IPL Effect: Startup VCs Bet On Sports 


Tiger Global's potential investment in IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals could open the floodgates for sports tech investments

India’s tech economy may go through downturns and cycles every few years, but cricket is the one major opportunity that’s forever on the up. And at this point of time in 2023, this means the IPL.

With this year’s edition of the Indian Premier League coming to its conclusion today, all eyes are on the next year. Even VCs and global hedge funds are eyeing a piece of the IPL pie.

And why not? After all, the IPL has proved to be a showcase event for two large conglomerates — the main sponsor Tata as well as the digital broadcaster Reliance Jio. So naturally, even the likes of Tiger Global are now looking at sports investments as a way to beat the tech slowdown.

Will this translate into real gains for India’s fledgling and nascent sports tech ecosystem? Find out what analysts and investors have to say after a look at these top stories from our newsroom this week:

  • Ashneer Grover’s Real ‘Doglapan’: Our deep-dive into the battle between Ashneer Grover and BharatPe, where a war of misinformation, threats and lies has gone on unabated for nearly 16 months now. A must-read this weekend with plenty of insider information that has gone unreported thus far.
  • IAMAI’s ‘Swadeshi’ Leadership: Dream Sports’ CEO Harsh Jain was named the new chairman of IAMAI, after a tussle between Indian startups and big tech to wrest control of the industry body
  • ONDC’s Grocery Play: ONDC is now looking to grab a piece of the grocery delivery market. Quick commerce platforms such as Blinkit, Instamart and Zepto could have a new headache to deal with

Tiger Global’s IPL Stripes

This week began with the IPL playoffs kicking off in Chennai and incidentally, reports about Tiger Global Management looking to buy a stake in IPL cricket team Rajasthan Royals in a rare bet on an Indian sports business.

The US-based crossover fund is said to be in discussions with the team’s co-owner Emerging Media Ventures Ltd to invest $40 Mn. UK-based Emerging Media is the majority shareholder of Rajasthan Royals, which was set up in 2008, the first edition of the IPL, which the team also won.

In 2021, US-based investment firm RedBird Capital acquired a stake in the Rajasthan franchise, valuing it at over $250 Mn. Tiger’s potential investment would take this valuation to over $650 Mn as per reports.

Like most IPL franchises, the Royals have an ardent fan base and it has also attracted some big name players over the years, but Tiger’s interest has brought on a different kind of spotlight.

It raises the question of whether instead of the digital and tech economy, sports investments are the next big battlegrounds for private equity giants and VCs.

We wrote in February about Tiger Global changing its investment strategy in recent years given the tech slowdown. Overall, it has invested in 40 out of India’s 108 unicorns and 18 out of the 100 soonicorns in India, and a portfolio of 124 unique startups since 2014, as per Inc42 data.

But in February, Tiger Global partner Scott Shleifer claimed returns from India have been lukewarm, “Our returns in India, our IRR, is something like 20% gross since inception,” he had claimed, adding that this was close to 30% for the US and 50% for China.

Perhaps, Shleifer was hinting at how Tiger is going after startups at a much early stage in 2023, or it may be about sports investments making up for the uncertain returns situation in its startup portfolio.

Tech Downturn Spurs Sports Deals

While traditionally, institutional investors have backed large teams in US basketball, ice hockey, American football and other leagues, the IPL has a significantly lower share of foreign investors.

But like the English Premier League, where a number of US-based institutional funds have backed teams, the IPL is now emerging as a clear and lucrative opportunity for Tiger and other major funds.

In 2021, UK-based CVC Capital Partners became the first private equity firm to own an IPL team with the rights to operate the Ahmedabad-based Gujarat Titans with a bid of INR 5,625 Cr. CVC has invested billions in sports deals such as the international rugby union, Spanish La Liga, as well as motor sports properties such as Formula One and MotoGP.

It must also be noted that Viacom 18’s $3 Bn digital media rights deal for IPL also was a record for the Indian market.

Jio Cinema became the official digital broadcaster as a result of this deal and the IPL itself has attracted significant investments from tech startups as well over the past few years. Most notably, the likes of CRED, Acko and several fantasy gaming platforms have cashed in on the IPL mania.

Where startups go, VCs often follow, but there’s credible proof of the IPL’s rising stock in the global sports arena. According to D&P Advisory, the combined valuation of IPL teams rose to $10.9 Bn in 2022 from $6 Bn in 2020.

