Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

The Indian tourist wants immersive sports experiences. India needs to catch up to demand

You need to travel overseas to tick off certain items off your bucket list because India—where cricket is considered a religion—has no paid tours of stadiums, museums that ride on nostalgia and glory, or libraries where common citizens can educate themselves about the lives of great sportspersons and the importance of a sporting nation

Kunal Purandare
Published: Jun 13, 2024 12:51:12 PM IST
Updated: Jun 13, 2024 03:20:46 PM IST

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford Bridge(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford Bridge

For devout Chelsea follower Prathamesh Mulye, the excitement of having visited Stamford Bridge, the English football club’s home ground, lingered on for hours after he had stepped on the turf. On a family holiday to London and Scotland with wife Shruti Venkatesh and his in-laws in May, the working professional from Mumbai was adamant on booking a guided stadium tour at his ‘sacred’ place. And he’s glad he did.

“It’s a dream come true. It was surreal to be on the same turf as some of the greats of the beautiful game. It cannot be described in words. The Chelsea fan in me came alive as I sat in the stands, took photos in the dugout, marvelled at the trophies, and heard the impressive trajectory of the club from a knowledgeable guide who had us hooked every minute,” he says. Chelsea had famously won the 2012 UEFA Champions League final against Bayern Munich with a 4-3 penalty shootout after scores were level at 1-1. The highlight of his visit, says Mulye, was an opportunity to attempt penalties—at the exact four spots where Chelsea scored—in a specially designed arena that rekindles memories of the incredible victory.  

Shruti tells Forbes India that such immersive experiences leave an indelible impression on passionate sports lovers. Though she does not claim to be one, she felt overwhelmed when she walked through the tunnel—with the same music playing in the background as when the players take that route—on the ground. “The vibe is something else. It’s a special feeling… to be able to touch the grass, to be so close to the action—a friendly match was in progress while we were there—to imagine what the players go through when the manager is frantically issuing instructions from the sidelines, to satiate your curiosity about the dressing rooms and actually sit where legends celebrate their sporting triumphs or introspect on their losses. It was magical to just soak in the atmosphere,” she says. And then to browse through the souvenirs and buy some for your collection are things that stay with you for a lifetime, she adds.

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford Bridge(Clockwise from left)The Chelsea dressing room (above) in London, England A Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford in April; Beanstalk Experiences’ founder Karn Rateria has done meet-and-greet sessions with football greats at Hotel Football in Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United Image: Chelsea dressing room: Darren Walsh /Chelsea FC VIA Getty Images

A few days before his Stamford Bridge sojourn, Mulye had been to Lord’s, known as the home of cricket, with his father-in-law and enjoyed views of the stadium from different stands, the media centre and the iconic balcony. He was astounded by some of the trivia about the venue, taken in by old photographs that depicted the history of the game and the legacy of Lord’s, and impressed with the aura of the hallowed Long Room from where cricketers make their way to the ground. I would do these tours again and again, he insists.    

One, however, needs to travel overseas to tick off such items from their bucket list. Because India—where cricket is considered a religion—has no paid tours of stadiums, museums that ride on nostalgia and glory, or libraries where common citizens can educate themselves about the lives of great sportspersons and the importance of a sporting nation. The country has, unfortunately, consciously or unconsciously, destroyed or damaged things that ought to be celebrated and preserved. For instance, pitches at Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai and Ferozeshah Kotla ground in New Delhi were targeted in the 1990s to make political statements. And in a violent attack on the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) office at the Cricket Club of India (CCI) in Mumbai in 1999 to protest against a scheduled bilateral series with Pakistan, several trophies, including the coveted 1983 World Cup-winning one, were left with dents or broken beyond repair. 

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford BridgeThe ardent sports fan in India is left with nothing but hollow promises, a mad scramble for tickets—even now, in a tech-driven world—that could result in being baton-charged by the police at collection centres and sorry facilities (dirty washrooms, broken seats, lack of drinking water, leaky roofs) in some of the most celebrated stadiums as well. And this, at a time when the average citizen is willing to shell out more and more not just for a ticket, but also for once-in-a-lifetime quality stuff that goes beyond the matches.   

The demand for luxury sports tourism has grown exponentially… it’s not a single-percent-digit growth, it’s much more. A lot of it has to do with the fact that people want to have more experiences on their travels,” says Karn Rateria, founder of Beanstalk Experiences. Founded in 2018, the company is into organising experiential travel—around Oktoberfest, Northern Lights, and other such events—but a majority of its work is in sports, especially football.  

