Exclusive with Athletes Today Co-founder Abhishek Sharma

Sports in India is a constantly growing sector. India is considered as a “Sleeping Giant” in terms of quality and financial aspects that surrounds the different sports and its players. Unlike cricketers in India, generally sportsmen and sportswomen who play different sports like football and hockey do not get the recognition and monetary backing that they require. Over the period of years, different sports agencies have come into the market and evolved with a view of assisting sportspersons with financial and sponsorship backing.

Athletes Today is one of those sports management agencies comprising a team of sports management professionals which is co-founded by Mr. Abhishek Sharma who are based in Mumbai with an aim to mentor all kinds of sportspersons helping them to achieve their full potential as well as get a business opportunity and become recognised in their field. 

Athletes Today has two business models one is mentoring budding sportsmen and sportswomen right from the scratch, to hone their sports talents and help them reach their maximum potential. The other one is for established sportsmen or sportswomen where they provide sponsorship, media representations, branding, among other services. 

Pragathis from bizbehindsports.com caught up with Athletes Today co-founder Mr.Abhishek Sharma where they discuss about the company’s journey since its inception, its association with athletes from different sports and its involvement in the business facet of the sports industry.

Tell us about your early days as a sports management professional.  What made you choose this particular field?

I started my sports career in 2012 while I was studying in college in Bangalore. I was fortunate enough to land an internship with DNA network which is one of the biggest sports management companies in India. Through them I worked for RCB in the IPL 2012 and KKR 2013/14 as freelancer . Only during this time I realised that I need to do a postgraduate Masters in Sports management and eventually did Event management. So, yeah that how my journey started.

Athletes Today’ was co-founded by you in 2016. Tell us about your colleagues and how did you happen to collaborate with them?

I worked as the head of marketing for sports (Abhishek requested company name’s anonymity)  in an agency based in Mumbai who were specialised in managing the entertainment and sports industry. While working there, I hired a bunch of interns who completed their MBA’s and wanted to be inclined towards sports and media industry. In a few months time, I realised that the company’s focus was more towards the Bollywood and entertainment sector and never really focused on the sports sector. 

So that’s where I came to a conclusion that I need to form a sports management company on my own and that’s when Co-founder Radhika Arora came into the scene who was doing her MBA intern. It just happened that we clicked and got along well in terms of our understanding of the perspective of sports agencies in India. Before we started the company in 2016, We did a research for about 6 months using stats and data from a sports model called ARA model(Accumulated Commercial Revenue) regarding the professional and commercial angles an athlete needs in India and the reasons that they were not given an opportunity in that regard. The ARA model helped us to find out an athlete’s growth in a more commercial aspect. We then interpreted the model to fit the Indian sports industry context and that’s how the journey of the company started.

We now have 6 full time working colleagues and we don’t have any interns yet and depending on the scale of the project like the one we did, Reliance foundation HERO ISL children’s league, we hire people on a contractual basis. 

How do you define your company? Is it a private limited company or a partnership based one? Are there any investors? What was the initial capital and budget of the company when you started?

Athletes Today is a private limited company. It’s completely bootstrapped, self-funded. I put in all the money I had in my savings into the company when I co-founded it. (Abhishek co-founded the company with the company’s authorized capital amounting to Mrs 4.0 lakhs and has 25.0% paid-up capital which is Mrs 1.0 lakhs).

How have your contacts in the sports industry helped you in becoming the company you are today?

In 2012, my internship at DNA networks helped me build a good network and when I was doing my Masters in Sports management I came along with my batch-mates very well who are now working in big sports management companies and some are entrepreneurs themselves. We are actually a small community of people where it’s all about credibility, the type of work you have done and the type of contribution you have made to this field.

How does the company decide the player representation target? Does the company scout the players personally and what makes you think that “OK, Here we go! He is the one who we must represent!”?

Actually it’s not very difficult to reach out to people in the sports community in India as well as the sports community in abroad. We look at different aspects when we scout a talent. We work with different scouts for different sports. What we do is, we have a certain criteria for the selection and outlook of players. The player does not need to have a lot of talent but he/she must have an overall holistic approach towards his/her career especially the younger ones. We then do a stats check and background study on the player and go chat with him/her when we realise there are certain qualities in the player which will help us to build a profile around the player. We want to have a long term relationship with the player.

I would like to add that we are not an agency that is heavily funded or we want to work with 50+ athletes in our portfolio. We’d rather work with 5,10 or 15 athletes who we trust upon so that we can focus our attention on the player’s commercial aspects and developments.

Since the market for football in India is still growing, how difficult is to find the right players to represent, given the competition from other sports agencies as well? 

The football scene and market in India is growing. Also the people who are working in other agencies or owning one are my well-known friends or the people I know. So there has not been a lot of tussle between us because I’ve learned a lot from them when I’ve asked them for a certain advice or when they’ve asked me for a certain advice regarding important matters. We don’t see any agency as our competition. We just believe in our policy of signing 1 player in one year rather than signing 5 ones in one year and not giving the focus that they require. 

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Gurupreet Singh Sandhu and Sumit Rathi are one of your star clients. How did you manage to represent them?

Gurupreet Singh and I were in touch and then became friends when he was with Stabaek FC in Norway. I was a young agent who wanted to work with him when I started my company. Eventually, our relationship developed and he decided to work with us. I look upon him in the aspects of Indian football as a future star. He is a fantastic person and I always thought that he has a good commercial value, he is good looking and very good at his sport. So that just got our connections and synergies right and we landed up working together.

