16 August 2013

Determined entrepreneurs boosting sports

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

When Nawang Nima and Tshering Norbu Lama approached investors about financing what would be Nepal’s first futsal hall they were given many reasons why their project would fail. Perhaps the most memorable one was a relative asserting that when ten hot-blooded males are under the same roof, as is the case for a typical futsal match, there are bound to be fights and the facility would quickly be ruined.

Despite the naysayers, eventually the two brothers got the funding they needed and opened Futsal Arena at the GAA Hall in Thamel. Two years after establishing the futsal facility, close to twenty more futsal halls have popped up across Nepal. Many football aficionados are hailing the rapid rise of futsal in Nepal as a massive boon to the much more famous 11-a-side version of the game, as futsal greatly helps strengthen a player’s fundamental techniques in football and the facilities allow for uninterrupted play year round.

The story of Futsal Arena is one of a growing number of examples of how determined sports entrepreneurs and enthusiasts are boosting sports in Nepal. With a dysfunctional national government and sports associations short on cash and high on politics it is these resolute sports buffs, whether they are of the for-profit or non-profit variety, that are helping Nepali sports move forward.
Screenshot of GoalNepal.com
GoalNepal.com is another example of gritty sports entrepreneurs providing the impetus for sports development. It could be argued that the highly popular website might be the most influential force in Nepali football. With millions of hits from Nepali football fans across the globe, close to 100,000 ‘Likes’ on Facebook and a recently launched mobile app GoalNepal has played a leading role in promoting and developing Nepali football.

The site has turned little known players into celebrities, given robust exposure to football sponsors and provided a spotlight to tournaments and football related activities across Nepal that are normally under the radar.

It has not always been smooth sailing for GoalNepal according to its founder and CEO Bikram Thapa. Nepali companies are still tepid about venturing into online advertising thus the financial challenges for the football portal have been constant.

Despite the cash crunch and also overzealous football fans, officials and media members - including this blogger, giving it shtick on a regular basis, GoalNepal has persevered. The company employs twelve staff and is involved in a wide range of football initiatives. Leveraging its popularity GoalNepal launched the highly popular “I ♥ Nepali Football” campaign, assists many football development projects and is active in various charitable endeavors.

Like GoalNepal, many other private sports ventures have overcome numerous obstacles and transformed themselves from startups to kickstarters that are strengthening Nepal’s sports ecosystem.

The NSJF Sports Award has risen from a friendly gathering of sports journalists at a local party palace to a can’t-miss event in Nepal’s sports calendar that has helped motivate and inspire athletes and coaches especially in the less glamorous sports.

ATTSH has gone from a small T-shirt store to a sports brand that sponsors a multitude of players and clubs.

Adventure sports events that mostly consisted of local participants are now attracting more and more international ones thus bolstering Nepal’s sports tourism sector.

A common thread between most of these sports ventures is that they have largely stayed independent from government and official sports bodies who in the upside-down world of Nepali sports tend to create far more hurdles than solutions. For example futsal tournaments, which according to football’s world governing body –FIFA, are under the jurisdiction of national football associations, do not care to ask for recognition or clearance from the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) and hardly any of the futsal halls have bothered to invite high-ranking sports officials for their inaugurations or prize ceremonies.
Sahara Club Pokhara training facility
Sahara Club's training facility

In a recent trip to Kaski district, Bikram Thakali, President of Sahara Club, took me to their newly built football training facility on the outskirts of Pokhara. He told me that the entire area where the facility resides used to be a jungle and many people who saw the then proposed site felt there was no way a training complex could be built there and perhaps Sahara Club was running a scam to solicit donations.

Mr. Thakali said the club quickly learned there was no point talking about what they were going to do and the only alternative was to work round the clock to make their dream a reality and prove the doubters wrong. Today the Sahara Club training facility is the only proper football training complex owned by a club and it easily rivals any of the ANFA facilities built through FIFA grants.

In a sports landscape that is rife with pessimism, it is the tenacity and resolve of these types of sports entrepreneurs and enthusiasts that give us a reason to be optimistic about the future of Nepali sports.