Leaders in Sport: Interview with Sukhvinder Singh, Managing Director of Libero Sports

Sukhvinder Singh

Continuing to pick on the minds of people who are making a difference to sports in India, in this latest edition of Leaders in Sports interview series we have Mr. Sukhvinder Singh, who is the Managing Director of one of the biggest sports agencies in India – Libero Sports.

Sukhvinder is a passionate sports lover and has worked with Nike India to establish and develop their football brand in this vast country. He was a critical component in the management of the Nike-AIFF relationship, setting up the U15 Manchester United Premier Cup.

Sukhvinder Singh

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where does your love for sports come from?

I was born and brought up in Baroda, Gujarat, and my love for sports goes all the way back to my childhood where I played a lot of outdoor sports. Having worked with Nike and All India Football Federation, I am currently heading Libero Sports’ office in India. I am responsible for conceptualizing and managing long term key projects that integrate the company’s core strengths in consulting, player representation and sponsorship placement.

How did you get into sports? Which sports do you play and follow?

I started playing football when I was 11 years old and played in the U12 National Championships in the year 1989 at Calcutta. I was always an outdoor sports person and played basketball, hockey and gymnastics before falling in love with the beautiful game. I grew up in the erstwhile Indian Petrochemical Corporation Ltd. (IPCL) township, now taken over by Reliance India Ltd. Fortunately we had great facilities for sports which was a key part of the employee-welfare program of IPCL. I believe it was the easy access to the sporting facilities which engaged me into sports at a very early age. I feel very fortunate to have lived a life close to football, which has been instrumental in creating my personality and character.

Do you follow any team/s closely? Who is your favourite player/s?

I am a huge fan of the Indian national football team and I have always admired Luis Figo from Portugal for his style of play.

Over the last few years, India has seen a big change in how people look at sports, with the viewership increasing manifold. What do you put that down to?

When a country has a population of more than 500 million below the age of 25 and that too in this age of information technology, you are bound to have an entire generation which feels globalized and has international aspirations. Thankfully the economy supports and encourages these youngsters to view and consume more sports related products and services. Hence, both the demography and the economy are major factors for the rise in consumption of sports via media as well as other outlets such as merchandising, ticketing, tourism, etc.

Tell us about your organization, Libero Sports. What is it about?

Libero Sports is a football consultancy with its headquarters in Chicago and having presence in South America and Asia. The global offices focus on Player Representation as the core business. The Indian office was set up in 2010 with a focus on the growing industry in this region of the world. Libero Sports India has two verticals – Consulting and Player Representation. Our consulting group works to provide the required confidence and direction to the investors who want to set up project within the football industry.

Some of the key clients that we have are Liverpool FC – DSK Group, FC Barcelona – Conscient Football, Sesa Football Academy, Coca-Cola, Panasonic, Budweiser, etc. With two FIFA Licensed Agents within the company, we represent over 150 players across the world and around 50% of them are based in Asia. We are currently the leading strategic football consultancy in India and hope to expand in other regions of Asia soon. We have a very strong presence in Japan which has helped us bring in some high standard football players to the Indian and South East Asian region.

Do you think in a country like India players need more representation, as compared to players from other countries?

I certainly believe so and we have worked very hard to bring in this paradigm shift in the Indian players’ market. A player’s expertise lies in on-pitch performances, and the awareness about the contractual and legal aspects of the game is very limited within the players in India. The club and league system in India is still very unstructured and disorganized and hence lacks any kind of standardization even with a basic document like a player contract. The players in India need a lot more guidance and constant advice around their career, contractual rights, wealth management and media oriented activities.

What is the situation with the foreign players in Indian football?

Until very recently there was heavy reliance on a limited pool of foreign players who either were playing in India for a long time or belonged to Africa, and most of these players were either strikers or central defenders. Lately, the trends have changed and we have players from the UK, Spain, South America, the Middle East, Japan, North and South Korea, Caribbean Islands, Australia, etc. who are playing in India at present.

The newer regions not only provide more versatile options but also bring in better technical practices and higher standards of play to the I-League. This positively impacts the quality of the matches as well as helps the Indian players to learn a lot more. A big reason for this change has been because of better Indian and foreign coaches taking charge at the clubs. The coaches are no longer isolated to India but are reaching out to their global networks to find better players, equipment, technical know-how and support staff.

