It was an august period for India. The country’s contingent to the Asian Games in Jakarta, held between August 18 and September 2, had notched up its best performance at the meet. As the country was celebrating its sporting heroes, a city was quietly congratulating itself for its contributions to the games.Meerut, already famous as the world’s manufacturing hub for top quality cricket gear, had provided the shot puts and javelins that Swapna Barman (heptathlon), Tajinderpal Singh Toor (shot put) and Neeraj Chopra (javelin throw) used to win their gold medals. The medals were a victory for the sport goods makers in the city trying to diversify into athletics, fitness, gym and other high-end equipment.
“Meerut has already made a name as the world’s top manufacturing hub for cricket goods,” says Puneet Mohan Sharma, president of the All India Sports Goods Manufacturers Federation. “But new and niche sectors such as gym equipment and weights for athlete training are providing companies here an opportunity to diversify and reach out to new markets globally. Cricket, after all, is restricted to only 125 countries.”
The sports industry in India is moving beyond cricket towards a wide variety of other sports, resulting in the growth of viewership, participation, and sports-related industries, said a June 2018 India Briefing report from business advisory firm Dezan Shira & Associates. This is opening up new sports business opportunities for investors looking at the Indian market – from brand building and infrastructure to niche entrepreneurial ventures, emerging technologies and services, the report said. Meerut’s brands and track record gives it a crucial advantage to gain the most from this shift.The city in Uttar Pradesh is home to 15 top brands in sports equipment, including table tennis, weightlifting, sportswear, gymnastics, weight training and fitness. The value of sports goods exported in 2017-18 was Rs 1,079 cr, according to the commerce ministry. The All India Sports Goods Manufacturers Federation says 60% of the sports goods made in India are exported, which pegs the sector at approximately Rs 1,750 crore. Meerut alone has 45% share of the export market. There are roughly 3,000 units in the city, employing around 25,000 workers, according to industry estimates. The industry, comprising mainly small scale units, employs around 500,000 people around the country. The value of the country’s sports goods market could not be ascertained as industry experts said it was difficult to estimate the highly unorganised market.But the commerce ministry projects the segment to grow 8% in 2018-19. This has made sports goods makers in Meerut gear up to corner a wider market. Availability of skilled and unskilled labour, proximity to Delhi and the presence of a large number of established manufacturers give this city added advantages over other sports hubs such as Jalandhar, which was a hub for inflatables such as footballs but has been losing its market share to other countries.
Meerut has over the past few years seen the emergence of top brands that are making a global impact in athletics and track and field gear, table tennis and niche fitness equipment, including gear used by athletes, says Amber Anand, director of Nelco Sport. “Meerut is already the world’s top cricket bats manufacturing hub and companies here have been able to use the brand advantage to enter other niche products and make a mark.” Jalandhar in Punjab, which is an older sports goods hub in India, employs more people but the manufacturing sector has remained unorganised. “Jalandhar is the hub for manufacturing balls and inflatables, but it is losing ground to different countries, including Pakistan and China. Unfortunately, companies in that region have not taken enough efforts to diversify,” says Anand.Apart from Nelco, other Meerut-based companies that have been diversifying into niche athletic, track-and-field products and the super-specialised fitness products market in India and abroad include Sports Land Overseas, National Sports and Anand Track & Field.Bhalla International is another such company. Barman used a javelin made by Bhalla to win a gold during her heptathlon event at Jakarta. “We have been among the top five exporters of javelins globally for more than a decade,” says Shekhar Bhalla, vice-president at Bhalla International. “Our own brand, Vinex, for athletics and fitness products is exported to 150 countries and recognised by the International Association of Athletics Federation as a quality product.”
Bhalla, 38, is the third generation in his family managing the 61-year-old sports goods manufacturing company. Over the last few years, the company has increasingly focused on athletics and fitness products, with outdoor gym products having emerged as a new line of business growth in the Indian market. “Since the past three years, we have been adding more new and specialised products and product lines in the area of niche fitness for athletes and fitness enthusiasts as well as gym products for large areas such as malls and outdoor parks,” adds Bhalla. The organisers of the Rio Olympics even gifted an Olympic torch to the company as a recognition for being a top quality supplier of javelins and other equipment during the 2016 event. Bhalla says he had to pay Rs 42,000 as import duty to take possession of the prestigious souvenir from the customs department.But he is not complaining. The fitness, gym and exercise category is estimated to reach Rs 2,000 crore in five years, according to industry sources. This is a sweet spot for established companies like Bhalla International — and quite a few of these are based in Meerut.Anand of Nelco Sport, too, sees high-end gyms and fitness equipment as the next big thing for sports goods manufacturers from Meerut. “Sports goods from Meerut are already internationally respected and accredited. Our products, for instance, have a high-degree of hand-tooling, which is essential for top-end athletics and fitness products.” Nelco is a top global manufacturer of discuses and exports over 30,000 units annually. “Throwing implements made by us are used by the world’s top athletes, including Olympians. Every item that we make for exports needs to be precision tested and handtooled, which gives us an edge over products made in other countries like China,” adds Anand.Anand, too, is the third generation in his family managing the company set up in 1942 by his grandfather. The company exports to 200 countries and has an annual export turnover of $2 million. Companies were not willing to share their manufacturing and sales numbers.
Earlier this year, the company, which has patents to top-end discuses, started supplying equipment for top-end gyms across India. Clients include government agencies, colleges and universities, companies and other institutional users. The diversification into high-end gym gear was easy for Nelco as its manufacturing facility employs welltrained staff and has cutting-edge machinery. “We spent two years on this diversification, developing product lines and working on engineering and biomechanics. It is paying off now. While a lot of gym equipment in India is still sourced from China, domestic manufacturers such as us provide buyers with the advantages of lower costs and better maintenance support,” adds Anand.Another tailwind Meerut is hoping to ride on is the government’s Khelo India programme, which in 2017 set aside Rs 1,756 crore to upgrade fitness equipment and to also set up open gyms in public parks.“The fitness industry is growing,” says Kunal Mahajan, vice-president of marketing of National Sports. “People have become aware of more sports. Athletes playing any sport require quality fitness and training accessories.” This is where National, the maker of fitness accessories such as push-up bars and tubes, plans to widen its base. Another firm, Anand Track & Field, is focussed on weight training equipment for fitness. Sports Land Overseas has emerged as a niche exporter of equipment for training of international footballer players.Growth for the sector will come only from diversification and by exploring new and niche products. Aditya Mahajan, CEO of BD Majan & Sons, makers of the iconic BDM cricket gear, says: “While Meerut is known for cricket gear around the world, there are also top brands here for boxing, athletics and niche fitness equipment. Cricket equipment is only exported to 60 countries and even in India, there are more cricket fans who watch the game rather than play.”But diversification won’t be of any use unless the sports goods companies in Meerut can reinvent themselves, say experts. Most companies here are old family-run entities. This makes the managers risk-averse, says Dharam Mahajan, chairman of Meerut-based Sports Goods Export Promotion Council. “Besides, the industry is largely dominated by small-scale units and the city faces a lot of larger infrastructure challenges.”However, like many others who have their offices and facilities along the narrow and pot-holed Suraj Kund Road, he is hopeful that the new 14-lane Meerut-Delhi Expressway will boost business for the city’s sports goods makers.
Read more: economictimes.indiatimes.com