Trapped in their packed daily routines, can Bengalureans afford to give sports outings a second thought? Yes, if this tech-driven fitness trend that has dramatically altered the way people team up, network and play, is anything to go by. Fuelled by sports apps linked to a network of pay-and-play centres, this trend is now making waves across the city.
Five years ago, city-based entrepreneur Gauravjeet Singh had started it all with a mobile app called PlayO. The city’s disconnected labyrinth of sports facilities big and small had sparked an idea. Why not create a social network that lets people team up, book a local badminton court, pay and play by the hour?
This idea worked, and how! In months, PlayO had over 15-20 sports centres sign up from across Bengaluru, galloping to over 500 today. Hooked on their smartphones, Bengalureans young and old found new partners, booked the courts, football grounds, basketball courts, table tennis tables, paid in droves and played in fours. The simplicity astounded them.
The pandemic had locked down thousands in their homes. For PlayO and many more apps that mushroomed to tap the massive potential of this market, it looked like curtains. But the Unlock phases have seen them return with renewed vigour, driven by a public realisation that to build immunity and beat the virus, keeping fit is the only mantra.
“We are seeing a very strong revival, already gaining 70% of our pre-Covid levels,” says Singh, his network now expanding to over 500 sports centres in Bengaluru and outside. PlayO has now gone international, he adds, with presence in the United Kingdom, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. “The craze is now global.”
Out of college and into their working lives, many have found the way back to the playground extremely tough to negotiate. The apps have let them rediscover the joy of their childhood to find players with similar skill levels and make this social network switch seamlessly from online to offline.
For PlayO, the app users have been primarily in the 25-40 age group, with 80% of them male, informs Singh. “The focus has been on urban adults. But of late, play centres are coming up and networking from tier-2 and 3 towns and cities such as Hubballi-Dharwad, Mangaluru and Chikmagalur.”
Covid has injected an element of extreme precaution at the networked play centres. The apps issue a ‘Safe & Hygiene’ badge on centres that are certified. “We educated our partners on safety best practices, including sanitisation of the courts after each session and restriction of crowds.”
To boost safety even further, a rating system was introduced in the app ecosystem.
Users were asked to rate the play centres. Among the top-rated centres was Elohim Shuttle Arena in Basavanagar. “We had started hourly sanitisation and reduced each playing session from an hour to 50 minutes to facilitate this. The hourly rate was reduced accordingly,” says Arena co-owner Alka Censon.
Equipment rental has been a revenue generator in most centres. Badminton courts offer rackets and shuttlecocks on hourly rentals. Most centres insist that players wear non-marking shoes. These are made available either on rent or purchase.
The convergence of technology, sports and networking has given a rare positive boost to social fitness.
As Sudhir Kumar, a regular at one of the play areas in Kaggadasapura explains, “Bringing a physical activity linked to fitness into the picture is a clear positive. Friendships built on such platforms are often deep and long-lasting.”
The trend has helped total strangers find friends through the app and connect meaningfully for a group activity offline. “Psychologically too, this is a positive game-changer,” says Kumar, confident that the arena will only get bigger and more diverse in future.
"We are now linked to 500-odd play centres. About 50% of the bookings are for badminton courts, 25% for football and the rest for other sports. There is demand. At PlayO, we are seeing a very strong revival now, already gaining 70% of our pre-Covid levels, " Gauravjeet Singh, Founder, PlayO.