Rateria explains that Beanstalk helps people get match tickets to watch their favourite teams play. But, he adds, the demands vary, from clients wanting a ticket anywhere in the stadium to some insisting on pitch-side access, premium hospitality, lounge seating from where former players watch the game, interactive sessions with sporting heroes, and so on. At Hotel Football in Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, it has done meet-and-greet sessions with the likes of former English footballers Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, among others, for the bigger games.

The match tickets cost around ₹15,000, but premium experiences can go up to ₹4-5 lakh, excluding flights and hotels. So, the amount one spends can touch ₹10-12 lakh, he says.

Beanstalk has a tie-up with the Manchester United Supporters Club Mumbai, and it does a 20-member tour annually. This year, for ₹33,500 per person (excluding flights and visa), the three-day itinerary included a ticket to the Manchester United versus Liverpool game, a stadium tour before the match, and outings in local pubs buzzing with fans before and after.

A Chelsea fan, Monish Shah would make desperate phone calls for match tickets on his frequent trips to London in the first half of the last decade. Though he would eventually get them at exorbitant rates, he decided there must be an Indian company that provides access to people for sporting events. A meeting with the Dream11 founders resulted in him pitching his idea, and thus was born DreamSetGo in October 2019.

Shah, the founder and CEO, reveals that the company has tie-ups with Manchester City Football Club, Manchester United, Formula 1, Wimbledon and the International Cricket Council (ICC). “We are seeing a huge demand for luxury tourism. We’ve catered to more than 15,000 sports travellers in 2023 and over 25,000 since inception,” he says. 

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford Bridge

The company caters to a diverse set of people—corporates, high net-worth individuals and passionate sports lovers. The packages can range from anywhere between ₹2.5 lakh and north of ₹10 lakh, depending on the customisation and clients.

As part of its four-day closing ceremony tour for the upcoming Olympics in Paris, the company has promised an exclusive meet-and-greet with gold medallist javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. And given the demand for the cricket World Cup in the US and West Indies in June, DreamSetGo is doing an event with former India captain Sourav Ganguly on the eve of the India-Pakistan match. “We are seeing a huge shift in the Indian youth wanting to spend on experiences as opposed to ownership, especially after the pandemic. More and more individuals want to build memories. And these sporting events are at the forefront of that need,” says Shah, adding that the fascination is now going beyond cricket—to golf, rugby, racing.

Cricket, though, remains a crowd-puller at all times. In Australia, the company did two yacht experiences, one each with former Australian cricketers Brett Lee and Michael Clarke. The speedster gave interviews and sang songs for a larger crowd, while the former Australian captain’s session was a niche event comprising 20 people. He had got his own yacht and the clients got to converse and dine with him on the deck against the setting of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. 
 (Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford BridgeIndia won the cricket World Cup in 2011 after beating Sri Lanka in the final at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. The ground has no paid tours that showcase India’s rich sporting legacy Image: Jan Kruger-ICC/ICC VIA Getty Images

India has thus far failed to cash in on opportunities to showcase its rich sporting culture and heritage. Having visited the Bradman Museum in Australia and the one at Lord’s, Rohan Pate felt hurt that India does not have a museum dedicated to cricket, a sport that’s played in every nook and corner in the country, by the young and old.

Also read: Global luxe brands rush to cater to the VIP Indian tourist
 
He started Blades of Glory in Pune in 2012 that is now the world’s largest cricket museum, according to the Miami-based World Record Academy. The 5,000-sq ft facility has more than 75,000 collectibles—bats, balls, pads, gloves, helmets, signed jerseys, books—and has seen over 25 lakh visitors to date, claims Pate, whose family runs a real estate company, Amit Enterprises Housing Limited. “Preserving the game’s history is important,” he says, adding that he’s in touch with three state associations, including one involved in the Indian Premier League (IPL), to open a museum at their stadiums.

He feels one major reason why India has not been able to build museums or design experiential tours is that there’s a new person at the helm of state associations every few years. Besides, unlike him, it’s not one person who’s taking those decisions. And it’s a lengthy process to get all approvals. “A lot of non-cricketing people are involved in these bodies. Many are invested in other businesses of their own. You need someone with passion and full-time commitment to turn this into reality. Someone has to take responsibility,” says Pate. 

