Is Nita Ambani the most powerful woman in the Indian sports industry?

Nita Ambani, who on several occasions has been recognized as one of the most powerful women in Asia, has portrayed herself as a catalyst in developing sports infrastructure in India.

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Nita Ambani with young Footballers

In the spectrum of Indian sports, Nita Ambani has proved herself as an omen of good luck of late. It was not too long ago when 55-year-old mother of three was living a life under the shadow of her potbellied businessman husband Mukesh Ambani.

Nita was born on 1 November 1963 in a middle-class Gujarati family in Mumbai to parents Ravindrabhai Dalal and Purnima Dalal. She pursued a degree in economics from Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics. She was also an elegant Bharatnatyam dancer. It is believed that it was young Nita’s dancing skills that fascinated Dhirubhai Ambani’s elder son Mukesh, which brought them closer and the duo later tied the knot. The marriage turned out to be a masterstroke for the Ambani family. The business of RIL was booming, and Nita’s arrival in the family added another shrewd brain to the already compact heads of business magnets.

When Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) mostly keeps itself attached to traditional businesses sectors such as energy, petrochemicals, textiles, natural resources, retail and telecommunications, Nita took the responsibility of managing Reliance’s Company Social Responsibility (CSR) wing.

Nita’s uncanny ability to mix CSR responsibility with family’s business made many business tycoons wonder. Having been presented herself as a philanthropist, she always takes immense pleasure for her work for the country.

CSR:Nita’s tryst with sports development gives India a new direction

Her tryst with philanthropy begins in 2003 when she along with Mukesh Ambani established Dhirubhai Ambani International School (DAIS), a private co-educational (LKG to12) day school in Mumbai, as a baby step towards RIL’s contribution to the society. The school has primary, middle, secondary and post-secondary facilities.

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Mumbai Indians: Taste of success

However, her giant leap towards sports development and infrastructure enhancement took a new turn four years later. It was in 2007 when Nita bought Indian Premier League’s (IPL) franchise Mumbai Indians, who are now the most successful teams in the richest T20I league of the world with four silverwares in their trophy cabinet.

In 2019, the brand value of Mumbai Indians, a 100 per cent subsidiary of Reliance owned IndiaWin Sports, is estimated to be around US$115 million, the most amongst the IPL franchises.

Nita is an IPL regular and always shows off with her team during match time. Unlike other owners she doesn’t react much to match situation; she is calm and composed. The bespectacled lady had to endure five poor seasons to see her team first winning the coveted IPL trophy in 2013. In 2010, Mumbai Indians made it to the finals for the first time but succumbed to Chennai Super Kings’ brilliance. Following 2013 triumph, they also won the trophy in 2015, 2017 and 2019, respectively. Now, Nita Ambani’s Mumbai Indians are the most successful franchise in IPL history and its net income from social endorsements and advertisements are much higher than any other IPL clubs. With one of India’s biggest batsmen Rohit Sharma and batting stalwart Sachin Tendulkar in Nita’s wing, Mumbai Indians are here to flourish.

Nita, who on several occasions has been recognized as one of the most powerful women in Asia, if not in the world, has portrayed herself as a catalyst in developing sports infrastructure in India. In 2016, recognizing her greater contribution to sports and women empowerment, India Today enlisted her in ‘the fifty high and mighty Indians’ list. In the same year, influential American business magazine Forbes regarded her as ‘the most influential women business leaders in Asia’. If these are accolades to be understood, one must have to know about her work, especially in the spectrum of sports. However, Nita’s love for sports is not limited to cricket only. She gradually thumped her feet in football, tennis and basketball, respectively.

The IMG–Reliance bonhomie: A new dawn for Indian football 

Nita at NBA event

2010 has been a landmark year in Indian sports history when IMG, a New York-headquartered reputed sports management company, joined hands with Reliance Foundation. Their collaboration is targeted to develop Indian football. AIFF, the cash strapped football governing body of India, welcomed IMG’s arrival with both hands that saw India hosting its first major FIFA tournament U-17 World Cup 2017 successfully.

