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Sport in India: The Pursuit of Good Governance

22 Jun 2017

Written by Dr Geoff Schoenberg

The sport ecosystem in India is experiencing growth. The explosive success of the Pro Kabaddi League, the sustained dominance of the Indian Premier League, and the burgeoning Indian Super League are examples of the market for professional sport in India. These high-profile successes are complemented by early-stage professional leagues in tennis, wrestling, badminton, and others. In addition to the interest in professional sport, cultural shifts have drawn further attention to amateur and youth sport. Several organisations are working in schools to provide robust sport development programs. Additionally, the opportunities for careers in sport—such as sport marketing, sport law, sport management—is becoming a reality. Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi has frequently championed the benefits of sport.

Yet, despite the growth in sport, there remains a multitude of barriers hindering the potential for India to regularly challenge for Olympic medals and grow sport at a grassroots and amateur level. I recently spent a week and a half in India talking with different members of the sports ecosystem regarding the challenges the Indian sport system faces. These meetings include national and state federations, media companies, private and nonprofit companies working within sport, sport lawyers, and industry bodies. While each of these conversations were different, there were some broad themes that highlight some of the issues facing sport in India.

There is a lack of perceived legitimacy in the governance system of national and sport federations. As examples, members of the sport ecosystem question the motivations of committee members, validity of elections, and even the purpose of the federation. Interested parties believe there is limited interest in the well-being of the athlete’s given the lack of athlete representation in decision-making positions. Even in ‘successful’ sports, there was a perception by those I spoke with that the athletes and the sport are succeeding in spite of the national and state federation rather than because of them.

Furthermore, the national and state federations struggle to find a balance between governing the organisation and managing the organisation. Governance is about providing strategic direction and oversight, not handling day-to-day operations. Yet, in many of the federations, the elected officers find themselves in the position of having to fill both the governing and managing roles. This duality occurs for many different reasons including a lack of staff to fulfil management responsibilities, a lack of willingness to delegate tasks at the risk of losing power, and a lack of knowledge of the differences between governance and management. As an example, a common theme among the discussions with the national federations was the role of the elected officials in selecting the national team. While selecting the national team is, undoubtedly, an important task for a national federation, this is a managerial task. Rather, elected officials should serve their sport by identifying broader strategic goals such as commercialisation of the sport, growing participation at all levels, and creating a development pathway.

Sport in India is certainly growing and will continue to do so. There was near universal agreement that the sport sector has made significant progress in the last five years and significant change is still needed to maximise the potential for sport India. The pathways to change are certainly not clear as there are many different influencing factors in the change process. Pressure to change is coming from the national government, international sport bodies, private companies looking to use their Corporate Social Responsibility funding, athletes, and other internal and external stakeholders. There are some important complicating factors that influence potential for change. Firstly, Sport in India is a state subject which means the national government has limited authority in sport according to the constitution. Secondly, the Olympic movement, as well as other international bodies, often have requirements for autonomy from government influence which, again, makes it difficult to legislate change. Finally, within many of the sport bodies are entrenched traditions and structures that make change difficult. Thus, in order to make change within national federations, some individuals or state federations may be forced to give up positions of power—something that rarely occurs. Yet, despite these challenges, there is a level of optimism surrounding Indian sport. The fact that serious conversations about sport governance are occurring is a great step. Some sport organisations in India are already directing their own reform processes to align with global contemporary sport governance practices. Soon enough, those who have not undertaken their own reform will surely be forced into the process due to the build-up of pressures from government, private, and international bodies. As the old axiom goes—for sport organisations in India—change or be changed. 

Dr Geoff Schoenberg is an Australia India Institute, New Generation Network Scholar based at Deakin University. His current research project is titled 'Transforming sport in India: A legitimacy approach to understanding and improving governance'

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