Rakesh Pal (name changed) runs a small sports equipment shop in Kolkata’s famous Maidaan Market. A favourite among local sports circles, his shop sells goods from all sports, ranging from tennis balls and footballs to professional cricket kits.
Most of the products, Pal says, are imported. Even small tennis balls are either manufactured in or imported from China. “More than 50 percent of my products are imported from the country,” he says, adding that his business started booming when he started dealing in Chinese products.
Like Pal, Mukesh Kumar, who works at a sports goods manufacturing unit in Jalandhar, says that even though the manufacture happens right in their factory, most of the raw materials required comes from China. “The dependency on Chinese goods is so much that if they stop exporting their goods, we might run out of business”, he quips.
Kolkata's Maidaan Market is one of the country's busiest sports market.
Kumar’s statement may now seem to be a genuine concern, as there has been growing resentment in the country on everything Chinese after the Chinese army killed 20 soldiers at the Line of Actual Control in Galwan Valley, Ladakh. Social media is flooded with hashtags like #BoycottChina and #SayNoToChineseGoods. The government weighed in by banning 59 Chinese apps, perhaps signalling a go-ahead in boycotting Chinese goods.
The ban of these apps, and the furore caused around the country, has put people like Pal and Kumar under a lot of pressure. “If the government bans everything Chinese, we won’t know what to do," says Pal worriedly.
His predicament is not an isolated case. According to official data from the Ministry of Commerce, sports goods from China worth Rs 918.72 crore were imported between February 2019 and April 2020, which is more than 65 percent of the total amount of sports goods imported to India from all over the world.
The growth of Chinese imports in the Indian sports market has been rapid. From Rs 594 crore in 2014-15, when the Modi government came to power, the amount rose to Rs 1,075 crore in 2018-19, according to the ministry’s data. That’s an a rise of over 80 percent in just five years.
“China has more than 50 percent share in the local sports market," says Animesh Gupta (name changed), the owner of a reputed sports goods shop in Kolkata, who has been in the business for more than 30 years. “Our government has not formulated any policies over the years that could lead to more local production. And hence, as the years went by, China invaded our markets. Without them, the sports industry in India would completely collapse.
He adds: “How can we be ‘vocal for local’, as our prime minister says, if we are so dependent on another country for our survival?”
In fact, if looking at individual sports, it's clear that China dominates the market. Table tennis equipment worth Rs 11.54 crore was imported from China in 2018-19, which is 64.9 percent of the total imports in this category.
China has a monopoly over the table tennis balls in the Indian market.
Former table tennis player and coach Sandeep Kumar says that while racquets and tables are manufactured in India, China has a monopoly on balls. A company called Shanghai Double Happiness supplies the balls for all world tour events, barring the World and Asian Championships. “Our students mostly practice with balls made from China because the spin, bounce and build of the balls are much better and they can get accustomed to playing with such balls at the international stage," he says. In fact, major table tennis equipment companies like Sweden’s Stiga and India’s Stag have "Made in China" labels attached to them.
As for boxing, the equipment import bill for 2018-19 stood at about Rs 3 crore, with China accounting for Rs 1.38 crore. Even gloves made by Australian company Sting are widely used by professional boxers, and are considered the best in the market. They, too, are manufactured in China.
A representative of the Sports and Toys Exporters Association in Jalandhar, which is a manufacturing hub, says that Chinese manufacturers are “leading exporters for combat sports goods like mats and other protective equipment.”
India’s reliance on China goes deeper than importing finished products. Domestic manufacturers, who mainly export hockey sticks and balls, cricket bats and balls, boxing equipment and chess boards, among other items, depend to a great extent on raw materials from China.
Mukesh Kumar, whose Jalandhar-based company manufactures footballs, volleyballs, basketballs and rugby balls, says they import polyurethane and ethylene-vinyl acetate foam from China for their products.
“The quality of raw materials in India is not good and cannot meet the desired standard required for exporting our products to major markets in Europe and the US as well as in India. The material we import from China is not only superior in quality but very light on the pocket too,” he says.
“Right from gymming equipment to balls, Chinese products are not only better in quality but cheaper than any Indian good, and hence both us and customers have faith in the product,” says Animesh. He thinks that to lessen dependence on Chinese products, we need to build a good ecosystem where Indian products come to the fore, and even the raw materials we use to manufacture the products are wholly indigenous.
