W Power 2024

How Jinisha Sharma is leading the charge for women's sports through WPL

The director of Capri Sports, which owns four sports franchises including UP Warriorz, wants to build a brand identity that puts women at the front and centre

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Feb 23, 2024 10:50:50 AM IST
Updated: Feb 23, 2024 09:14:11 PM IST

How Jinisha Sharma is leading the charge for women's sports through WPLJinisha Sharma, Director, Capri Sports Location Credits: D Y Patil Stadium, Nerul, Navi Mumbai. Image: Bajirao Pawar for Forbes India

In the last semester of her undergraduate course at England’s University of Exeter, Jinisha Sharma undertook two finance classes that were polar opposites. “One focussed on traditional financial success, emphasising a language often opaque to many, while the other offered a nuanced perspective, examining finance through the lens of gender, class, race politics etc,” says Jinisha. “I found the latter to be deeply enriching.”

Through these classes, Jinisha stumbled upon concepts like impact investing that had, by then, caught on in the West and that factor in a social return besides merely financial etc. In 2018, when she returned to join Capri Global, an NBFC that was built from scratch by her father Rajesh Sharma, she started to fashion Capri’s communication around it. “Capri had a business model that prioritised social impact, particularly lending to small businesses, but the messaging did not reflect this. In my early days, I was trying to realign the communication with the company’s ethos,” says Jinisha.
 
In end-2022, she completed her master’s degree and returned to India and Capri for good. By then, aside from its core as a financial institution, Capri had expanded into buying sports franchises and already had three in its portfolio—Rajasthan Warriors in kho-kho, Bengal Warriors in kabaddi, and Sharjah Warriors in ILT20, the domestic cricket franchise league in the Emirates.

It was around that time that the Women’s Premier League (WPL) was formally announced by the BCCI, and amid buzz on how it would advance women’s cricket by a few light years, the 26-year-old sniffed an opportunity to put into practice her classroom learnings on social impact and gender inclusion. “I had a heart-to-heart with my dad and explained to him why this investment was essential for us,” she says. In February 2023, Capri was announced as one of the five owners of WPL franchises with a winning bid of Rs 757 crore for UP Warriorz (UPW).

While Jinisha, then a principal, ESG & Impact, with Capri Global, spent the first season with the women’s cricket team, it is in its aftermath that she spawned an idea where she could execute both her learnings in business and management as well as in creating impact at the grassroots. In mid-2023, she set up Capri Sports through the family office that brings together its four sports holdings under one umbrella.

“Pooling together four brands under Capri Sports isn't just about chasing profits. It’s about making sports more accessible, especially for young girls in places like Uttar Pradesh and beyond,” says Jinisha, the director of Capri Sports. “Besides, I'm committed to elevating women's sports like kabaddi and kho-kho, opening up more opportunities for female athletes. WPL is just the beginning—it's where we're learning the ropes. Once we get our playbook down to a pat, we’ll take what we’ve learnt and expand our efforts to other sports.”

As a start, UPW recently became the first Indian sports team to have earned the status of UN Women’s ‘Generation Equality’ ally. The outfit has been handpicked by the UN Women India team to join 18 pathbreaking individuals—author and columnist Bindu Dalmia, disability and queer rights advocate Nu Misra, to name a few—to advocate for a gender-equal world, and the partnership will leverage the power of cricket to build awareness on women-centric causes.

Also read: How Brand WPL will be built over the long term
 
On March 8, celebrated as International Women’s Day, UPW is going to take the field against Delhi Capitals in the 15th match of the WPL at the Arun Jaitley Stadium in Delhi, but the two teams will also come together with a joint campaign ‘She Believes We Believe’. “In August, 92,003 fans filled the Memorial Stadium in Nebraska to watch a volleyball game, making it a world record for a women’s sports event. Similarly, can we try and get as many women as possible to come and watch the match in Delhi’s Arun Jaitley Stadium?” asks Jinisha.
 
