Building the football structure in India: In conversation with Sukhvinder Singh

CEO of Singh Sports Ventures. Credits- Sukhvinder Singh Archives
CEO of Singh Sports Ventures. Credits- Sukhvinder Singh Archives

Sukhvinder Singh is a unique sports professional in India. He has a deep understanding of Indian football at the grassroots level, having played in various national championships growing up. Armed with an MBA degree, he pursued his passion for football at both the corporate level with Nike and in the administrative domain with the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

The former Santosh Trophy player served as FC Goa's CEO for 2 seasons and also relaunched the ambitious football project for Vedanta Resources, that includes the prestigious Sesa Football Academy and its vision around skill development, community engagement and women empowerment.

Sukhvinder Singh worked with Nike India to establish and develop their football brand in the country during its initial phase in 2005. After leaving Nike to become the head of marketing for the AIFF, he became an important part of the federation’s professionalisation as he revamped the marketing department.

In 2011, he was appointed the Managing Director of Libero Sports India and was responsible for conceptualising and managing long-term key projects that integrated the company’s core strengths in consulting, player representation and sponsorship placement. Currently, he runs his own firm, called Singh Sports Ventures, based out of Goa, India.

In an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Sukhvinder Singh talks about his background, his interests and his future goals in the realm of sports business. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

1) Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?

Sukhvinder Singh: I am the Director & Co-Founder of Singh Sports Ventures, which is a sports advisory and projects company based out of Goa, India. I have had varied experiences as a sports industry professional, having worked with Nike and the All India Football Federation earlier on in my career.

From there on, I set up Libero Sports India for my investors from the United States to venture into the entrepreneurial space. Subsequently, I moved to Goa as the CEO of FC Goa for a couple of seasons, and then I also put together the ambitious football project for Vedanta Sesa Goa, that included the revival of the prestigious Sesa Football Academy. Having spent 15 years on this journey, it was finally time to set up my own company in the year 2019.

2) How did you get interested in sports and what made you passionate about a career in the business side of sports?

Sukhvinder Singh: Sports came naturally and organically to me as I grew up in a township that had ample access to sports infrastructure and some fine coaches and mentors in the community. I was very fortunate to have lived in the erstwhile Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Ltd. (IPCL), now owned by the Reliance group in Baroda, Gujarat.

My interest in sports grew purely due to the opportunities that we had and also the chance to compete at school level right from an early age of 11. It was the time that I progressed in football and got to play in the U12 National championship in Kolkata in 1989. I kept my place in the state team in all age groups and eventually played the Santosh Trophy in 1996 held at Assam. I was still 17 at that time, and the exposure that I got at such age was immense.

I was lucky to receive constant support in terms of scholarships from various institutions including the Food Corporation of India (FCI), which had an institutional football team during those times. I believed that a sportsperson could do anything, and, hence, I resolved that I would do my best in academics as well. This was a very important phase in my life when I was playing competitively and undergoing my graduation.

I was part of a community football movement called ‘Providence For You’, which created vocational opportunities for football players through innovative retail business activities. All these experiences led me to believe that I should definitely pursue a management course that could help me to prepare myself to engage in sports projects down the line.

3) Let's go back in time. Can you trace your early memories in your sports business career?

Sukhvinder Singh: The learnings during my MBA program at the Nirma University, Ahmedabad, truly shaped my thought process on the corporate industry. While I had all the passion for sports and a decent academic orientation, it was the management education that allowed me to put a proper structure and plan so that I could combine my passion and profession.

2003 was when I passed out of business school, and it wasn’t the time when the sports industry was highly evolved or had many existing job opportunities. I decided to apply my learnings from my MBA in the practical world. In fact, my first job wasn’t in sports but was with sales and marketing at Café Coffee Day.

Looking back, I think it was a massive advantage to have spent 2 years with the brand and dealing with front line sales and the marketing aspects of the industry. My big break came in 2005 when Nike set up its offices in India based out of Bangalore, and I presented myself to take up the role in the sports marketing area of the Global Sports giants.

4) What were some learnings from your first steps in sports business?

Sukhvinder Singh: My major learnings in sports business are that it’s a very unique industry that can draw inspirations from other industries but still needs a highly customised mindset. The principles of sports business are very similar to the principles of sports itself. Nothing can replace the on-field action and intense leg work. The board room might be your planning space but the sporting spaces are the ideation zones. Sports business works well with strong relationships that one could form with its stakeholders. Just like how it works in a team.

5) You have worked in sports marketing and then expansively in football. What can you share about these experiences?

Sukhvinder Singh: I believe that we are yet to understand the scope and impact of sports for marketing and branding leverages. We are still a region that looks at sports purely from the visibility lens and not in context of the social, emotional and spiritual impact that it can create. There are forms of engagement that can definitely give you the RoI on the visibility front but sports can take this to another level and create brand loyalties that no other medium can.

