Sport, Interrupted: Kerala's boat-race economy navigates choppy waters

Measuring between 100 and 138 feet long, each snake boat has around 110 rowers on board during a race. Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the sporting economy to a shuddering halt. In India, the lockdown and its longer-term implications threaten the future of clubs, academies, leagues, support staff, all the people who help move the wheels of sport. In this series, which ends with this story, ESPN looked across the country's sporting ecosystem, from the big clubs to the neighbourhood academies, to see how they've been affected.

♪ Thi thi thaara thi thi thai...♪

It's July, when the waters of south Kerala come alive to the sounds of the vanchipattu or boat-song. It is the soundtrack to the world's largest team sport: snake-boat racing.

Part sporting tournament, part tourist attraction and part cultural event, the Kerala boat races - traditionally held between July and September - are a grand spectacle. Starting with the snake boats (chundan vallam, literally "beaked boat", a reference to their shape), which are 100-138 feet long; there are nine boats in a race, each with around 110 rowers on board.

There's a long tradition to the races - the oldest of which, at Champakulam (70 kms south of Kochi), was first held in 1545 - but their current avatar is very 21st-century: the Champions Boat League (CBL), which the state government started last year. Nine teams compete in 12 races in a modern league format for a total prize pool of Rs 6 Crore (US$800,000), the most prize money in Indian sport after the IPL (cricket), the ISL (football) and the PKL (kabaddi).

When these chundans slip into the water, the vanchipattu is omnipresent --♪ Thi thi thaara thi thi thai...♪ -- the tunes setting the rhythm for the rowers as they propel these massive vessels forward.

This year, the waters are silent.

More from our Sport, Interrupted series

Ajil Kumarakom, manager of the Vembanad Boat Club, one of the nine in the CBL, says that it's for the best. "More than a hundred people sit close together on the chundan, tens of thousands packing the banks to watch the race, none of this is acceptable [in the current scenario], it is just not right."

"Besides," says Ajil, "the government's financial situation will be precarious at the moment."

Bala Kiran, IAS, Director of Kerala Tourism, who runs the CBL, says that they feel "the existing situation is not conducive" for the season to commence anytime soon. He maintains that the government will wait and watch. "If things get better by October or so, we can do an abridged version of the CBL [in October-November]. If it doesn't happen, we will have to wait till next year," he says.

The CBL was started as boat racing's answer to the franchise-ation of sport across India, a business model that would help both the competing teams and the government.

And they needed help.

For years, most of the boat clubs that race the chundans had been under crushing debt. Mostly because there's no real revenue in snake boat racing.

"Take the Nehru Trophy Boat Race," says Ajil. "Clubs have spent anywhere from Rs. 25 lakhs to Rs. 75 lakhs (US$ 33,000 - 100,000) just to win this race. The prize money is just Rs. 4 lakhs (US$ 5,000). Can you imagine?".

The Nehru Trophy, first held in 1952 to celebrate a visit from the nation's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is held over a 1.4-km stretch in the Punnamada Lake near Alappuzha (54 km south of Kochi). It is the race to win, and gives a perfect glimpse into the path of financial un-sustainability the sport was hurtling along.

"It's not the cup per se, or the value in terms of money, but the kind of name you get winning it. Like the [FIFA] World Cup... that's a name, right? Whoever wins it, they are the kings," says Ajil.

But even kings need to repay their loans. There has been a sharp rise in expenses over the past two decades, taking debt to spiraling heights.

Originally built for transporting large numbers of troops rapidly across the region's many waterways, the chundans slowly became an integral part of the culture of the land, transitioning from war machines to religious icons to sporting superstars. It is in this context that the races must be seen - as tournaments organized and fiercely contested by local players; the prize not so much money as bragging rights.

"We used to hold training for 5-6 days, with rowers from the locality itself," says Ajil. "They would be fishermen, clam divers, men who made a living off the waters and knew how to handle an oar. They would do their jobs in the morning, come for training in the afternoon. There were no wages back then; give them a couple of parottas and that's that."

Then, in the mid-2000s, a burst of money came flooding in. "It was all started by an NRI businessman, Jiji Jacob, who desperately wanted to win the Nehru Trophy," recollects Ajil. "He attracted rowers from all across, spending a lot of money, a lot more than anyone before. He set up a camp, and had them train day-in and day-out in a professional set-up. He provided food three-times-a-day and accommodation. One year, they even went out of station, to Kumily, for high-altitude training. It is said that he spent nearly Rs. 1 crore (US$ 134,000) just on this."

