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The battle to become India’s second most popular sport

While my friends are talking about the Ravens’ preseason or RGIII’s readiness as the Redskins’ quarterback, my attention has been on the western sports jockeying to be India’s second most popular sport.

While most folks I know acquaint India with smart doctors and nerdy IT experts, sports are an important part of Indian entertainment, culture and tradition.

Cricket is India’s most popular sport. The Board of Control for Cricket in India is the global leader in profits in the world of cricket, with a net worth in March 2012 of nearly $300 million.

Pepsi paid nearly $72 million for a five-year sponsorship deal in India’s Premier League Twenty20 Cricket tournament. Nike has committed $60 million to sponsor India’s team in the Cricket World Cup. Nimbus has paid $613 million for four years of global media rights for international cricket of Indian teams.

Although the Indian economy has slowed down and advertising revenues have fallen, many western sports brands are fighting to get in front of India’s very large growing middle class and their expanding disposable incomes. For example, the NBA (and WNBA) sent more than 20 players to visit India, opened up an NBA India Facebook page and partnered with Sony Six to launch “NBA Jam,” a music festival that includes 3-on-3 basketball games. The winning team of the NBA Jam matches gets a chance to play against three NBA legends.

World Wrestling Entertainment opened an office in India in 2011. Its programming is shown on more than 75 million television households in India. WWE has promoted The Great Khali, an Indian police officer turned professional wrestler, to attract Indian audiences. But its non-Indian wrestlers are also popular. Kane (aka Glenn Thomas Jacobs) has visited India many times, most recently in the fall of 2012. The “sports entertainment” has a lot of potential in India because unlike other major sports, there are no rules to understand. WWE is about good versus evil, which doesn’t require translation.

Formula 1 has been courting Indian audiences for some time. The inaugural Indian Grand Prix in 2011 was attended by 95,000 fans. However, Formula 1 has run into some issues with the Indian government over taxes and policies, which caused it to drop plans for a 2014 India Grand Prix. One major tax issue is whether Formula 1 racing is sport or entertainment, something the promoters of Formula 1 in India are addressing with the government.

Small businesses in the sports industry should take note of the potential opportunities. While the middle class is still growing and sports revenues aren’t as high as popular sports abroad, India has a population of 1.3 billion people. Scoring a second place finish in the race for the heart of Indian sports enthusiasts is still a big prize!

But the course is full of pitfalls to be mindful of including slow government bureaucracies and unique cultural preferences. My coaching advice for small businesses thinking to enter the Indian market is to “start now, but start small.”