Where to play, how to play and whom to play with are the three parts of an interesting sports puzzle that Suhail Narain has been trying to fix since 2016. Narain started sports tech and management firm Hudle four years ago, to bridge the gap between players and sports venue owners, using technology to professionalise the ecosystem. The business model, too, was plain: Hudle enables players to book sports venues, events and fitness sessions on its B2C platform, while helping sports facility owners streamline operations with its B2B software. “The idea is to use technology to make sports activities accessible to the masses,” says Narain, who recently roped in Indian cricketer Ajinkya Rahane as brand ambassador and advisor. “He has bought equity in Hudle,” Narain says, adding that the venture also has backing of former Kolkata Knight Riders team director Joy Bhattacharya. The pandemic, he underlines, has made people aware of the need to stay fit. “Everybody talked about staying fit. Now they are walking the talk,” he says, adding that Hudle is present across Delhi-NCR, Maharashtra and Kerala by partnering with over 350 sports venues. Edited excerpts from an interview: Q. What was the idea behind roping in Ajinkya Rahane? While there has been a lot happening on the professional sports front, and companies and individuals have been working hard to ensure that India gets more medals in the Olympics and other sporting events, there was a huge gap on another front: Making sports fun. When we started Hudle in 2016, we wanted to involve people for fun, for the benefit of fitness. This year, when we were talking to Ajinkya Rahane, we realised that our vision was aligned with his. He has plans and value to add after his cricketing innings. That’s how the conversation started, and that’s how we brought him on board. Q. Is he a brand ambassador or a strategic partner? He is both. Getting someone like him is not because of his popularity alone. It’s largely because our vision matches. He has an equity stake in Hudle. Q. How does your business model work? The idea is to make sporting activity accessible to everyone. We have built a software that provides venues and sports facilities across the states we are operational in. On the supply side, it can be used to manage daily operations of these venues. On the demand side, it lets users know their availability. For instance, if somebody is looking for a football ground in Delhi, they can log in, find a ground nearby, check available slots, book the inventory and go to play. Hudle helps in digitising the operations. Q. How have you scaled over the last four years? We have a strong community of over 50,000 players across Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Kerala. From the supply side, we have 350 venues on our platform. Q. What were the initial challenges when you started? The biggest challenge was to modernise and digitise this space. We went to sports facilities run by farmers who had converted their farms into cricket grounds. Explaining to them the need to digitise was tough. Making them aware of the benefit of technology was challenging. People in the sports business—the ones running venues—have been doing business in an orthodox manner for decades. To convert them into tech evangelists was not easy. Q. With the country opening up after the lockdown, how has business been? We were back to pre-Covid levels in August. In fact, in September, we had a jump of over 25 percent. While people are finally realising the importance of staying fit, there has been a ready acceptance among sports owners—such as those involved in rock climbing and horse riding activities—about the need to digitise operations. Q. Would you stay confined to the three states or are there more on the cards? There’s already so much to do in the states we are present in. We don’t want to lose focus by spreading ourselves thin and wide. This year, for sure, we will stay where we are.
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