Through the second season of the WPL, UPW will also function in partnership with Sisters in Sweat (SIS), a platform launched by fitness instructor Shweta Subbaiah and footballer Tanvie Hans for older women, those in their 20s, 30s or older, to play sports. The franchise is sponsoring coach-led sessions and game nights for SIS, enabling them to add cricket to their offering of sports. “A tie-up with a WPL team brings access and opportunity to our women. We also get to watch matches at the stadium, helping increase the viewership among women,” says Subbaiah. For Jinisha, this is a pilot that she plans to turn into a year-long initiative, eventually taking it to colleges in UP and fostering a connect between UPW and kids of its home state. Besides, the March issue of Tinkle, the children’s comics magazine, will carry a centrespread on the women’s cricket team.
 
“At Capri, we're in a fairly advantageous position starting off where we are because we have brands that have been successful before us, from whom we can take some learnings, while also adopting a slightly contrarian approach, bringing in a fresher approach,” says Kshemal Waingankar, COO, Capri Sports, and a former first class cricketer himself.
 
When Capri Global picked up its first franchises under Rajesh, the company’s founder and managing director, it was with an ambition to improve the sports ecosystem, especially that of rural, homegrown sports like kho-kho and kabaddi. Cricket, of course, was a given, due to its visibility. But the social themes of access and inclusivity ran through all the properties in its portfolio. Says Rajesh: “Our inspiration came from the fact that while it may not bring us profit for 10-15 years, we will still keep investing if we are able to achieve our objective of inspiring girls to play. That would bring in returns on efforts, and that’s bigger than returns on equity.” When Jinisha came to him with the idea of consolidating the four franchises under one brand, he gave an immediate go-ahead “because it would help attract talent and create a brand identity”. 

How Jinisha Sharma is leading the charge for women's sports through WPL
 
While Jinisha stays front and centre of Capri Sports, Sharma Sr has succinctly told her what makes a sports company tick: “One, is the players, second is how you build up a fan following, and third is earn enough revenues to reinvest into the team. All these three factors need to be balanced well,” he says.

In her own words, Jinisha isn’t a sports nerd when it comes to parsing on-field dynamics, but is obsessed with building up a team off the field. “What is my brand tonality and language, what does a fan think of when they think of UPW, how can I build a fanbase like Mumbai Indians or Chennai Super Kings, how can I increase our Instagram following from 60,000-odd… these are the thoughts that course through my mind frequently,” she says. While she doesn’t routinely watch weekend PL matches like most fanatics, she’s caught on to how both basketball and football have captivated audiences in India through peripheral cultural levers like music and fashion. “I too want to collaborate with athleisure brands to enhance the appeal and reach of UPW,” she says.

In keeping with the gender-inclusive philosophy of Capri Sports, Jinisha also wants to nudge women-centric brands to come forward for association with UPW. As an immediate milestone, the WPL franchise has tied up with Bollywood actor Katrina Kaif’s Kay Beauty and legacy brand Pond’s for the second season of the tournament, a line-up of brands heftier than season 1. But it’s only a start. “I've seen some fantastic partnerships happen in the West, but those brands that have their footprint in India have not explored it here. And that's something we're really keen on,” she says.
 
But Jinisha also understands that modern brands have an overdose of marketing channels. Why should they tie up with UPW and not find a celebrity influencer, for instance, with a bigger reach? “In the current landscape, it's crucial to customise partnerships with brands according to their goals, instead of solely emphasising our reach,” she says. “A collaborative effort to craft a story is much more impactful than just putting the sport out there for display. That’s a slightly outdated model.”
 
“Which is why I need to have a really strong digital presence, I need to build my players’ personalities up. As someone who's from this generation and understands how things convert, that's the kind of insight that I've been sharing with our team—that we need to dress them a certain way and shoot them a certain way. That converts into reach, which eventually converts into revenue,” she adds.

How Jinisha Sharma is leading the charge for women's sports through WPLThe UP Warriorz team huddle during a practice session ahead of the second season of WPL Image: UP Warriorz
 
Earlier this year, Capri Sports hired Interactive Avenues, the digital marketing agency that has previously worked with IPL teams like Rajasthan Royals, to mould its online personality. While it’s still early days and Interactive Avenues doesn’t want to spill the beans on their strategy yet, Amit Thaker, senior vice president–content, social and technology, says they would build upon and double down on ‘Uttar Dega (we’ll answer)’, the team’s tagline from season 1. “At the game level, this is about a match, but the bigger picture is about the challenges that most of these women have faced to get to where they are. ‘Uttar Dega’ is a response to that.”
 