Sumit was a young boy when we scouted him during the FIFA U17 world cup in 2017. An interesting thing when we went by stats was that even though he did not get enough game time at the world cup, he was a product of Chandigarh Football Academy which is one of the best in India. So it was very easy for us as we didn’t have to check on Sumit’s background much. In terms of quality we were sure that he was technically good and now it was about the off field efforts and what we can do to guide the player in the right path. 

Sumit Rathi

Gurpreet Singh’s endorsement deal of 3 years is Puma’s longest engagement with any footballer in India. How did you manage to pull this off and how has this impacted the business surrounding footballers in India? 

Thank you for that question. I am glad that you have done good research on it. We had been reaching out to make some sort of an alignment with PUMA for a very long time because PUMA is one of the biggest growing brands in India. The relationship I have with PUMA is very good. The thing is PUMA wants to invest in Indian players whereas the approaches of other big brands are different. So what worked out for us was that we were in constant negotiations with PUMA for over 4 to 5 months when the Asia Cup was going on. 

Gurupreet had an excellent game at the Asia Cup and for Bengaluru FC in the HERO ISL as well. PUMA realised the potential of Gurupreet that he could become the captain of Indian football team in a couple of years as well as a star in Indian football and that it was the right time to sign him as a brand ambassador of the company and build the brand around him. 

So, when we work on any endorsements for a player, we make sure to seal a long term deal because there can be a lot of creative efforts and campaigns that can be put in the marketing side of the deal over the course of the agreement. This deal with PUMA has become iconic and I believe this deal will serve as a pathway of commercial opportunities for other footballers and sportspersons in India.

5 year contracts are rare in Indian football. Recently, Sumit Rathi signed a 5 year deal with ATK Mohun Bagan FC. What role has ‘Athletes Today’ played in the development and transition of the player?

Sumit is a young champ according to me. He was technically good as I said earlier. When he played for Indian Arrows, he was always used a substitute and played in the reserve squad where he did not get ample game time. For any young player, as long as he/she gets more game time and has good statistics, the money does not matter in the long run. As we had a good relationship with ATK in the regards when we made John Johnson move from Bengaluru FC to ATK in that 2018-19 season, ATK reached out to us to enquire about Sumit. We thought that this was a good move for Sumit as he can get enough playing time with their reserve side ATK B in the I-League 2nd division instead of getting benched in the I-League at Indian Arrows. Sumit understood the context and benefits as I had a good chat with him trying to tell him about how his career path will be.

Sumit then played for the reserve team with a lot of determination and hardwork and that year they won an under 18 cup final which was held in Nepal. Sumit came out as an outstanding performer and one of the best players in that tournament and he performed very well in the I-League 2nd divison games. This was a perfect breakout for Sumit to enter into the senior team during the last season Hero ISL 2019-20 where he was crowned the Emerging player of the League. 

The 5 year deal is an important aspect as the contexts of the contracts in India are slowly changing like the ones in European football. Clubs like ATK Mohun Bagan in India are wanting to sign players on long term contracts and focus on their development and create a sense of belonging of the player to the club among the fans.

Agent commissions in European transfer markets are mostly fixed at some percentage. Since there are no large transfer fees involved in India, how does the agent get an income from the transfer?

It depends on our relationships with different clubs and the valuation of the player we are representing. I can’t give you an exact percentage on it. There are a couple of factors which determines the agent fee like the length of the contract and valuation of the deal. You must be smart enough to evaluate the valuation and tenure of the deal and then negotiate with the clubs accordingly to come to an agreement. 

John Johnson

Besides football, what other sports is the company targeting? How established is the market of sports other than football and cricket? 

We are extremely focused on Olympic sports especially Hockey which is our national sport, Cycling. The first ever athlete we signed was Sushila Chanu from hockey background in 2017. We also want to focus on cycling which is also a growing sport in India. Right now with the current strength we have, football, hockey, cycling and gymnatics are the sports we would like to work upon. We signed Gymnast Meghana Reddy because we have a good relationship with Meghana and her family and we have been constantly working on her commercial aspects since then.

Is there any exclusive representation or a project the company is working on or planning to work on? Give your thoughts on it.

Yes. We are doing a couple of projects which we are looking forward to grow along with it. This year we had a successful campaign with the support of a privately owned football governing body and Reliance foundation we worked on Hero ISL Children’s League which is a grassroots football initiative by Mrs.Ambani. So we are very keen on involving with the grassroots development because it is the future of Indian football. Hopefully once the pandemic is over, we can get back to continuing our project for the second and third season and explore different opportunities in grassroots level.

In order to achieve bigger, the company has to expand its market to overseas. Do you have any plans regarding that? Where do you see your company in 5 years time? 

We have John Johnson who is one of the outstanding defenders in the HERO ISL with us and Cameron Watson as well with the later becoming a part of an iconic deal between Bengaluru FC and ATK when Johnson signed for ATK in 2018-19 Hero ISL season. We always have good connections with different European agencies who we are in touch with.

In 5 years time, we want to expand and venture into sports licensing which is a very developed concept in Asian and European sports market. We want to develop the concept in India too as it is an interesting opportunity where we get to a contractual agreement with a sports team to use its logo or trademark on different products and merchandises since we are also providing sponsorships for not only players but for franchises and leagues also. 

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