It must also be noted that the women’s IPL, which saw its inaugural edition in 2023, is another major investment opportunity for global investors. Rajasthan Royals narrowly missed out on bagging the rights for a women’s IPL team in January.

Mainstream Moment For Sports Tech?

Of course, cricket is just one of the sports where private investments and franchise-based leagues have drawn in major investors. The question is whether the IPL is a signal for a larger push for sports investments in India.

For instance, Flipkart cofounder Binny Bansal is reported to be in talks to invest in the Bengaluru-based franchise in the Prime Volleyball League (PVL), which is part owned by Ankit Nagori, founder of cloud kitchen startup Curefoods a former Flipkart senior exec. Similarly, PhonePe founders Sameer Nigam and Rahul Chari bought the rights for the Mumbai-based franchise in the PVL named Mumbai Meteors.

With tech entrepreneurs and investors backing Indian sports teams, the sports tech segment might well see a big boost. So far, only a handful of startups in this space have attracted funding and gained traction.

Within the sports tech segment, startups catering to esports have been the major benefittors of VC deals. But this could soon expand to other verticals, especially if domestic investors also join the spree. India’s gaming market was valued at $2.6 Bn in FY22 and is expected to grow to $8.6 Bn by FY27 growing at a CAGR of 27%. Interestingly, Indians spent an average of 8.5 hours per week on mobile games in FY22.

“There’s little doubt that esports represents the best bet for investors because they are mostly global products, but the fact that major VCs are betting on Indian sports leagues means they will also eye adjacent categories in sports tech. Tiger Global’s entry might open the floodgates,” according to the founder of a Delhi NCR-based esports-focussed company, which recently raised funding.

Cricketers Lead The Charge

“With star cricketers earning millions from endorsements and lucrative sporting contracts, it’s only a matter of time before others also branch out in sports tech,” according to the spokesperson of Bengaluru-based fantasy and casual gaming platform, which declined to speak on the record because of potential conflicts of interest.

Delhi-based Stupa Analytics is one of the more prominent sports-focussed startups in India, working with coaches and athletes to improve their performance through actionable real-time analytics. It also has international athletes as customers, but so far there have been no real breakout startups in this space from India.

Cricketers such as Shikhar Dhawan, Virat Kohli, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev and Saurav Ganguly have also turned investors in startups, but this has largely been for D2C brands, casual gaming and fintech products. Now, however, some of them are looking to directly invest in sports tech.

Dhawan launched a fund in December last year to invest in sports tech startups with an initial corpus of $75 Mn. In August 2021, Dream11’s investment arm Dream Capital launched a $250 Mn fund to back sportstech, gaming and fitness startups, with a multi-stage investment strategy.

Dhawan’s company Da-One Group operates a chain of sports academies across the country. Its products include a tech-enabled training programme for various sports, a video analytics product as well as Stance Beam, an IoT-based analytics platform for batters.

So even though IPL 2023 might be coming to a close tonight, this might yet prove to be the biggest year of sports tech in India.

Startup Spotlight: The Souled Store’s U-Turn To Profits

Scaling up a D2C brand poses constant hurdles and challenges. Just ask The Souled Store. Despite the near-2x rise in operating revenue, The Souled Store slumped to INR 26 Cr in losses in FY22 after seeing INR 51 Lakh profit the previous year.

What followed in the past year could become a playbook for other D2C brands in the apparel and lifestyle space. The startup reduced its reliance on aggressive marketing and huge discounts to reach 80% revenue growth in FY23, with EBITDA-positive operations.

Check out The Souled Store story

Sunday Roundup: Funding, Tech Stocks & More

Startup Funding On The Up: The end of May has brought some good news for startups as more than $476 Mn was raised across 16 deals in the past week. Is this the beginning of a turnaround in startup funding?

Announcing MoneyX: Inc42’s all-new conference, MoneyX, will bring together 400+ leading limited partners, fund managers & angel investors to shed light on the future of startup investments in India. Find out more here

Nykaa Profit Plunges: Nykaa’s net profit fell by a whopping 70% YoY to INR 2.3 Cr in Q4 FY23 as rise in total expenditure and tax expenses hurt the beauty commerce giant’s bottom line

Info Edge Writes Off Bijnis: Info Edge has written off its entire investment of INR 76.6 Cr in Bijnis as per its FY23 financials, but has claimed this is a technical write-off and not an indicator of business downturn

We’ll be back next Sunday with more. TIll then, follow us on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest news as it happens.

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