Also, one requires investments to sustain something like this and make it successful. And nobody wants to spend from their pockets, he adds. Corporates can pump in money, but they don’t have the articles to set up a museum. “They have to come to me,” he says.

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford BridgeMonish Shah (front row, third from left), founder and CEO of DreamSetGo, organises exclusive yacht experiences. Here he’s seen at one with cricketer Michael Clarke in Australia

One such businessman who took an initiative in this regard was Harshavardhan Neotia, chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group. His friend, author and sports historian Boria Majumdar, had a collection of memorabilia—old match tickets, bats, photos, medals—and they thought it would be nice if people got a chance to see them. So, they set up the Fanattic Sports Museum in Kolkata with an initial plan for three years. “But Covid came before that period ended… initially there was enthusiasm, but we didn’t have the kind of footfalls we expected. So, after Covid, we decided to discontinue with the multi-sports museum,” says Neotia.  

While looking back at possible reasons as to why it didn’t work out, the industrialist says it was a standalone place with a small cafeteria. Had it been inside a mall or a stadium, it could have got more attraction. But Neotia points out to the high cost of rentals in malls and says recovery is difficult because one can’t charge beyond a point for entry to such places. “Ours was a 7,000-8,000 sq ft place. There was a mounting cost and just ₹25 for entry. And although there was no intent to earn a profit, you’d hope to recover the maintenance cost at least,” he tells Forbes India.  

Neotia had taken the guided tour at Lord’s many years ago and describes it as an iconic place. “It’s a pilgrimage… anyone who is fond of cricket will have similar feelings if he goes to Wankhede or Eden Gardens in Kolkata.” He feels museums or stadium tours have a better possibility to succeed if they are mounted on the context of building on the nostalgia of the great events that have happened there.

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford BridgeRohan Pate (left) single-handedly built Blades of Glory, the world’s largest cricket museum, in Pune; Harshavardhan Neotia (right), chairman of Ambuja Neotia Group, and sports historian Boria Majumdar set up Fanattic Sports Museum in Kolkata, but shut it down because of low footfalls Image: From left: Mexy Xavier; Madhu Kapparath

In September 2020, Maharashtra’s then tourism minister Aaditya Thackeray had written on Twitter (now X) that the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) had agreed to a proposal to open the Wankhede for a “stadium experience tour for tourists and fans from around the world”. And having a “museum on Indian cricket emanating from Mumbai”. Neither of these two have materialised as of today (Thackeray’s party, in fact, is no longer in power in the state). 

A Press Information Bureau release in 2017 said the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports will establish a National Sports Museum at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. Seven years on, no such facility exists.

(Left) Chelsea fans Prathamesh Mulye and Shruti Venkatesh on a guided stadium tour at Stamford BridgeBeanstalk’s Rateria says unlike the West, there is no team ownership model that runs throughout the season in India. “Manchester United, for instance, has access to Old Trafford and controls it for 12 months, therefore, it can create its own assets around it. Mumbai Indians can’t necessarily do that at the Wankhede… after the IPL, the ground goes back to the MCA and different bodies control what happens at the stadium,” he says.

The company, he goes on, gets queries for premium IPL tickets and so on, but it’s still a long way away from the West. The IPL is more than 15 years old, but some football clubs have been around for 100-plus years, he adds. “But the sector is definitely growing and it’s going to mature a lot more. It will get a lot more organised as well,” says Rateria.

Shah of DreamSetGo can see the momentum picking up and is bullish about the increasing demand from Tier II cities. For instance, of the 20,000-odd Indians who travelled to the T20 World Cup in Australia, almost 15 to 20 percent opted for experiential travel packages from DreamSetGo, he claims. He feels as marquee events such as the cricket World Cup and Olympics take place in India in the next few years, there will be greater experiences to savour. “We believe this is a decade of sports tourism in India,” says Shah, who was previously with Deutsche Bank and had co-founded a travel startup TraveLibro.

As a journalist, Shruti was intrigued by the charm of the CCI—the Brabourne Stadium hosted its first Test match in 1948—and photographs of events like India’s 2011 World Cup win at the Wankhede whenever she visited those places for media events. She still wonders why such priceless treasures are not open to the public despite the BCCI being a cash-rich governing body. Amid the glitz and glamour of the IPL and mega auctions of players, perhaps it’s time to get off the mark and invest in giving fans what they deserve and crave—an unforgettable stadium experience, on match and non-match days, and memories related to their beloved sport and sportspersons that will be hard to erase.

(This story appears in the 14 June, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)