“Before banning Chinese products, we need to first make our products better than them, and only then can we afford to have a ban on Chinese products. Otherwise, a ban will harm our businesses to a great extent," he says, his voice tinged with worry.
Sponsorships and deals
Former Chinese gymnast Li Ning is not only a legend in the field of gymnastics but also the owner of one of the largest sportswear brands in the world. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the company named after its owner provided official jerseys for the Chinese gymnastics team. After China’s stupendous success that year in the games, the brand’s market value rose by six percent overnight, and there was a 20 percent rise in its brand recall, the highest in a field that also included Nike and Adidas, according to a research paper published by media agency MEC Global.
PV Sindhu is the poster girl for Li Ning in India.
After conquering the global field, the company made similar strides in the Indian market almost 10 years after it rose to prominence. In February 2019, they signed PV Sindhu as their brand ambassador for Rs 48 crore for four years, a record deal for an Indian badminton player.
Six months later, Sindhu won the World Championship. Li Ning soared, signing a two-year multi-crore deal with the Indian Olympic Association, which included sponsoring Indian athletes’ apparel at the 2018 Asian Games and the Tokyo Olympics. They also signed on stars of Indian badminton as their brand ambassadors, including Kidambi Srikanth, in a four-year deal worth Rs 35 crore, and Parupalli Kashyap.
Even an official statement from the company stated that India is their second-largest market after China.
Chinese companies have even made inroads to cricket, the nation’s most popular sport, in which nationalist feelings run high. Chinese mobile company Vivo has been the title sponsor of the Indian Premier League for the past five years. It has recently renewed its sponsorship for another five years with a bid of Rs 2,199 crore, which is 554 percent greater than the previous deal, according to the official statement released by the BCCI.
Vivo secured the title sponsorship of the IPL at Rs 2,199 crore.
Even the humble Pro Kabaddi League, India’s second most popular sports league after the IPL, is now sponsored by Oppo. The company recently outbid rivals Vivo with a bid of Rs 1,069 crore.
“Chinese companies know that the greater the eyeballs on their brand names, the more their products will sell, and what better way to capture eyeballs than popular sporting leagues? India is a huge market. Who would not want to reap its benefits?” says Biswajit Sarkar, a sports and corporate affairs lawyer based in Kolkata.
Oppo was the official sponsor for India's cricket team till 2019
Oppo, incidentally, did not see their five-year deal through with the Indian cricket team and were replaced in 2019 by Byju’s – an online learning company that is seen to be wholly Indian.
But is it? Byju’s, founded by Byju Raveendran in 2011, has several international investors, including Tencent, a Chinese multinational conglomerate holding company. In July 2017, Tencent pumped in Rs 300 crore in Byju’s and again invested in March 2019.
Paytm, the title sponsor for international and domestic cricket matches in India, has seen an investment of Rs 4,527 crore from China’s Alibaba Group. Dream11, an online gaming platform and official partner of both the BCCI and IPL, in 2018 saw a Rs 754 crore investment from Tencent. Dream11 is an official partner of the Indian Super League as well.
The list of IPL’s associate sponsors in 2019 also includes Swiggy and MakeMyTrip – both of which have substantial Chinese investment. But can these companies be labelled Chinese just because a significant part of their financing comes from the country?
“Equity ownership is only one aspect of running a company, and there are many direct and indirect ways of investing in equity. Just labelling a company based on the nationality of their investors is a futile exercise at best," says advocate Sarkar.
The government, however, is yet to deliver any clear-cut directives and the boards and sports bodies are not in a hurry to take any major decisions just under public pressure and social media campaigns. IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta has gone on record to say that their contract with Li Ning being terminated is “completely out of the question.” Even the BCCI has not released any official statement, and if reports are to be believed, they too may not bow down to public pressure.
“Both in sports manufacturing and sponsorships for major tournaments, the Chinese have a major share in the sports market. A blanket ban, as is being suggested, will do nothing but harm the sporting infrastructure in this country, which will have a direct impact on the players and people associated with it”, opines Sarkar.
This article was first published in The Patriot.