Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Sportspersons are now staying ahead of the game with MBAs

Professional sportspeople are taking the business management route to pick up skills beyond the field, participate in the larger sports ecosystem and prepare for life beyond their careers

Divya J Shekhar
Published: May 31, 2019 08:06:43 AM IST
Updated: Jun 12, 2019 04:46:04 PM IST

Sportspersons are now staying ahead of the game with MBAs
Illustration: Chaitanya Dinesh Surpur

Mehak Sharma is confident that playing competitive golf has made her a better MBA student. The 23-year-old, who is part of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIM-A) batch that graduates in 2020, believes that playing golf since the age of 10, competing in tournaments since she was 14, winning the Captain’s Cup at Delhi’s Army Golf Course in 2012, being ranked 8th by the Indian Golf Union (IGU) in the Southern Indian Junior and Ladies Championship in 2015, and turning professional in 2016 have taught her discipline, time management and leadership skills. This, she asserts, will help her chart new beginnings in business management.

Sharma decided to do an MBA after she missed being in the national squad by a whisker, twice. The top 10 golfers represent India, while she stopped short at rank 11 in 2015, up from 14 the year before. “I could not make it despite practicing for more than 8 hours a day. Moreover, the money earned in the professional circuits was barely enough to cover tournament expenses like travel and training,” she says. “During this demotivating and disheartening time, I realised that continuing with a ‘non-mainstream’ sport like golf will require heavy monetary investment and sponsorship, which is difficult to come by, especially if you are a woman.”

Understanding that not every athlete finds her moment in the sun, Sharma decided to train her guns on the next best option—the business of sports. Through an MBA degree, she hopes to leverage entrepreneurship opportunities that the emerging sports ecosystem in India is creating.

“When I started playing a decade ago, there were hardly six girls like me, and our circuit was integrated with the men’s circuit. Today, there are 60 girls in the playing field, coming from a larger field of 200. Multiple ancillary industries, like sports managers, psychologists and physiotherapists, are emerging to support each player, and opportunities will only expand as more athletes come into the field,” explains Sharma, who wants to launch a venture that integrates sports disciplines with private corporations.

Sharma is not the only sportsperson turning to management education. Her batchmates include Meet Agrawal, a national-level roller-skater who captained the Gujarat state table tennis team; and Nitin Pai, an international chess player who has represented India at the Commonwealth Chess Championship, apart from winning various national-level chess competitions. All three are pursuing MBAs for a financially secure future, and would like to use their management education in a way that will keep their passion for sports alive.

As Pai explains: “Ultimately, a successful chess player can make money out of his sport only by coaching or starting a chess academy. A coach will easily earn between ₹80,000 and ₹1 lakh per month,” he says. “On the other hand, even among the top 10 chess players in the country, hardly five or six—like Viswanathan Anand, Pentala Harikrishna and Vidit Santosh Gujrathi—make money exclusively by only playing chess. Most others also end up relying on the government job they get through the sports quota.” Pai, 23, is now gearing up to participate in the World Amateur Chess Championship and launch a chess academy after he graduates from IIM-A.

The average retirement age for athletes globally is their mid-30s, which means that, even after they finish playing, they will have reached only a third of the working life of someone following a conventional career path. Injuries could cut careers even shorter.

With this reality in mind—along with those of increasing competition and the lack of a robust infrastructure in India for most games that are not cricket—sportspeople are looking at parallel careers or education options that will either fortify their game, or help them look for opportunities beyond it.

Sink or Swim
“Athletes live two lives. One, when they are playing sports, second whenever they retire from sports. If they have good education during their playing career, it gives them a Plan B in life,” says retired professional shooter Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist, who has a business administration degree from the University of Colorado in the US and runs businesses in sports science and fitness.

Cricket, he believes, is an exception where players not in the top 10 also have successful careers. Those in Olympic games, however, will be financially secure only if they win. “This [trend] has to change, but it’s not easy. Only if athletes skill up will their [post-retirement] employment opportunities grow,” says Bindra.

Anshul Kothari has a similar viewpoint. Between representing India at the Commonwealth Games (2010) and Asian Games (2010, 2014, 2018), the competitive swimmer enrolled at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in 2017 for an MBA in marketing and strategy, with a specialisation in public policy. Today, while training for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 qualifiers, the 29-year-old is also gearing up for a corporate life. “Joining a B-school was part of a long-term plan to secure life after sports. In the future, I would like to work in the administrative side of sport, to streamline procedures so that athletes could navigate the system more easily,” he says.

