What was cricketer AG Ram Singh’s connection with a sports goods shop? He ran one. It was common practice in England and Australia, where stars often chose this as a source of livelihood once their playing days were over. Examples are not rare in India. Sunil Gavaskar was a partner of Sunny Sports in Pune for a while. One owned by Raju Kulkarni is still in operation in Mumbai.
A first-class cricketer and father of two Test players, Ram Singh was perhaps one of the first notable players to start one in India. The shop shut after he passed away in 1999 at the age of 89, but the area around Bells Road and Wallajah Road continues to be dotted with stores dealing in similar products, a stone’s throw away from MA Chidambaram Stadium. Varied in size, display, range and interiors, they make this place the hub of Chennai’s sport equipment trade, offering variety and characteristics from one door to another.
It’s more or less the same in most cities. These shops tend to flock together in pockets, like in the Gandhi Market area in Bengaluru, in Hyderabad’s Paradise Circle near MG Road or around Broadway in Kochi. In a survey by correspondents of this newspaper, it appears that business has been steady, with a marginal growth in the number of outlets over the last 10 years. Competing with online sales and mega stores offering plenty under one roof, the conventional shops are surviving in their own way.
“It was May 20, 1997, a day before the India-Pakistan match (Independence Cup) in Chennai. Rameez Raja, Saeed Anwar, Shahid Afridi visited us. Anwar went on to score 194, which remained the highest individual score in ODIs for nearly 13 years,” recalls CK Chopda of Pavilion Sports.
“Anwar mentioned at the post-match press conference that the bat used was given to him by Rameez, who bought it from our shop a day earlier. Next day, the press were interviewing us.”
Most are not as fortunate, but some of these shops have well-known clients. Pankaj Sethi of Sethi Sports in New Delhi says Yusuf Pathan, Mohammad Nabi and Carlos Brathwaite have taken bats from them.
“They usually ask us to come to the hotel and deliver.” Bengaluru’s Player’s Choice attracts local stars.
“Half of the Karnataka senior team players are our customers. Mayank Agarwal is among them,” says the owner.
The volume of business starts from a few lakhs per year and goes up to around `10 crore. With the exception of places like Kerala, cricket provides a bulk of it, even in the badminton hub of Hyderabad. Bat and ball come after football and badminton in Kochi, accounting for less than one-third of total sales.
Elsewhere, this figure is nearly 70%. Buyers are mostly club-level and casual players including teenagers, with the scale tilted towards the latter, according to data collected from various cities. A lot of the goods are made for tennis-ball cricket. This is not a seasonal activity and contrary to perception, sales peak during summers, when schools are closed.
It has changed the game, but the IPL has not had a major bearing on the trade of cricket goods. Most of the respondents say it has not made much impact. Some notice a rise in demand of jerseys depending on the performance of the city franchise. Chennai is an example, where shopkeepers report a correlation between CSK, MS Dhoni and a spike in sales.
“Many from the young generation are Dhoni fans, especially in this part of the country. Children aged 10, 12 come to our shop and talk about helicopter shot. Ashwin’s carrom ball also. We see a lot of parents willing to invest in sports and one reason is IPL,” says Aasif, the owner of Dhoni Sports.
Hyderabad’s 20-year-old Bharat Sports Company says, “IPL has affected sales in a positive way.” Overall, more than half the stores including some in Chennai and Hyderabad, say cricket-related sales remain steady irrespective of IPL.
After a team sport, an individual endeavour has moved rapidly up the popularity charts. Badminton is second in terms of volume of business, according to a majority of the stores, who see the success of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu as the obvious catalyst.
“After Saina won bronze in the 2012 Olympics, sale of racquets and shuttlecocks went up,” remembers Ravi Prakash and Umesh Babu of Bengaluru’s Olympic Trophies & Sports. It’s the same in Chennai, Hyderabad and Delhi.
Badminton has captured imagination also in football-crazy Kerala, where they reckon the emergence of stars is not the only reason behind this ‘striking’ change.
“Football and badminton are popular because these can be played throughout the year. Also, they are easy on the pocket compared to cricket,” says P Suneesh of CAPS Sports in Kochi.
“A lot of parents are buying badminton items for their daughters. Women are forming a big part of our clientele,” is the feedback from CJ Pious of Blues Sports, which has been running since 1946. There are many who believe the lack of cricket grounds has contributed to badminton’s growth in the state.
Vibrant and diverse in character, these shops individually and collectively play their role in sustaining a set of activities India wants to excel in. The big event coming up in England is what the team and fans target immediately. And so do our goods stores. A strong run by the Men in Blue is expected to cause a surge in activities around the billing counters.