Getting a kick out of it
Upscale sporting facilities are coming up in Indian metros - and young Indian professionals are flocking to them, says Manjula Sen
There is life beyond beer in Bangalore. Meet football. For software techie Uday Chaudhary, an occasional beer at the local pub is an option but football thrice a week is a non-negotiable commitment. Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6.30 pm and Saturdays at 11pm, the 20-something, soft-spoken Chaudhary dons football studs and smashes the ball with work buddies and extended friends at Powerplay, a popular sports arena spread over four acres and located in Bangalore's Whitefield.
"We have a recurring booking for Saturday and if we don't confirm by Friday evening we lose the slot for that particular weekend. I guess that means that there are a lot of people calling in to book even if they don't have recurring slots," he says of Powerplay, which rents out space by the hour for those who want to play football, table tennis and cricket. Coaching too is offered for football and cricket.
A family-owned enterprise, Powerplay's three outdoor football fields (primarily for 5/6-a-side games) is usually heavily booked through its working hours - from 6am to well past midnight. On weekends the games can go on till 4am. The clientele tend to be mostly in their early to mid-20s, barring youngsters who come for coaching. There are also corporate teams that pay up for a weekly practice session. The round-the-clock facility is tailored for techies who work across trans-continental time zones.
The draw of Powerplay is the quality of the turf. "Once we played on mud grounds. Now we are so pampered we cannot do without turf. They also take care of the lighting," says ex-Amazon employee and football addict Preetham C., a footie player who has encountered a three-week waiting time to get his desired slot at Powerplay.
"Our three football fields cost us Rs 50 lakh to turf and they wear out in less than three years," says Naveen Ravindra, 30. Ravindra, who has an MBA under his belt, had to work hard to persuade his family, which previously had a brick manufacturing business, to turn the property into a sports facility in 2010. The first couple of years were a write-off but the turnaround came after he invested in artificial grass, shin guards and studs. Today, Ravindra finds the demand insatiable. Powerplay sits cheek by jowl with the ITPL, a major software hub, and attracts both individuals and corporate clientele.
But Powerplay is hardly the only one of its kind. Bangalore and its outskirts have other commercial sports facilities such as XLR8, Decathlon and Kicks on Grass (in Bellandur), where sports and fitness enthusiasts queue up to play sport that includes but goes beyond cricket.
Consider XLR8, owned by the Dubai-based Santosh Shetty's Expat Leisure and Resorts, which is leveraging its large land banks in India. Its Bangalore facility is spread over five acres, and has provision for 14 different sports within its huge warehouse-like shell in Hennur. The sports facilities on offer include basketball, net cricket, volley ball, handball or wall climbing and an outdoor swimming pool. One can pay by the hour or sign up for an annual membership. "We have also had fortnightly open football tournaments for students for 142 fortnights continuously, with 18 nationalities participating," says the amiable Taher Ali Khan, a level three national football coach and centre manager. This year, 98 teams participated at its annual Indoor Corporate Olympics.
Khan says while no market research went into the setting up of XLR8, the company was initially keen on doing indoor cricket, drawing on its experience of cricket's "massive appeal" in Dubai. But although Indians are a cricket-crazy nation, there were few takers for the pay-and-play idea. Instead, football turned out to be a serious money spinner. Not just for XLR8 but others like Powerplay, Five Aside and Kicks on Grass too.
Other sports are also finding takers. "That's why XLR8 is opening in several cities - Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram and a second one in Bangalore. The Thiruvananthapuram centre will be a lavish one, spread across 60-odd acres and will include a full-fledged international cricket stadium, eight tennis courts, a golf course and swimming pools. Hyderabad is smaller at 24 acres with two outdoor cricket stadia, three football fields, six indoor courts and eight badminton courts. The Pune XLR8 is housed within a mall, a kilometre from the airport.
The hourly charges can average about Rs 1,200 for a football team or a nets practice which, divided among the team members, works out to Rs 100 per head - eminently affordable for a generation that often spends more than that on a cup of coffee.
In cities where land availability is a constraint, similar facilities exist but as part of a mall or office complex. And the hourly price, says Chaudhary, who plays in Mumbai with his brother, is about 1.5-2 times that of Bangalore's sports facilities.
Decathalon, the French multinational sports goods brand, offers playground and events at its stores "not as a commercial venture but as a facility for our customers," says spokesperson Annie George. Its 16 stores across the country, including five in Bangalore, have an attached playground varying in size from 500 sqm to 1,500 sqm, where one can play football, volleyball and hockey. Some also have a concrete area for skating and badminton while others offer running and cycling trails.
"Our customers are initially taken aback by the availability of a playground. They enjoy the different tournaments or workshops that are organised for them and their children around the year. Many people use our playground but do not necessarily shop at our store," says George.
The availability of sporting arenas, big and small, is also arousing the interest of non-traditional participants. "There are little girls just enjoying the feel of a bat, a racket, a skate, or a bicycle, middle-aged women re-discovering sports, mothers bonding with their children over sports... However, the sad truth is that the ratio of girls/women who practice sports is way lower than boys/ men," George says.
The availability of these sports facilities has had other sports related spin-offs. Preetham C., a regular at Powerplay, and his avid footballer band of 26-year-olds - Deepak L., Karun M.A., Abhiram K.G., Nikhil R. - have launched Footieculture India Private Limited, with the aim of starting a football academy. Three of the five quit their jobs a year ago - one is an industrialist and is entrusted with zeroing in on the land, while the others are fine tuning the company which has started by organising tournaments, entering the merchandising space and doing the spadework for the future soccer school.
"Seventy per cent of my company has a footie exposure through corporate and college tournaments. And I am confident that if people can travel two hours to play at these sports arenas, a training academy will succeed," says Preetham confidently.
Young Indians seem to have graduated from armchair sports experts to those who want to get into the down and dirty of actually playing a sport. And upscale sporting facilities are both tapping into and fuelling that trend.