JSW Sports is the sports arm of the JSW Group, a $13 billion conglomerate with a presence across India, the USA, South America, Europe and Africa. Established in 2012, JSW Sports plays a leading role in creating a sporting culture in India by maximising the potential of Indian sports and athletes for Olympic games. Today, the company’s name is associated with champion teams like Bengaluru FC, Delhi Capitals and Haryana Steelers as well as Olympic athletes like Neeraj Chopra and Sakshi Malik who have gained recognition in the world for their skills and spirit.
The euphoria over Olympic Sports after the Tokyo Olympics and Tokyo Paralympics is yet to recede thanks to the sterling performances of our athletes who brought in several medals. While our Olympic heroes have spurred interest in sports beyond cricket amongst youngsters, JSW Sports has been admirably supporting promising athletes through international class infrastructure and training since the sweet success of the London Olympics, where India clinched six medals. Mustafa Ghouse, CEO, JSW Sports who is also a former tennis player, having represented India in the Davis Cup and was a bronze medallist in the Asian Games, gives an insight into all that goes into the making of an athlete. Read on…
"In our Olympic programme we have 15 other corporates participating with us in terms of wanting to contribute or be involved in whatever way possible"
"I think the way sport works is that you need heroes. You need someone to aspire to. So, the success of a Sania Nehwal or PV Sindhu has popularised Badminton again"
Corporate Citizen: Could you tell us about the goals and objectives of JSW Sports, the sports arm of the JSW Group?
Mustafa Ghouse: We set out JSW Sports in November 2012 and that was the time when I joined the Group. The objective at that time-and it continues to remain so-is how to help Indian sports and specifically Olympic Sports. The mandate and the directive was that as an organisation, the JSW Group wanted to get actively involved in promoting Olympic sports by putting a plan in place and carrying forward this vision of seeing it grow in India. The intent of sitting on the sidelines and waking up just months before the Olympics was not acceptable. The need of the hour was to have a very holistic 360-degree approach to help Olympic sports grow by addressing gaps in the whole journey of athletes and allow them the opportunity to perform at the international stage to the best of his or her abilities. That was the first mandate given in terms of setting up the Olympic programme for the Group.
CC: What made JSW interested in sports since there are so many CSR activities that corporates can do?
I think as promoters, the Jindal family is very interested in sports and fitness going by the kind of involvement that I have seen from Mr Jindal and Mrs Jindal. In fact, Parth Jindal, Managing Director, JSW Cements, is the driving force behind it. He has enormous passion and commitment for sports. The idea to invest in sportspersons has come in the aftermath of the London Olympics, which at the time was India’s best Olympic performance where India won six medals. The feedback was that we should get better and for that, the involvement of the private sector was discussed. In all our conversations since then, we keep talking about how we need more and more corporates to get involved and more and more collaborative effort to achieve these goals. That, just one JSW is not enough! In our Olympic programme, we have 15 other corporates that are participating with us in terms of wanting to contribute or be involved in whatever way possible. It is nice to see many corporates showing interest and wanting to jump on to the programme and be a part of this movement that we created.
CC: You have been a successful professional tennis player. How did you switch over to this executive job? Were you still playing professional tennis at that time?
I had stopped playing tennis in 2009. At that stage, I was unsure what I was going to do next. Predictably, there were other options like coaching and training which I was not interested in. I then got an opportunity to work with Global Sport, a sports management firm owned by tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi. After spending a year and a half there, Mahesh introduced me to the Jindal family. They had met earlier to brainstorm on this thought of supporting sports. Finally, it was conceived and they were keen to progress on it. Internally, they did not have anyone who would drive the vertical for them. That is when Mahesh recommended that I meet them and that I should explore this opportunity. That is the journey between stopping tennis and joining JSW.
CC: What have been the achievements of JSW Sports so far?
We ran the Olympic programme from early 2013. When we started signing athletes and supporting them, Sakshi Malik, the Olympic medallist in wrestling, was one of the early athletes that we signed up, and again, there was nobody else doing this at the time. Being a professional sportsperson, I was aware of what comprehensive nurturing of athletes should be like. We worked on what we could do to help these kids focus on their training, focus on their competition and not to have to worry about anything else. That was the main thought process like it is in any country which brings home Olympic medals. Where the athlete has to literally roll out of bed, train, play, go to the gym, eat or sleep. That’s the kind of programme we wanted to bring to the table. The athletes are always the centre of the programme and the initiative and everything else works around them. We have extended that to all our team sports as well. The success of our football team or our kabaddi team or the transformation of the Delhi IPL team is based on the same foundation that first and foremost you have to empower your athletes and then be in a management position to support them and provide for them in every possible way.