One of the impact partnerships they have stitched this season on this front is the ‘Trash Talk Clean Up’ campaign that will be kickstarted through a video podcast hosted by entrepreneur and activist Navya Naveli Nanda. The campaign will look to combat the negativity and online trolling that women cricketers have often had to face, especially over their appearances or on questions over whether women’s cricket is a patch on men’s. “We’re looking to subliminally build the brand to respond to the audience of naysayers,” says Thaker.  
 
But over everything else, Jinisha is pinning her hopes on an upcoming documentary on women’s cricket to take UPW’s brand to the global level. The series is produced by Dubai and Los Angeles-based ART&M and is being directed by award-winning director Arlene Nelson. Nelson is also the director of Angel City, a documentary on American women’s soccer club Angel City FC, owned by Hollywood actor Natalie Portman and a star cast that includes the likes of tennis legends Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, football icons Mia Hamm and Shannon McMillan and stars like James Corden and Christina Aguilera. “Portman’s model of community-led sports ownership is fantastic, forward thinking,” says Jinisha.
 
As part of the documentary, shoot crews have fanned out across the globe, entering the homes of players like Alyssa Healy in Australia, Sophie Ecclestone in England as well as Saima Thakor in India, among others. The second part will take place during the WPL as the camera will trail the players through practice sessions, matches, dressing rooms and off days.
 
“While I don’t have the privilege of divulging how we want to build the story, one thing I can tell you: All of these cricketers wanted to tell their story,” says Arnab Chakraborty, producer and co-founder of ART&M. “I have worked with athletes before and one thing about them is that nobody wants to be in front of the camera. But over here, in this journey, everybody gave us their time. I think in this series we will come across the sheer honesty with which these girls pursue their sport.”

Also read: Women's Premier League: Top five players to watch out for

 
For Jinisha, owning sports franchises isn’t merely about balancing the P&L, but turning its players into icons. “I want to see my players become inspirations on the screen. Everyone needs to know the story of Deepti Sharma as much as they need to know the story of Deepika Padukone,” she says.  
 
And with that, Jinisha hopes, she can help widen the pool in cricket, and extend the learnings to other sports. For instance, what’s worrying her now is what next for kabaddi. “I have huge respect for kabaddi players for their agility, strength and commitment to keeping themselves fit,” says the owner of the Bengal Warriors in the Pro Kabaddi League. It’s a new acquisition that Capri bought from the Future Group in October 2022, and the outfit is self-sustaining in terms of finances, but Jinisha wonders where to get the next crop of talent from. “How do we build the next generation of kabaddi players?” she asks. “Like Alyssa [Healy] can pass on her knowledge to the likes of Vrinda [Dinesh] in cricket, we need the likes of Maninder [Singh, captain of Bengal Warriors] to pass on his wisdom to young aspirants.”  
 
Jinisha’s ability to look at the big picture and make her franchises future-ready has wowed many, including Chakraborty of ART&M. “She is among the best minds we’ve met. One of the reasons we picked UPW for the documentary is her. We resonate and relate to her goal of putting women front and centre of content. And every individual in that team, from captain Healy to staff members in the operations department, is aligned to the goal,” he says.  

“It's refreshing to have different ideas and outlook on where sports should be heading, especially the women’s game,” says Waingankar, the COO of Capri Sports, of Jinisha. “Team owners don't necessarily need to be as hands-on with the team. Jinisha does a wonderful job of mixing enthusiasm with a nice and centred approach where the professionals are encouraged to drive their respective verticals and have the space to make decisions.”

As a long-term goal, Jinisha wants to dive deep into grassroots sports and develop the talent pool within those. And that women would be woven into each of those conversations is a no-brainer for her. “Look at the numbers that Taylor Swift and the movie Barbie have recorded only in the past year. And then to say women can’t be viable brands is absurd. It shouldn’t even be a conversation, it’s a given.”

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