A lot of organizations in India have come up that either coach sports or are into sports and event management. Do you think that’s a sign of things to come, that in the future India will have a solid sports infrastructure in place?

I get energized to see the younger generation of sports professionals and entrepreneurs getting involved in sport for all the right reasons and with the right frameworks in place.

There seems to be a sharper focus on different domains like youth development, digital marketing, event execution, etc. The newer organizations prefer depth over width and are building meaningful capabilities with specific timelines and targets. On achieving the same they are able to create positive and successful case studies which further are easier to replicate.

I certainly see better levels of efficiency in sports, which need adequate infrastructural support where the government and the Sports Authority of India play a bigger role. To a great extent the infrastructure exists in various forms but it is either unutilized or underutilized. Further, more events and competitions coming into the country will also lead to the creation of newer infrastructure. Hence, we should get over with the CWG experience and bring in high profile events but to be executed in the most professional way.

Do you reckon this is the right time for more women to participate in various sports activities in the country?

There is a big opportunity for women’s sports in India. The Indian women’s national teams and individual women athletes have already achieved great success in various disciplines, for example archery, tennis, badminton, etc. This has happened despite big challenges and minimal support to the fairer sex in sports. Imagine the difference that we can bring in if we have a focused strategy to develop our female athletes. Even in a sport like football, the women’s national team is ranked much higher than the men’s national team and is the champion in the sub-continent.

I believe that when you coach a boy you are coaching an individual, but when you coach a girl she creates a much larger impact not only on the sporting aspect but also the social aspect. The goodness of sport can be leveraged much more through women’s sport.

Do you think we are doing enough to be seen as a nation that is about more than just cricket?

I think that cricket is a great ambassador sport for India and there are a lot of learnings and inspirations that we can pick up from the game. Cricket has created a status of a religion for itself because of a lot of work that has gone into the sport in the last three decades. For non-cricket sports to achieve success, they need to put in higher efforts, commitment and patience. Success for other sports shall be defined by the quality of manpower and expertise that the key stakeholders have. To create such expertise, it takes time and a lot of ground work and there cannot be any short-cuts in this process.

These days we see a lot of chambers like the FICCI appreciating the work done by organizations in sports, and providing them with a platform to grow. Do you think this is a sign of not only the good work done by you but of how far sports in India has come?

I am a part of the FICCI Sports Committee and the CII National Committee on Sports and my experiences have been very positive with regard to how much the industry wants to develop, grow and popularize sports in the country. The fact that the top two Chambers of Commerce have a focus on sports is an indication of the collective vision of the corporate world to create a robust sports industry which is at a very nascent stage right now. Having worked with the industry stalwarts from various corporate backgrounds within these sports groups, I have realized that the sports industry has got momentum and thanks to their push to the policy makers, there is enough that is being accomplished on a regular basis.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Indian sports today? Is it corruption, indifference, lack of natural athleticism, or something else?

The biggest deficiency is that of expertise at all levels; be it technical know-how, administration or marketing. Apart from that we do not have a well-defined structure around sports units and properties.

There are a lot of individuals and organizations doing their best to develop the game, and better levels of transparency, accountability and measurability within the ecosystem shall help these efforts immensely.

Do you think India can become a global sporting super power like, say, Spain or Australia? How long do you think that is going to take?

It would be important to understand sports for the impact that it can create. Most of the times we as Indian are over-fascinated by the possible global glory while discounting the fact that sports is a great medium of human education and character building. My desire is to see growing participation of Indian youth in sports which expands the talent base out of which the better performers shall excel and lead the country to global success.

Australia has a great sport culture with high participation in sports and hence the output in terms of the national success is visible. We cannot jump the process and expect national success without working at the grassroots. The real work needs to begin at the U8 and U10 level for us to see the results in a decade’s time when the same young players shall peak in their early 20s. The cycle needs to continue and I can foresee the actual impact over two such cycles. I realistically believe that we need to have a game plan for the next 15-20 years to take sports in India to the next level and more importantly, sustain it.

Where do you see Indian sports in the next 10 or so years? Do you see us competing at the very top level?

The realistic target should be strengthening our position at the Asia level first and maintaining the same momentum to create success at the global level. At present even the Asian region has a lot of competitiveness in the form of China, Japan as well as the middle-eastern region. The next decade should see great focus and investment on the youth development across sports and we should realistically look at our developmental programs fructify in the next 15 to 20 years.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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