The big prize for Nepal from the recently concluded South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship has been the victory of potential commercial opportunities for sports. It proved that in a bustling metropolis of four million people, with 70 percent under 30 years, it is not difficult to fill a stadium with 20,000 people as long as you deliver quality events. People queued up to pay for tickets and as in many other businesses, the business of ‘rent-seeking’ and selling tickets at a premium in gray markets became an overnight business. The All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) went laughing to the bank and money for a few more junkets was surely collected. Not sure how much of an online sale of tickets or partnering with telecom companies to pay through recharge cards would be acceptable but as in Nepal, we are always not sure about things that will bring about transparency.
There is a lot to learn as to what can and can’t be done in the future. The idea of not allowing spectators to carry in water is not certain to prevent people from throwing bottles at the players, nor will it help them avoid using the toilet. Water can be sold in pre-packaged glasses, as can be many other edibles. The opportunity for merchandising and sale is another big one. Talk to sports entrepreneur Biplav Gautam and he will give you a laundry list of things that are possible in Nepal.
A bustling metropolis needs entertainment and sports have been a big form of entertainment globally. The English Premier League (EPL) in football and the Indian Premier League (IPL) in cricket have changed the definition of sports commercialisation by converting football and cricket into a multi-billion industry. They both have created unprecedented fan followings that are further bolstered by social media. In Nepal, both the EPL and IPL have a big following, creating a foundation and familiarity for more local and regional events.
The diaspora will be more than happy to pay for pay-per-view channels globally as sports provide the best bond for nationalism and national identity. While I was listening to the deafening voices of the crowd when Nepal scored against India on Ujyalo Online at an airport lounge in Kigali, I started wondering how much I would have been willing to pay to watch it on the internet. I also started to ponder upon the number of Nepalis living abroad who would be more than happy to pay $10 for each game. Even if there are 10,000 Nepalis who are traveling or living abroad willing to watch the game online or through television channels, the collection of $100,000 would have been more than the gate money collected. The auctioning of broadcast rights to global companies that can tie up with local broadcasting companies can deliver world-class coverage.
While there are already leagues being played, a more professionally managed football league is a no-brainer. We already have Nepali players being tested by different clubs in Southeast Asia and even Europe, so we can generate more players for the global markets. Twenty years ago, no one had thought that by being a singer, painter or writer in Nepal, one could not only actually earn a living but even employ people. We are now talking not just about players being able to sustain themselves but also creating jobs around them for trainers, managers, agents and publicists. Corporations are already funding teams, so now we can also have investors investing in teams.
The other big investment opportunity exists in building sports infrastructure, a stadium or a sports complex. We don’t need to wait for a grant from some ‘friendly nation’, public-private partnerships can be created on government land and global private operators can team up with local firms to build and operate world class infrastructure. This need not only be in the Kathmandu Valley but can built in different parts of the country where urbanisation is rapidly taking place with very few entertainment avenues. For instance, rather than leaving the Mahendranagar airport for full encroachment, a stadium can be built on the airport. It does not have any commercial utility and the original purpose of it to function as a hub to facilitate royal hunting is irrelevant. Already in West Nepal, there are popular cricket tournaments attended by teams and spectators across the border. We are talking about a catchment area with over 50 million people within two hours driving distance from Mahendranagar.
It is not only football or cricket; we need to wear different lenses to view the opportunity of leveraging sports to boost tourism, commerce and the economy. The age-old tradition of different factions fighting to take on leadership positions of a sports organisation, where you are supposedly volunteering, needs to change. When different groups broke the monopoly of the politics infected Pragya Pratisthan to produce good Nepali drama, literature, arts and music, the benefit was multifold. Similarly, many other infighting monopolies in the form of different associations have become history. Now is the time to really examine who will lead the future of sports in Nepal.