"He won the Nehru Trophy twice [in that initial period]," says Ajil. "So his success meant others had to follow."

Gone were the days of the part-time amateurs. This came as a big boost to the rowers, who would now be paid a daily wage - a minimum of Rs. 1000 (US$ 13.4), rising to double that for the top rowers. Ajil says that it meant costs for the boat clubs skyrocketed. "For 110 rowers, just wages come upto Rs. 1.1 lakh (approx. US$ 1500) per day at the minimum -- take that across the 15-day period we set aside for training..." To the wages were added the expenses incurred on diet. "The food [which was no longer just parottas, but a nutritious, expensive, diet] comes up to around Rs. 500 - 600 (US$ 7-8) per day per rower. Put all that together, you need a minimum of Rs. 40 - 50 lakh (approx. US$ 54,000 - 67,000) just for that fortnight. If we increase the number of days, it increases exponentially," says Ajil.

This outlay was then increased by the hiring of coaches and rowers affiliated with the armed forces and the Sports Authority of India. The sudden influx of non-Keralite professionals skewed the results so heavily in favour of those who could afford them that the government imposed a 25% upper limit to non-Keralites per boat.

This influx of money had a drastic impact on the ownership pattern. Traditionally, snake boats are owned by karas (a particular neighbourhood within a village), with each boat having anywhere between 100 and 1000 shareholders. Now, private players have entered their own boats, at costs of up to Rs. 75 lakh (approx. US$ 100,000 ) per chundan.

"Earlier, clubs would approach these shareholders, who decide whom to give their boat to, based on past performances and the amount of money the clubs are willing to give," says Ajil. "Now, because private players are entering their own boats, demand is lower and it is the shareholders who approach clubs to take their boat out and bring glory to their kara. Some are ready to give the best clubs upto Rs 30 lakh (US$ 40,000 plus). They expect no financial returns, just want to see their boat go out and win!"

It is into this failing financial model that the CBL stepped in.

Kiran says the idea behind the league was to introduce a degree of financial stability to the stakeholders as well as boost tourism, and in turn, revenue to the state coffers. "Earlier, the snake boat races were not lucrative. Everyone was suffering losses."

Now there is more prize money, and it is better distributed, with the winner getting Rs. 1.31 crore (approx. $175,000), and the team coming in last still taking home Rs. 48 lakhs (approx. $65,000).

This was a massive step-up from the nominal prize money that used to be on offer over the past few years (between Rs. 1 - 5 lakhs per race, $1300-6700), and the sporadic sponsorships that the clubs may or may not attract.

"We got a decent sponsorship in the first year, about Rs 1.4 crores (approx. $190,000)," says Kiran. This is apart from the "reasonable" revenue generated from ticket sales. He also added, "last year itself, among other factors, CBL galvanized the offseason of Kerala Tourism. It was one of the contributory factors for Kerala Tourism to achieve its highest growth rate in 24 years (17.2 %)."

Win-win, as it were.

But this is where the global lockdown has hit the racing community, and by extension the state's revenues. The state tourism department, like those across the world, will take a massive hit financially. Rowers have had to forego their seasonal windfall while coping with decreasing incomes from their daily-wage jobs. Boat clubs have had to push on their debt for a further year.

Ajil - whose Vembanad Boat Club finished sixth in the inaugural CBL season - says that clubs will be deeply affected. "Even last year, the winning club made some money; none of the others were able to recover costs," he says. "There was a hope that CBL, with its vastly improved coverage on Star Sports, would be able to rope in more sponsors [for season 2] and we the clubs would be able to start recovering some money. Now it's going to be hard, isn't it? Considering the financial crunch sponsors will face, these plans could be set back by two-three years."

Kiran hopes that won't be the case. "We just hope and pray that the second edition triggers even greater interest in people and the event is held in an absolutely glitch-free manner. But the bottom line is: the coronavirus must be controlled quickly," he says.

For now, the chundans remain on shore, where they are for 300 days a year in any case. Running maintenance -- taking care of any splinters, replacing the copper nails that hold the planks together, tightening everything up, coating the boat in a layer of fish oil -- will continue to be done by the owners and shareholders, but that won't be much of an additional expense, insists Ajil.

He, like Kiran, knows where the priorities are -- control the pandemic, get life back to normal, and after that, hope for the next shot at glory.