Long before the marquee tournament, Reliance and IMG owned Football Sports Development Limited signed Master Rights Agreement (MAR) with All Indian Football Federation (AIFF), with an objective to promote football across the country to restore the golden days of country’s football. Indian Super League, which has recently been promoted as country’s top-tier league at Asian Confederation of Football (AFC) headquarter, Kuala Lumpur on 14 October, opened a window for I-League clubs to make a way into the top tier in 2024–25 season. The new roadmap ensured that ISL champion would get AFC Champions League qualifier berth from next season and the AFC League Cup spot will be given to I-League champion. This process will continue till 2024–2025 when promotion and relegation system will be introduced with the arrival of a single league and a knockout tournament.

The move more or less received a warm welcome from all stakeholders of the game as top two I-League clubs don’t have to pay any franchise fee. The only criterion that is set for them is building a standard stadium and youth academy. It should be noted that ever since ISL came to existence, Indian football got a new ray of hope. Regular evening soap of 90 minutes has been well received amongst the fans. On the very first day of ISL-6, Kerala Blasters thrashed Amar Tomar Kolkata (ATK) 2-1 coming from one goal down in front of an electrified Manjappada, official fan group of Kerala Blasters, to take full three points. Needless to say, the newest edition of ISL, who is comprised of 10 teams, got off to a perfect start and such terrific matches will eagerly be awaited in the days to come.

Young Champs Residential Scholarships

In 2015, a big initiative was taken by Reliance Foundation to multiply the love for football manifold in the country providing systematic training to budding footballers at a young age.

To select talented players at a young age, ISL’s grassroots festival was held across the country in the early months of 2015.

Nita with Salman Khan at ISL match

The final trials for all the ISL franchises were held at Father Agnel’s Sports Centre, Navi Mumbai. 24 players in the 11–14 age categories were selected in May 2015 for scholarships awarded by Reliance Foundation and Football Sports Development Limited Chairperson Nita Ambani at the Jio Garden in Bandra Kurla Complex. These players are being given systematic training and education at Reliance Foundation School in Kopar Khairane, near Mumbai. Piet Hubers, technical director of ISL Grassroots Programme, is well known for his work with budding footballers, oversees everything. Jose Barreto, who excelled for Mohun Bagan at the turn of the century, is the assistant coach to Hubers at the academy.

22 players from Reliance Foundation Young Champs programme got their first international exposure in May 2016 when they travelled to England and played against U-12 and U-13 teams of Southampton, Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Reading, Aston Villa and Liverpool. In recent time, the foundation has increased the intake of talented footballers.

NBA’s Giant Stride

When football is making the right noise in India at the right moment, Nita Ambani made yet another stunning successful attempt to bring the taste of the National Basketball League (NBA) to the Indians. Two matches between Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers were played at Worli on 4 and 5 October that saw Indian fans embracing the sport wholeheartedly during NBA India Games 2019.

Impressed by the response of Indian fans, NBA USA commissioner Adam Silver appointed Rajesh Sethi as the managing director of NBA India to oversee all the game-related development in the country. Before rolling out a full-fledged national league in India, NBA will launch a series of grassroots communities. Youth basketball and elite development events set to impact thousands of young people, teachers, coaches and families in every nook and corner of the country. This sustaining development will be sponsored by Nita Ambani’s Reliance Foundation, another testimony of her dedication to sports development.

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Nita’s Olympics Goal                                 

The gorgeous lady, who is also India’s permanent member at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), expressed her desire to see India host Olympics Games soon. She is optimistic about the way India is moving forward. With 2020 U-17 FIFA Women’s World Cup around the corner, Nita believes that India will gradually be able to present itself as a strong contender as Olympics hosts.

Meanwhile, impressed with ISL’s empathic rise, she is looking forward to the Middle East as India’s top-tier club football’s potential new market. To make it possible, she urged European clubs to make an investment in ISL clubs for business opportunities. There is no denying of fact that India has vast football market and the country has a strong fan base for the game.

Hence, it is not going to be an exaggeration to say that Nita with her impeccable business acumen has started a new sports revolution in the country, and it is a sustainable one for long-term benefit. To be frank, there is no match of a woman of her calibre in the Indian sports industry as of now. Nita has only herself to beat when it comes to building India into an active sports playing nation.