Sporthood: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Sports Club!
“We knew that Sports was the best way to stay fit, so we just decided to take the plunge. We knew there was value to be made here, and we would figure out a way to monetize it and scale it up.” — Rahul Thomas
“We wanted to enable people to get into sports. What do they need? They need infrastructure. They need like-minded people. Our solution can bring these together.” — Arun Nair
For most of us, our fondest memories of childhood revolve around the time we spent playing with our friends — fun games of cricket, football, badminton, or whatever other game was popular in our neighbourhood. But as we grew older, the balance between work and play seemed to get skewed as careers and responsibilities consumed our lives.
The disappearance of activity in our lives has a slow but sure effect on our physical and mental well-being — something most of us are aware of, but don’t really seem to be able to fix. Rahul Thomas and Arun Nair reached a similar awareness while they were working abroad in Germany and the US, respectively.
Given the readily available sports infrastructure of the western world, they found it easy to adopt an active lifestyle while living there. But when they moved back to India in 2011, they found themselves slipping back into a far more sedentary lifestyle.
“There was no place to go out and play here. And even if there was, there was no one to play with!” was the common complaint that struck a chord between the two IIM-A alumni who had passed out from the same engineering college previously, and found themselves working in the same company later.
The more the duo thought about the problem, the more convinced they were that it was one worth solving. It was this fundamental conviction they had in the need for and value of this solution that pushed them to create Sporthood — a sports based fitness solution.
Starting out, the team realized that the need for an active lifestyle was already recognized. As Arun observes, “Even back in 2012, everyone wanted to be active. But how? That was the tough question. The only answers available at the time were either going for a walk or a run, buying a cycle, or joining a gym. And we knew from our own experience and from that of our friends, that these solutions were not effective for most people.”
The team recognized sports as a solution with a lot of potential to spark that change in lifestyle, but they also realized that there were some major hurdles that needed to be overcome. The first was the obvious lack in infrastructure. As Arun points out, “Today, there has been a huge growth in sports infrastructure. But back in 2012, it was almost non-existent. There were barely any places where we could just go and play.”
The second obstacle was the absence of a viable sporting culture or ecosystem. “After school or college, we simply don’t have that group of people who are up for a game. And if you didn’t have a group of people in your contacts who are interested in sports, then it became impossible to play.” notes Rahul.
And so “How can we bring sports to you?” became the core focus of the team, which reflected in the first name they gave their venture — Sportz4You. With the intention of providing a solution for the 9-5 office-goers, they decided to reach out to people through their employers.
Organizations and HR teams were keen on promoting active lifestyles among their workforce, and so the team worked towards creating sports based corporate events. During this time, the team not only learnt the nitty-gritties of conducting sport events, setting up infrastructure and generating revenue, but also spent a lot of time learning about the market and the customer requirements.
Rahul explains, “It was a constant study in how people interacted with different modes of sports. The dynamic of team sports is entirely different when compared to individual sports. People from different age groups have very different needs. There are different motivations. Some people find tournaments exciting. Others come just for a few simple games. Some people come to have fun. Others come to compete.”
As they spent time with the various participants, the team realized that there was a gap between the requirements of the organization and the individuals. While a corporate event once a quarter was considered a success for the organization’s HR, it had minimal impact on the lifestyle of the individual participants of the event.
For the individuals, the commitment to these events was minimal. “They would have a great time for one day — enjoy the sport, be active. But the next day, they would go back to their usual lifestyle.” Arun explains. Playing for a couple of hours once a year had none of the positive impact the team wanted to create.
And so the team decided to change their model and put individuals at the front and center of their solution. Sports was ultimately a community activity, and Sporthood intended to solve a lifestyle problem at the neighbourhood level. They wanted to make it easily accessible and rewarding for people to choose sports on a daily basis.
The team was clear in their vision — they saw themselves as enablers for people who were already looking to pursue an active lifestyle. So they crafted a unique and effective customer experience that was customized as per the requirements of the individuals.
“Different people have very different needs when it comes to sports. Imagine someone who is 35-years-old, and is trying to pick up the game after a gap of 15 or 20 years. His requirement is to get re-introduced to the game, de-stress, have fun, and get fit — in that order.”
Sporthood hosts well-structured, skill-matched sessions which people can sign-up for as individuals. Each session includes a warm-up, some training, some game time, and a cool-down. The sessions are customized based on the skill level of the group — while beginner level sessions might spend more time on teaching the basics of the game, more advanced sessions might involve higher-level skill drills and more game time.
Sporthood is invested in creating the perfect user experience for anyone who comes to them. They have a separate “coach” application which delivers training material to the coaches. The curriculum is scientifically designed and structured as per the needs of the individuals.
As Rahul points out, “Traditional fitness trainers focus on making people super-fit. Traditional coaches focus on making people excel at the game. But at Sporthood, the focus is first and foremost on ensuring people enjoy the game. The fitness and skill building will surely follow.”
