At 26, Sharath Kamath was diagnosed with Osteitis Pubis, a common injury among athletes like football players. He felt like his dream of being a footballer was fading away. Sharath began his football journey in 2002 in his teenage years. But he was rejected at college-level tryouts. This only fuelled his ambition more and he trained harder. Sharath then not only played for his college but was soon part of the State PU team as well.
While working hard to earn a place in one of of the top league clubs, Sharath pushed himself too much. He would put in four to five hours of practice. "The coaches used to praise me for putting in the long hours but there is only so much the body can take. There was no proper advice on injury management, which is one of the most important aspects of sports professional’s development," says Sharath.
Injury and starting up
The injury kept recurring every few months, which meant that there was no chance of attending trials. Sharath adds that there was no structure to training and no professional approach at the club he was playing at.
During this process, Sharath went ahead and completed his engineering. He had two offers: one from Mahindra British Telecom and the other from Yokogawa. He joined Yokogawa India Ltd as a process engineer. But he realised that this simply wasn't for him and he quit the job within six months. He also got a trial offer from Dempo Sports Club in Oct 2008, the then-champions of the league. "I could not complete the trial due to getting jaundice which resulted in a year-long recovery process, till Nov 2009," adds Sharath.
Thinking of starting up, he headed pilot projects in online tutoring at two companies from 2009 to 2012 before starting up his own online tutoring and sports management firm.
Starting up journey
Sharath soon started TUSK Sports and Education Management Co. The education vertical engages in online tutoring of K-12 students in the US. It handles end-to-end management including student acquisition, formative tests, online tutoring targeting key problem areas for students, preparing progress reports and providing remediation where necessary.
"I created a network of over 100 tutors across the country serving more than 3,000 students," says Sharath. The sports vertical aimed at recruiting talented young footballers, developing them and trading them to different clubs. While working on this startup, Sharath started online groceries store MeraGroceries.com with his client in the online tutoring business.
They, however, encountered problems soon. Somebody sitting in the US would not understand situations here in India. A lack of planning, funding and cost cutting even before setting a foot forward lead to the company shutting down in two years.
Back to the roots
Sharath says, "I knew these weren't working out and I had to get back to football. In 2010, I realised there was not a single academy in town. There might have been small time coaching centres but not an academy. I saw both opportunity and cause. It took a lot of convincing to my then-coach Thomas Joseph, who is still probably the best in the country."
He brought Thomas onboard to give the academy a proper structure. The plan was to pick good footballers, give them education through his online tutoring business, develop them in terms of football skills and trade them with bigger clubs in the country.
Sharath began with setting up a website. He says that he didn't think any academy or club in Bengaluru had a website then. He started publishing the BDFA league scores on the website and sharing that on Facebook. It was just an attempt to make footballers feel special when they see their name and photos on the website and in turn create an impression on Dream United Football Academy.
In the next three years, he took a handy cam to the stadium during the league to shoot pictures during matches. Soon there were enough fans on the FB page and site. Couple of years later, Sharath started a small coaching camp in Vyalikaval and began working with Crescent Football Club which was owned by his coach at St. Joseph’s.
"We had eight centres in the next three years. These were still small-time coaching centres, far from actual academies. Coach Thomas went out on India duty again and I was busy managing these centres," adds Sharath.
However, setting up a football academy has its own challenges. Sharath says the biggest challenge in starting up a football academy in Bengaluru was obtaining land. Even rental costs are high and there weren't any good fields. Also, who would, apart from someone with a deep pocket, fund a football project?
"I met my school friend Ajey Patil after 10 years. He had access to people with high net worth and shared the same passion as me. He came on board as Co-Founder of the academy. We pitched the idea to four land owners who had knowledge in sports. They gave us the land for a rent-free lease of 10 years and we bootstrapped to get the basic development of the land- laying of turf, dressing room and equipment," says Sharath.
He says the football industry has changed by leaps and bounds: till 2013 there was no money in football. Mumbai-based JSW, in starting Bengaluru FC, was a trendsetter across the country. ISL received more traction than anyone ever imagined. In order to create great footballers from India, Sharath knew he needed a great coach. He met Abhishek Jagan from Chennai in FC in the ISL – ex India-cricketer, IPL player with Delhi Daredevils, Kings 11 Punjab, a diehard football fan and probably the best strength and conditioning coach and physiotherapist.
Abhishek agreed to join hands with Sharath and tied up with his startup - Outperform. With this they have a great strength and conditioning programme and injury management and also a UEFA B-licensed coach to add more expertise in football and connect with scouts in Europe.
Growth and traction
"We get a good number of young players at our grassroot centres. Summer camps are usually filled with around 50-100 kids per centre every year. The number drops to 20-50 kids per centre in the annual camp," says Sharath
They are in the final stages of signing a deal with a top university in Bengaluru to scout for players across the country, and for additional financial help in administration and maintenance of the facility. They also have a few sponsors who have shown interest in the various year-round tournaments. They are in the process of setting up a trust fund for development of football.
The company plans to scout for 50 players from across the country and get them good quality education and football training, hostel facility, injury management, strength and conditioning programme. It intends to conduct a school and college league to allow more scouting opportunities. "We have a three-year timeline to produce high quality players worthy of playing abroad," adds Sharath.