"The mandate and the directive was that as an organisation, the JSW Group wanted to get actively involved in promoting Olympic sports by putting a plan in place and carrying forward this vision of seeing it grow in India"
CC: Tell us about the football team…
We set up the Football Club in 2013 when we launched Bengaluru FC, based out of Bengaluru. It has been a great journey since then. We won the League in our debut season which we never expected and since then the team has been one of the most successful teams in India. It also has one of the highest rankings in Asia. We were at the finals of the AFC Cup in Asia, won the Super League as well as the Super Cup. The team has been extremely successful.
CC: How many athletes do you have altogether under your banner?
We have 200 athletes at our Inspire Institute of Sports (IIS) in Vijaynagar, Bellari. We have 50 kids in the youth academy there for Football. We have 20 players in our main football team and then we also have the cricket team. We have 200 kids being trained in boxing in Himachal Pradesh, where we have recently set up infrastructure. We are soon launching our programme in Hisar, Haryana, for which we have just done the talent identification. Hopefully, in a few weeks, we will go live with it.
CC: Tell us about the kind of infrastructure that you have developed.
The IIS is built in Vijaynagar, Bellari, where our flagship company is. We have some 40 acres which was given to us to develop this facility. We have currently utilised 25 acres and we will hopefully expand on that. We cater to boxing, wrestling, judo, athletics and swimming over there and have accommodation for 300 kids and 40-50 staff. We also have an education programme in academics, so it is a comprehensive facility for the all-round development of athletes. We like to think that it is on par with facilities anywhere in the world because that’s the effort and intent that’s gone into it. We are recognised as the National Centre of Excellence by the Sports Authority of India and we are also a Khelo India Accredited Centre. We are high-performance partners for the Boxing Federation of India and Judo Federation of India and we are the only Indian institute that is part of the Asian Sports Science Association. We are the only privately funded sports organisation; all others are government-funded. It has come along well.
CC: Why did you choose these sports? You have played tennis. How come tennis is not there in the programme?
We chose sports that are core to the Olympics, and those where we believe that India has the talent and the potential. Either this talent has shown itself in the past or we believe through our research that it is there. We believe that these are the sports where we can do justice. These were the parameters that went into identifying sports and restricting ourselves to these sports.
CC: Where do these budding young athletes come from? Is there any ratio of urban to rural?
They come from all parts of the country, predominantly rural. The majority are from Punjab, the North East, and then you have some from other states.
CC: What about Maharashtra?
The participation is decent. We have wrestlers coming in from Maharashtra. Also, there are a few runners who have joined the team.
CC: How can a culture of sports excellence be built in India besides your infrastructure and training facilities? Like in the home and school environment…
The base has to be wider. For the type of population that we have and the type of talent that we have, it has to start at the schools, where children are introduced to sports. I have cousins who have grown up in the other parts of the world where they learn every sport in the school itself. Whether you want to excel in one of the sports or take that up as a career is a secondary decision. But you learn everything at school itself. There is no need to go for an extra class or have access to a club membership to learn a sport, like it is, in India. I can vouch for this for any tennis player in our country or predominantly for most of the athletes, where either an obsessed parent pushed them in that direction, or they were members of a club and got access to the infrastructure that allowed them to learn the sport at that age, and they grew from there. But it was not structure driven; unlike cricket, where you can play anywhere and you can join a coaching programme of a decent level anywhere. The bottom line is that you should be able to pursue a sport in school at no additional cost. When we are in a position to do that we will see more kids who will be interested in taking up sports as a profession and so much more talent will be unearthed.
"The bottom line is that you should be able to pursue a sport in school at no additional cost. When we are in a position to do that we will see more kids who will be interested in taking up sports as a profession and so much more talent will be unearthed"
CC: After the Tokyo Olympics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech said sports will be a part of the mainstream education programme. What’s your take?
If it can be implemented in a structured manner then that will probably be the main game-changer that we will see because there is already a change in mindset. There always used to be reluctance as to why a parent should let the kid pursue sports, especially as a career but I think that is slowly changing. Parents are seeing success stories and that there is financial security as the athlete is supported at the federation level or at the government level or at the league level. Historically, the problem would always be, how can you pursue a career in sports when you are not going to earn any money and look after yourself or your family? So many people stopped playing sports by Std. XII and got into something mainstream. The first hurdle is Std. X exams, and the second hurdle is Std. XII exams, by which stage they have to make a decision. At least now a little bit of that is changing and you are seeing more and more kids wanting to pursue sports and their parents encouraging that. If that base is wider we will see a lot of talent coming in.
CC: Do you think that so far, some of the individual Olympic Games like sprinting or wrestling or boxing do not have any glamour and so sportspersons from these sports are mostly from small towns? Do you see a change post the Tokyo Olympics?