The most significant value that Sporthood has added has been in terms of the habit formation that they are promoting. By providing a solid sporting community and making it easier for people to just book a slot, turn up at a venue, and enjoy a good game, Sporthood is helping sport become an active lifestyle choice for the masses.
By the end of 2019, Sporthood was running about 25 self-operated centers across Kerala and Karnataka. They had just secured a second round of funding and the team was gearing up to expand their operations further.
But 2020 exploded with an entirely new set of challenges. The pandemic had a huge impact on the entire service industry. And Sporthood was not just in the service industry, it was completely based on community activities. The impact was massive — revenues dropped to zero overnight.
During the lockdown, the team spent a lot of time introspecting on what aspects of the Sporthood model were actually driving value. It was so much more than just providing a venue for people to play.
The first value they created was engaging with the community. The sporthood app along with their social media marketing and online presence was able to attract customers and aggregate the demand in the simplest and most direct manner possible.
Once the customers were on board, the next major value that Sporthood provided was their services — the user experience that they provided. There was already a system in place for how they conducted sessions and events. They had a curriculum in place for their coaching academy, as well as a coach app through which this was delivered to their coaches.
And finally, they had the backend infrastructure required for handling the end-to-end venue management and CRM lifecycle needs. The team realized that all of these services could be packaged to enable third-party venues to become fully-functional sports clubs by adopting the Sporthood model.
And so they worked towards productizing their services, and moved from a self-operated model towards a franchise model of operation. In this model, third-party venues can apply for a Sporthood franchise, out of which Sporthood selects those venues that match its pre-defined specifications.
Sporthood offers its entire tech infrastructure — from the customer app, to the coach app, to the backend club management system — to the venue to run their operations. Sporthood also ensures the quality of the services is maintained by taking care of the hiring and training of the staff as well as by performing periodic quality audits at each franchise venue.
Arun explains the motivation behind this shift — “The pandemic affected our entire industry. We realized that we’re all suffering together. But at Sporthood, we have a solid solution which we are now trying to package and make available to as many people as possible. All the venues who are signing up with us now will enjoy a distinct advantage when things return to normalcy, because they will be able to reach more customers, sell more, and have an efficient system in place to handle the demand.”
The team received their first angel funding in 2015, and considers that a major validation of their vision and goals from the business community. It helped solidify their plans and enabled them to create the first prototypes of the services that they provide today.
The next milestone was when they were able to scale up their operations to multiple sports and multiple locations. It reassured them that their solution was scalable and could work across various sporting formats — whether it was a team sport like football, or an individual sport like Badminton.
The team considers the establishment of their kids coaching academy to be their third major milestone. It proved their ability to reach out to people across various demographics and provide customized solutions based on their unique needs and requirements.
The most recent milestone they have achieved was when they moved into the full-stack operation model. They first achieved this with a single unbranded venue that they onboarded in early 2019. By the end of the year, the venue was outperforming all of their projections and proved to be a massive success.
This success encouraged them to shift to the franchise model of operation when the pandemic hit. Being able to onboard unbranded third party venues and transform them into fully-functional sports centers in a span of months was a strong indication of how successful their solution had become.
The potential of the Sporthood solution has also been endorsed by the two premier football clubs in the areas where they operate. Sporthood has been selected as the grassroots partner for the two ISL clubs from Karnataka and Kerala — Bengaluru FC and Kerala Blasters FC.
Through this partnership, all the grassroot training academies in the area will be run using the Sporthood model. This allows the clubs to provide hundreds and thousands of kids with standardized and high-quality training, and enables them to scout the best talent from amongst this large pool.
Sporthood is also associated with renowned sporting brands like PUMA and Yonex. There is a lot of curiosity about the Sporthood solution and they continue to receive enquiries from various other sporting brands including tennis and swimming brands. They have also received enquiries from other ISL clubs for possible partnerships.
The team’s long term vision is to provide an end-to-end sporting solution across the country. As Rahul tells us, “Wherever you are in the country, whichever sport you want to play, you should be able to find it on Sporthood.”
In the more immediate term, the team is focussing on expanding their operations across other locations in South India, starting with Tamil Nadu and Telangana. The team had already been moving towards expanding into swimming, but those plans had to be paused due to the pandemic-induced restrictions. But they are looking forward to adding adjacent sports like Cricket and Tennis to their portfolio.
As our societies have evolved into a more sedentary lifestyle, health has become a pressing problem for our communities. From children to teenagers to young adults to older people, everyone is looking at the same health crisis.
Sports is a powerful solution for many of these problems. For children, it not only helps build motor skills and physical fitness, but also help them learn social skills and develop their personality. It offers a way for people to destress, connect with the community, and stay fit — all at the same time.
By creating a positive and comfortable space where people can come to play a game and have fun, Sporthood is making it easier and more feasible for people to take a real and tangible step towards a healthier and happier lifestyle.