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Friday, August 14, 2020

Unlocking sport: The Deal is in the Duel

With big-ticket events too risky, one-on-one sporting contests at a secure venue may be the best option for sport to survive.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Updated: June 16, 2020 1:24:45 pm
TV With television currently struggling with content and banking on re-runs and fuzzy nostalgia, individual duels could provide live action. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

If travel restrictions persist and mega events remain difficult to pull off due to the Covid-19 pandemic, sport might be forced to tap into the hyper-localised option: a prize-fight duel. Logistically not as much a nightmare as circuit tournaments needing large numbers of players to travel, and easily manageable in bio-secure spaces with only officials, two players and perhaps a tight support staff needed with broadcast cameras augmenting the rest of the razzle dazzle, The Duel could be the one-off contests that keep the sporting economy and interest alive.

Imagine a stand-alone PV Sindhu Vs Saina Nehwal rematch in Hyderabad with a week-long build-up. On the athletics track, it could be Hima Das against VK Vismaya for the ultimate one-lap one-on-one. Or a mouth-watering javelin jam session featuring Tokyo-bound stars Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh. The options are endless (see box).

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Athletics Federation of India president Adille Sumariwalla says he is open to the idea as the global body of track and field tried out something similar in pole vault recently and garnered a million views. “The idea of one-on-one duels needs to be looked at. It’ll need someone to take leadership, put money on the table and bring me a marketing plan. We are 100 per cent open,” he says adding that merely having a good crop of javelin throwers or quarter-milers might not suffice.

“I understand javelin has a good crop in India, but sport without entertainment cannot exist. It’s not about the quality of X, Y, Z in the field. Someone will need to take a punt on a duel like this and make it the biggest competition in the country,” he says.

Former player promoter Shailendra Singh reckons it’s a sensational time to reboot sports. “Sport is entertainment and I’d be game to watch a one-on-one duel between India’s young athletes. Sportspersons are warriors – they play for medal, money or pride. For generations, sport has glamourised the battle, so if there’s an opportunity forced on you during an adversity, this would be the best time to do it.

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Athletes have two motivations – they love to play and they really like to get paid. The Duel fulfills both,” he says. There’s a third — playing for the country, but the Olympics got postponed.

“Olympics has its pedestal and it’s very traditional but the biggest idea that works in sport is creating rivalries between two individuals or cities. Every evolved sporting society has been about sport that’s mega-local. Take European football or American boxing or IPL,” Singh argues.

CWG 2018 badminton live Saina vs Sindhu: Indian badminton’s high-octane rivalry, last seen at the 2019 Nationals. (File Photo)

While Sumariwalla is unsure about what sort of numbers will actually tune in to make such a venture profitable for television, Tuhin Mishra of Baseline Ventures – who manage Sindhu – is wary the concept could go down the slippery slope of ‘exhibition matches’.

“It could be done. I am not commenting in terms of Sindhu versus Saina, but it is something which can always be explored. But what happens a lot of times is that an exhibition match becomes an exhibition match. You enjoy sport when everyone is giving their all, so when you are playing a tournament, a championship, there is something attached to it, otherwise everything becomes a ‘masala match’. At any given point of time we rather watch them play some serious stuff,” Mishra says.

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With television currently struggling with content and banking on re-runs and fuzzy nostalgia, these duels could provide live action. Lydia Buthello, formerly of Star Sports, who helped steer kabaddi and Indian Super League football on the network, is sceptical.

“The answer is not as simple as taking any sport and putting it on TV for a consumer to lap it up, because there is a lack of international sporting content. Be it international or national, there is a certain production quality and certain games that bring in viewership and participation. The prize fight in my opinion would be on TV/digital platforms irrespective. I don’t think it’s going to fill any vacuum that’s been created by any other sport,” she says.

But given the lockdown restrictions, it’s the best option. Though, the money on offer will need to be good enough for athletes to leave their hibernations, train hard gearing towards a one-off and risk high-intensity duels in a pre-Olympic year.

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On the flip side, India has always lacked the scalding domestic tests ahead of an Olympics that sharpens the edge of Games-bound athletes who emerge from the ultra-competitive trials in Jamaican sprints or American gymnastics or Iranian wrestling.

Prize fights that began in renaissance London and morphed from bare-knuckle blood sport to civilised, rule-bound boxing bouts, can offer Indian sports broadcasters a compact format with just two adversaries to build their weekend big fights around.

However, Shailendra Singh takes a pin to the bubble.

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“India is traditionally a land of traders, not innovators. So, there’s a habit to say ‘No’ to things soon as they are suggested and stick to the known. So, expect resistance from all sides,” says the player-promoter from yesteryear.

But, hemmed in on all sides by the constricting threat of the virus in what is a nightmare for international sport in 2020, a duel might well turn out as the only option left on the table.

The Duellers

Saina vs Sindhu: Indian badminton’s high-octane rivalry, last seen at the 2019 Nationals

Anshu Malik vs Pooja Dhanda: Technically sound and cunning on the mat in 57 kg, the baby-faced Anshu is a relentless lawn mower who can fight at high intensity for the full six minutes. Pooja, a World Championship medallist, has been thwarted by Anshu’s mat-craft in the past

Sushil vs Narsingh: A pity that the maverick Ramesh Gulia isn’t around to boss over them both, but what was left unfinished circa 2016 Olympics needs a firecracker finish.

K Srikanth vs Lakshya Sen: A past World No. 1 and the one snapping at his heels, can’t wait to watch a creative stroke-maker being pushed to the limit by a determined defender

Apurvi Chandela vs Elavenil Valarivan vs Anjum Moudgil: The Olympics allow for only two per country in the 10m air rifle. But what does one do when a country has gold – silver – bronze capabilities? And they are all dressed up and no Olympics to go.

Vikas Krishan vs Duryodhan Negi: Vikas starts as the favourite every single time. And underdogs don’t come more spirited than Duryodhan.
Mary Kom vs Nikhat Zareen: All bravado needs to be rewarded in boxing, and the trials that went behind closed doors deserve a TV premiere.

Bombay vs Delhi T20: It’s Rohit Sharma vs Virat Kohli, of course. But really, you could put anyone from the two cities that can’t stand each other, and you’d get drama to last a fortnight.

Neeraj Chopra vs Shivpal Singh: The javelin duo is amongst the first crop of spearmen to have raised hopes of the big breakthrough in track and field at the Olympics. It’s a race to 90m between Messrs 86.23 and 88.06, but it’s the sensational sprints on the runway and the soaring metal tip that makes for great TV.

Mirabai Chanu vs 212 kg: She is a force of nature and needs no opponent. Haunted by a failure at the Rio Olympics in the 48kg, and having crossed 200kg twice this year before the pandemic struck, the weightlifter was primed to lift 90 kg in snatch and 120 in clean & jerk in Kazakhstan at an Asian meet to pick the gauntlet for Tokyo. No matter. She could do that for a domestic TV audience that’ll stay riveted on every sinew and muscle of the wonder woman as she chases the target — set by China’s Jiang Huihua.

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