While it’s easy to look at global benchmarks and case studies, India is still on its way to customise the sports marketing philosophy to its fullest. One big factor to this is that our branding and marketing plans are limited by our annual corporate strategy and still hasn’t found a place in the mission and purpose of the investors. Once this happens, I believe we will see some great brand initiatives as well as the impact of these investments on sports development.

6) Can you tell us more about your time as CEO of FC Goa? How did this come about and what did you learn from this journey?

Sukhvinder Singh: So far, most of the jobs and projects that I had the privilege to undertake were either created for the first time or I had the opportunity to design them. In the case of FC Goa, it was a very organic progression into the role of a professional as well as a personal side.

The emergence of the Indian Super League (ISL) and the Goa franchise i.e. FC Goa in 2014 really created the much-needed disruption and inspiration needed in our country. The impact was felt beyond the Indian borders and even the global football community took notice of it.

I had a very good five-year phase wherein I set up Libero Sports India for my partners in Chicago and it was a fulfilling experience to see a football start-up in 2010 growing into a formidable organisation by 2015. Around that time, FC Goa, which was owned by Mr. Shrinivas Dempo & Mr. Dattaraj Salgaocar along with Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, was in the process of setting up a comprehensive organisation around the club especially after the initial success of the ISL.

When the club was looking at creating the position of the CEO, I saw the challenge and ambition attached to that position. It was 3 rounds of discussion that we took to arrive at a common understanding on how to build the organisation further.

On the personal front, it definitely was an exciting proposition to operate out of Goa, which is a truly football state for whom I had all the admiration. I had the most enriching experiences at FC Goa, where we were in the touching distance of winning the coveted ISL trophy, as well as all the learnings through the phase that followed. The team and the state of Goa have a strong connection with me now, and all the subsequent endeavours of mine have the progress of Goan football at the heart.

7) You are now running your own sports venture firm. Can you tell us a bit more about this company?

Sukhvinder Singh: Singh Sports Ventures Pvt. Ltd. was incorporated in 2019 on the back of almost 2 decades of experience of its directors in the field of sports. The company offers advisory, project management, talent agency and sports management education services through its 4 divisions based out of Goa, India.

India is evolving as a sports nation and there is a need for dedicated and specialised approach to handle investment and create sustainable projects that are not only development-oriented but are also economically viable. In its one year of existence, the company has worked with clients ranging from the National Games (Goa) to Slum Soccer (National Inclusion Cup) and are advising a couple of European organisations that have offerings for the Asian region.

We have embarked on a journey to create the movement of Goa Beach Soccer and are in the process of setting up an elite youth development centre in the state of Goa. Our networks have been leveraged to facilitate a sponsorship deal for an Indian Super League club – NEUFC as well as our Indian National Team captain – Sunil Chhetri.

The Scouting & Talent management division of the company, ably led by the ex-India National Team defender & ISL champion – Denzil Franco, is working with young footballers to design their professional journeys in Indian and global football. Lastly, the company has put together programs in the sports management education and sports literature area that will help future industry professionals to achieve their sporting goals in the sports business world as well.

The company’s vision is to create sporting communities in all forms that contribute to national glory and global harmony.

8) What advice would you give to other sports business enthusiasts?

Sukhvinder Singh: Sports business borrows its principles from the ethos of sports itself. It all starts with hard work, backed by consistency, while you prepare for your foray into the sports industry.

It’s important to maintain your competitiveness and endurance when you take the leap into the business world. Sports business demands high levels of honesty and integrity in the same way sports does. Success is an occasion to celebrate but it is equally important to improvise your game. And one never fails in sports or its businesses, we all learn to get better and more efficient.

9) How do you see the current landscape of sports in India?

Sukhvinder Singh: I am very optimistic about the present and the future of sports in India. The support that sports is getting across the board is heartening, and the investments are getting bigger each day. The efforts of the government and the supplementary support of the corporate world will only make things better.

On the development front, India is getting better access to technical know-how and capabilities at the grassroots which will only help us to become more competitive as we progress. The huge army of professionals, who are ready to dedicate their lives to the cause of sports, is working on serious projects which have long-term gestation.

I think that the nation has understood the virtues and importance of sports for the health, well-being and economic progress of its communities, and the changes are visible across all levels.

10) What are your near-future goals?

Sukhvinder Singh: We were on a fast track to achieve our company goals for the next 2 years but the pandemic has impacted us a bit. However, we are hopeful that the next phase of our growth would be driven by the delivery of projects to our clients through advisory and implementation. This will help us to set up two of the most sizeable sports projects in the country.

We plan to take our Goa Beach Soccer initiative and the Elite Youth Academy project to the next phase with the support of our critical partners in India and abroad. Our Scouting & Talent Management division is set to grow, with more members and associates coming on board in the year 2021.

Finally, our sports management education programs will have a lot more digital orientation and our company will finally offer a book on the subject of football by the beginning of the year. Overall, we are in a phase where we have created a clear pathway for our projects and the FY 2021-22 is all about optimisation and rationalisation for our company.

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Edited by Rachel Syiemlieh
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