Chess player Akshat Khamparia, who holds an International Master title, also swears by his business management degree from the iLead School of Business in Indore. According to him, the absence of sports clubs and career guidance mechanisms, a popular concept in the West, makes it even more essential for Indian sportspeople to figure out ways to make their talent lucrative. “Even if we land a government job though the sports quota, like I have with the Western Railways, it is important to keep upgrading one’s skills in the best way possible so that we could have maximum career growth,” says Khamparia, who is 100 points away from being Grandmaster.

The corporatisation of the industry is making way for new careers like sports analytics and management, says education abroad expert Prashant Tibrewal, who believes that though sportspersons pursuing business administration might just be one in a 100 right now, the trend is only expected to  grow.

“Whether they pursue a general MBA or a sports management specialisation, this category of aspirants tend to pick their universities a bit differently, focussing also on the sports infrastructure and exposure the institute provides,” explains Tibrewal, who is the founder of ISBmantra and Admit Square Consulting. “For example, popular options include an MBA from the University of Michigan, which has the largest football stadium in the US and the second largest in the world; the masters in sports management at the Columbia University that has a strong focus on analytics; or the International Centre for Sports Studies in Switzerland.”

Game for more
Australian pacer Michael Kasprowicz, who completed an MBA from the University of Queensland Business School after retirement, is the founding partner of advisory firm Venture India that promotes business relations for Australian companies in India. He recommends that despite the demanding nature of professional sports, athletes must challenge themselves to pursue alternative careers. “With the explosion of professional sporting leagues, the ‘business of sport’ has become a stand-alone industry… the practical experience of an athlete is an invaluable asset that is currently an under-utilised resource,” he tells Forbes India over email.

Some sportspersons are also using an MBA degree to give back to a sport that they spent many years mastering. Adil Sethi was part of the Uttar Pradesh Under-25 and Odisha Under-25 Ranji Trophy camps and turned to a career in sports management instead of breaking into the national circuit. He believes that an MBA is a way to improve the sports ecosystem using his core competencies, rather than passively criticising bureaucratic hurdles.

“As a cricketer and sports administrator, I witnessed a major imbalance in gender equality within sports in India. Seeing this inherent need for change strengthened my resolve to work towards enhancing all-round capacities for, and prospects of, women athletes,” says Sethi, whose research project at the Rotman School of Management in Canada (class of 2019) was titled ‘Assessing Corporate Sponsorship in Women Sports to Reduce Gender Bias’.

Kunal Sajdeh’s career is also following a similar trajectory. A footballer whose current job profile at sports management firm IMG Reliance involves analysing the commercial feasibility and strategy behind bringing new sports leagues into the country, Sajdeh is headed to the University of Toronto in Canada to pursue an MBA in finance later this year.

He wants to work with one of the big four football leagues in New York. “The intent behind this move is to understand how the sports ecosystem works in some of the most mature markets of the world, and come back to implement my knowledge and networks to help India [an emerging football market] get there,” Sajdeh says.

A 2018 survey conducted by the UK’s Professional Players’ Federation (PPF), covering about 800 former athletes from the country’s Rugby Players’ Association, the Professional Cricketers’ Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association, revealed that more than half of former professional sportspeople reported a “loss of identity” after retirement, and the struggle to find a new purpose often led to issues like depression, self-harm, addiction and financial problems.

Viren Rasquinha, former captain of the Indian hockey team who quit international hockey at the peak of his career in 2008 to pursue an MBA from ISB, says that in India too, many sportspeople lack self-belief and cannot cope with a formal work environment once they stop playing or are forced to look for other livelihood options. This, he says, ultimately affects their self-respect and dignity. According to Rasquinha, corporates value employees who are disciplined, who can deal with failure and who are team-players, qualities that are inherent in sportspersons.

“Just like we keep abreast with the latest training methods and technology in the game, it is important for athletes to upgrade their skills outside of sports,” he says. “That said, there is also an absence of a formal counselling or guidance platform that provides the right mentorship, guidance and education to athletes on life beyond sports. This gap has to be addressed.”

Kasprowicz finds the trend encouraging and believes that when it comes to an MBA or unconventional parallel career choices, athletes should take “each ball as it comes”. He says, “This [trend] says to me that people are recognising the opportunities available in sport today and is an excellent example of athletes taking ownership of their journey.”

(This story appears in the 07 June, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)