It is a little early to say. But I think the way sport works is that you need heroes. You need someone to aspire to. So the success of a Sania Nehwal or PV Sindhu has popularised Badminton again. After Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, there was a huge gap but no more. You see so many kids take up badminton as a sport.
Historically and geographically in India, different sports are popular in different parts of the country. That’s just how it is. What these success stories do is that they make that sport that much more popular in those regions. Boxing was always popular in the North East but you needed a Mary Kom to make it even bigger. Wrestling was always popular in Haryana but you needed a Sushil Kumar and a Yogeshwar Dutt to inspire youngsters. It’s the same trend as Vijender Singh who has won accolades in Boxing and is the idol for so many. That’s always been the way it has worked. Whether it will become more of an urban sport, time will tell but I think anywhere in the world, sportspersons tend to come from the smaller cities. You never hear elite athletes coming from New York, Paris or London.
CC: Do you think there should be more private enterprises from the corporate world coming up with a vision and mission as JSW has?
Yes. The private sector should come forward and do it in any way possible. A company can have its own programme or can collaborate with someone else who has a bigger programme. We have 15 corporates who contribute in several ways to JSW Sports. The point is, we just need more and more to come on board.
CC: Why do you think our players fared better at the Tokyo Olympics than the previous ones?
We are getting prepared, we are working harder and there is more collective effort going on between the Sports Authority of India, their respective federations and private bodies. I think minds began ticking after the Rio Olympics where our performance was very poor. There were high expectations but we could clinch only two medals. From our perspective, there has been a good collective effort from our stakeholders to try and get our athletes well-prepared to go to Tokyo. Obviously, the world faced a big challenge with the pandemic and lockdown and there was limited access to competition and exposure to international training. I think we have done a very good job. We came short on a few campaigns which could have increased the number and there were some expectations of the shooting team to do well. And I think the target of ten medals was well within reach.
"We chose sports that are core to the Olympics, and those where we believe that India has talent and the potential. Either this talent has shown itself in the past, or we believe through our research that it is there"
CC: Even if someone pursues a sport it is not possible to become a professional athlete always. So, just like you got this option to be a Corporate CEO, could you tell other areas where sportspersons can make a career besides playing?
The industry has grown substantially. There is so much happening in the sports industry and a lot of kids are now taking it as a career path from a management, sales and public relations perspective. There are so many aspects of the industry, where there is a requirement for good quality resources. As a whole, we are seeing a very big change in the sports industry. So, it is not just the athletes-that’s not the only direction that you need to focus on.
There is this perception in India that only if you play a sport can you join the sports industry. That’s not the case anywhere in the world. You have hardcore lawyers, bankers, investment bankers who have transitioned into branding some of the biggest sports companies in the world. There is no such hard and fast rule that only if you play a sport can you work in sports. From that perspective, there is enough and more opportunity for anyone.
CC: What is your advice to parents who have children with talent in sports? How can they balance sports with academics?
Encourage them. They have to follow their passion. Obviously, academics are important. You have to do a balancing act. It is not always that studies have to be prioritised at Number 1 and sports have to be Number 2. You can function with it the other way around. I’m not saying drop academics but you may be able to do both.
CC: How did you get yourself into tennis? When did you start playing?
My family was obsessed with tennis, beginning with my grandfather. He grew up in Madras where it was a popular sport. He played there till his university days. He then started working but never stopped playing tennis. He then introduced it to my father and my uncles who were pretty good and some of them were national level players. I was the first grandchild, so by default, I was handed a tennis racquet when I was four years old. I fell in love with the sport and I guess, had a head start. I just enjoyed playing and it became a career. At that time, Mumbai, Pune and Maharashtra in general, had a very strong tennis culture. Also, there were a lot of players, so that allows you to get better and have access to better coaches, better training programmes and better training partners.
CC: You have mentioned on the website that sports is a great way to build a corporate brand. Could you expand on that?
Yes. I brainstormed with the board of directors as to how we can use sports to grow the JSW brand and I think there was a decision at the board level to use the platform of sport for amplifying our corporate brand. There are more than enough references of how it is done globally. JSW is a B2B business as it is into steel, infrastructure, power and has no consumer products. To grow the brand you need other avenues, and I think for us using sports as a platform has gone extremely well with us. Everyone is happy with the decision and the investments that have gone into it.
CC: What is the annual budget for JSW Sports?
It is very different because some of it is from the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) fund and some of it is commercial. It gets spread out.
CC: What is the philosophy of life that you live by?
I think the attitude is to love what you do and be focused and passionate about it. From a young age, you know the importance of hard work and discipline as it is ingrained in your system. So. how to bring that into your day to day life has been my constant endeavour.