CXOs in Sports: Interview with Supratik Sen - CEO, Unilazer Sports
Sportskeeda brings another exciting series of interviews – CXOs in Sports, where we speak to eminent and prominent personalities, talking about their sporting interests and ideas for development of sports in general and of their sports work/interest in particular.
Supratik Sen took over as the CEO of the newly formed Unilazer Sports in February 2014. Before that he was the National Head, Sports and Events at Redbull India. He was also a member of the Indian national rugby team earlier in his career. We recently caught up with him and had a discussion with him on how he sees sports in India and his sporting interests.
How young were you when you started following Sports?
I have been involved in sports ever since my birth. My entire family had always placed a lot of emphasis on physical fitness and sports. My grandfather taught at Shanti Niketan (Vishwabharti University).That was the time after the partition of Bengal, and he was part of the education movement that started due to the general unrest in Bengal. The seeds of the sports movement had also been sown at the same time, and the rebellion and healthy rivalry there led to the formation of East Bengal Football club.
My father was in the Army, and so we used to keep moving, and my schooling all along was in Sports Authority of India schools. I started playing sports there, as it was mandatory, and I instantly took to it. Lots of children used to play sports, and the atmosphere was one where you had to join in. I did a lot of middle distance running, started contact sports (loved to box), and started playing soccer there.
Which was your favorite sport growing up?
Football was my first love. I loved the game because I was physically quite fit (and the running had given me a lot of stamina) and I could play a bit too. I was selected to play for an Indo- German joint venture club called GTZ Bayern that partnered with Bayern Munich. We were given the chance to go to Germany. However, once we returned, the club was dissolved due to differences with the League, and we were sort of left to fend for ourselves.
How did you go from almost becoming a professional Football player, and a trained Cricket player to a Rugby player for the country?
The football industry wasn’t the best at that time to go professional. Rugby happened as a result of coming back from Germany, with not much in store for us. Rugby gave me the opportunity to be out there playing to win – mentally and physically outthinking the opposition. All I cared about was sunshine, food, sleep and rugby. The switch was fairly smooth.
As I was physically quite fit, and could run for long durations, Rugby was a very good fit. Rugby also gave me the chance to represent my country in International tournaments, which was a matter of great pride and honour for me. It gave me the opportunity to play in the South Canterbury Rugby Football Union League in New Zealand, one of the most prestigious rugby leagues which has seen many of their players go on to represent New Zealand.
I used to play Cricket when I was in school. Being physically fit, I was a wicket keeper and Jeff Dujon was one of the guys who I used to look out for, as he was one of the first to dive as a wicket keeper. I was pretty decent as a cricketer. Took part in the Vinoo Mankad tourney, the CK Nayudu tournament, and the Bengal trials.
More than anything, in Calcutta, sports were seasonal, and the football and rugby seasons used to overlap.
How did you venture into sports marketing? Tell us a little more about that.
I started off my working career by working for NGOs doing Sports Development, worked in the Sunderban Delta, did some teaching, and then eventually moved to sports marketing. Started the FMMI India chapter with my sister, we helped facilitate the tie-up between the AIFF and Leicester City, and specifically East Bengal and Leicester City.
Then worked at Procam, where I focused on distance running programs, with focus on athletes in India. Following that I moved to Percept where I worked on Cricket. I then went to E-sense where I learnt a lot about broadcast and marketing in relation to sports.
Describe your experience of working with Redbull. How different was it to anything you had done earlier?
Redbull was the biggest and most exciting challenge till that point in my life – it was a relatively new brand – an energy drink, and my role was to increase its association with sports in India on limited resources. We focused on touch points – small, independent projects which could eventually carve a niche like getting the Formula 1 car show run at Khardungla, the world’s highest motorable road, which became a huge hit.
We built Street style football from the ground up and hope to see the World finals in India eventually. The seeds have been sown for BMX, Parkour, Surfing, Climbing, Bouldering – we see them developing into something larger now that the platform exists. Small pockets have now been established and the message has been propagated; RedBull magnified that possibility. The acceptance has now increased.
Among the mainstream sports, we worked with Subrata Pal in trying to establish him as a brand overseas. Also started the Campus Cricket initiative, which is now doing well.
Tell us a little more about Unilazer Sports – its objectives, what are your plans, how do you foresee going about your plans?
Unilazer Ventures was started by Ronnie Screwvala – the man who has done it all and has a perfect handle on the media and entertainment business.
At Unilazer Sports, our belief is that sports are the best form of entertainment. Engagement of the audience is the key that we are focusing on. We want to build stars and focus on conveying a experience, and not just skim the surface.
Branding needs to connect with the athlete, not just look to athletes who have reached the top, but to be part of the journey. New forms of sports will emerge, and the Leagues need to see to it that they encourage people, provide a lifestyle, and give them the platform to become someone. Sport is a unifier, and that is what we aim to do. Focus on the people, not the money.
What do you think is necessary for the growth of the culture of sports in India?
We need to stop complaining. If the African nations can do it day in and day out with all the problems that they face, we should definitely be able to.
Middle class families need to understand it is a healthy lifestyle, cliques need to be eliminated. Vested interests are everywhere, we just need to get out and not allow encroachment, allow the kids to come out and play.
Funnily enough, with the little bit of open space we do have in our country; we put up signs like “Trespassers will be prosecuted”. I hope the judiciary comes up with a verdict banning such ridiculous expressions!
Transparency is paramount, and as a democracy we need to understand sports is a good equalizer, it brings out a lot of positivity. Professionalism follows this. The realization is almost here, and we need to be positive.
The sportsperson you idolized growing up. What made you look up to him/ her?
Artists and Athletes both can inspire and help us achieve what we want to. I was inspired more by the trainers who were there at the maidans, who told you the little things, what to do and what not to do; people I knew personally and had regular contact with.
Sportspersons I admire are Ruud Guulit, Marco van Basten, Sunny Gavaskar and Kapil Dev. With regards to what I do, I learnt a lot from the places I worked earlier at. I learnt how to make a business out of sports, how to adapt, and remember at the end of if it is all about sports, and passion.
How do you think Rugby has progressed in India since the time you retired? Do you foresee it maybe becoming a properly recognized spectator sport?
The more people play, the more the options for people watching. Rugby federations are trying to increase participation, and efforts need to be directed there. More availability of land and increased number of people playing will drive the growth of the sport.
Actually, rankings have gone down since my time – China now wallops us, where earlier we used to defeat them comfortably. The growth is not very visible. But at the end of the day, more people playing is what will help the sport grow.
Due to urbanization, no spaces are left for Sport. And that change will help increase participation. A lot of pay to play facilities are coming up, which is good, as the astro-turf allows people to go out and enjoy the sport.
Which teams did you like watching in Football? What are your thoughts on the upcoming FIFA World Cup?
I used to like watching Germany, Brazil, Italy and recently Spain – the intelligence with which Spain plays, controlling the game through possession, is like an art form. I really hope that one of the African nations come up beyond the Quarter finals this time. But then, Brazil is my favourite team, and I hope to see them doing very well.
A message that you would like to share with our readers.
Keep trying, some time back we didn’t earn any money while we played for India. Now that has changed. Challenges exist, a positive outlook always helps.