, and tangible outcomes to the Corporations, the investments can increase multi-fold in the years to come.

Vijay Krishnamurthy is a sports research scholar (PhD) at the University of Mysore.

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