25 October 2013

A hidden hero of Nepali football

Kumar Pradhan with his protégés Nirajan, Bhola and Sagar
(This article originally appeared in Republica)

One face not present at the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) Congress on Thursday, ironically, might be one of the most important persons in Nepali football. Kumar Pradhan is a name that many even in Nepal´s inner football circles are not familiar with.

The 51-year-old longtime resident of Biratnagar just so happens to be the coach that groomed national football team captain Sagar Thapa and star midfielder Bhola Silwal during their youth football days.

He also played an important role in the careers of other prominent footballers including Nirajan Khadka, Buddha Chemjong and Deepak Rai.

Want more? Mr Pradhan recently sent three players to the ANFA Academy, he was instrumental in organizing grassroots coaching and refereeing courses in Biratnagar (full disclosure - I worked with him on those projects) and regularly prepares and takes teams to tournaments across Nepal and India.

With a resume like that, one would presume he would be a celebrity amongst the football fraternity, but in the enigmatic landscape of Nepali football he is pretty much anonymous. You will not see Mr Pradhan winning a motorbike from ANFA or a NSJF Sports Award anytime soon.

Surprisingly, Mr Pradhan, who once played for the Mechi football team alongside Bagrinath Ale and other prominent footballers, seems oblivious to the fact that he should be getting more plaudits for his career´s work. Asked if he felt shunned when there was no mention of him when his protégé Sagar Thapa became an overnight hero after scoring a miraculous free kick against Bangladesh in the 2011 SAFF Championship, Mr Pradhan had a blank look on his face as if to say, “That never even crossed my mind.”

The lack of recognition of Mr Pradhan highlights many deficiencies in Nepal´s sports sector, including a sports media that fails to chase stories, sports associations filled with cronies and a dysfunctional development system.

In last season´s Martyr´s Memorial ´A´ Division Football League, Mr Pradhan was named the interim head coach of Friends Club and rescued a talented team from a dismal start to the league season. Under his guidance, Friends Club pulled off five victories in a row and qualified for the Super League. Despite the remarkable turnaround by Friends Club, there was hardly a peep in the news media about Mr Pradhan coaching Friends Club or his curious background.

Since holding the position of treasurer of the Morang District Football Association about a decade back, Mr Pradhan has not been asked to be a member of the association in the two previous election cycles. Instead Morang District Football Association´s committee is filled with persons whose contribution to local football is quite questionable.

Despite having developed 10% of Nepal´s current national football team, Mr Pradhan lacks any formal football coaching certification and his understanding of modern coaching methods and international football is limited. One only wonders what type of players he could develop if given access to advanced coaching courses and seminars.

The above complaints are those of this columnist and not Mr Pradhan, who actually seems quite content with his laidback life in Biratnagar. Today, he is a sports teacher at the local Delhi Public School franchise and after classes he continues to train youths in football at Biratnagar´s Sahid Stadium.

Mr Pradhan´s dedication to football is so strong that long after his family, including his wife and three of his four children, moved to Kathmandu he continues to reside in Biratnagar so that he can keep indulging in his passion for coaching football.

For Mr Pradhan, being a hidden hero is not so bad. He is uncomfortable with the spotlight and feels more fame can create more problems. Just being able to coach football to youths on a regular basis is all the reward he requires.

11 October 2013

Nepali cricket needs to ramp up marketing

(This article originally appeared in Republica)

It is Twenty20 cricket like you have never seen before: non-existent crowds, no entertainment and unrecognizable teams. Welcome to Nepal's National T20 Cricket Tournament. At least they do have two sponsors - Pepsi and Standard Chartered.

A recent visit to Pulchowk Engineering College ground left this columnist perplexed at the lack of creativity of Cricket Association of Nepal (CAN) in organizing Nepal´s premier T20 event. Was CAN's goal to generate or drive away interest from the sport they are supposed to be guardians of domestically?

It is easy to forgive smaller sports associations that are hardly exposed to their own sport at the international level for lacking imagination, but in a country that is flooded by Indian pop-culture and by extension of Indian Premier League (IPL) and Champions League (CL) T20 cricket, Nepal's cricket organizers must either be living in a cave or extremely apathetic to not even adopt a single marketing gimmick to lure fans or enhance media coverage of their event.

While Nepal might not be ready for skanky IPL style cheerleaders yet, how hard would it have been to invitea DJ, play some jock-rock, toss prizes to fans or pass out flags to spectators - all of which could have likely be done through the support of sponsors at no cost to the organizers.

A prominent cricket star, whose name I will withhold to save him the grief of having to explain himself to the authorities, commented that the T20 tournament was just a formality and expecting more from Nepal´s cricket administrators was naive.

Such comments are disheartening to hear, especially as Nepal sits on a cricket goldmine. As seen by the passionate packed crowds during the ACC T20 tournament recently held in Kathmandu, the fan interest is certainly there. Nepal is in a cricket-mad region, which it could potentially leverage in so many ways.

This is why CAN and its partners really need to start ramping up their marketing efforts so it can start attracting the revenues to take cricket in the country to the next level.

By accident or design cricket actually has severaladvantages in terms of marketability over football, which attracts the lion's share of corporate support in Nepal. For example, unlike football which primarily revolves around Kathmandu based clubs, Nepali cricket consists of teams from various regions of the country. If marketed properly, the whole concept of supporting your hometown team could really attract strong crowds. One could envision a scenario where transplants from places like Biratnagar, Pokhara and Nepalgunj congregate at TU Cricket Ground to not only cheer their local team but also reconnect with friends, family and neighbors from their hometown.

CAN's logo, a rhino head, also offers some great marketing opportunities. Media could be encouraged to use the nickname “Rhinos” when referring to Nepal's cricket team and “Colts” when talking about the juniors. There could be merchandising spin-offs and marketing campaigns with sponsors based on the whole Rhinos moniker.

The National T20 Cricket Tournament might be the best place to start, as the format of the competition lends itself well to commercialization and most sports enthusiasts in the country are very familiar with the IPL.

CAN should start by dropping the meaningless regional numbers next to the name of the teams, have each team play in consistent colors, play the famous T20 horn over a loud speaker and engage fans with prizes, flags, etc.

Add some flash. Give all the teams a nickname -Kanchanpur Kricketers, Pokhara Lakers, Kathmandu Kingz - be creative!

If all this is too taxing for CAN, then they would do well to consider outsourcing events such as their T20 tournament to an event management company and let them do all the heavy lifting. Another veteran cricket player I spoke with felt that would be far more realistic scenario, “CAN would be very positive to such a proposal but the event management company would have to approach CAN as CAN is certainly not going to approach them and there lies part of the problem,” he said with a sense of frustration.

So for the sake of Nepali cricket fans, if you are a marketing or event management company and want to tap into a goldmine - please contact CAN.