Cricket, football, NBA: Nita Ambani's never-ending love affair with sports
Ambani's first tryst with sports happened when she was 44.
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Born into a middle-class family in 1963, Ambani's first love was teaching, something she stuck to even after her wedding to Mukesh Ambani in 1985. Having continued as a teacher post-marriage, she eventually went on to establish the Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai.
But it isn't just education that has Mrs. Ambani's heart and hard-work, sports too - though accidentally - now plays an important role in the 56-year-old's life. For her initiatives on grassroot sports, she was awarded the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Award in 2017.
From cricket to NBA, Ambani believes, and says, "Sport does not differentiate, it knows no race or religion, talent can come from anywhere and reach the pinnacle of success."
Ambani's first tryst with sports happened by chance. Over a decade back in 2008, Reliance bought a cricket team, led by master blaster Sachin Tendulkar, in the Indian Premier League for $112 million. However, the first year was a dismal one for the team, and by the second season, Nita Ambani - who at the point didn't have much idea about the sport - got involved.
From being in the stands at every game to supporting and strategising with the team through the highs and lows (she recently visited Hardik Pandya in London where he was recovering after a surgery, and also hosted a Diwali bash for the team), Ambani's learning graph grew just as MI's success rate did. Currently, MI has won the IPL title four times, in 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019.
In her recent speech at the Sports Business Summit in London, Ambani recalled, "I was 44 when sport changed my life, my perspective and my worldview. It all started with cricket and Mumbai Indians (MI) in 2009. It was the second season of IPL - the Premier League and our team was at the bottom of the table. I had no knowledge of cricket but I flew to South Africa to motivate and be with the team when they were down and out.
“From those first meetings with the teams, learning the nitty-gritties of cricket from the legends of the game to this day ten years later when MI is the most valued team in India with four IPL titles. My journey has been incredible."
Citing her son Akash’s example as one of the many youngsters who stay up late in India to watch their favourite football team play in the EPL (English Premier League), Ambani noticed the gap in the sport, and the opportunity for it, in the country.
This realisation led her to launch the Indian Super League for football in 2014. According to Ambani, ‘ISL is the third most-watched league in India’.
United We Stand
An initiative very close to Ambani’s heart is Education and Sports for All (ESA), supported by Mumbai Indians. ESA works towards the education of, and encourages sports amongst underprivileged and specially-abled children.
The initiative also found a mention in her recent speech in London, where she described it as
‘the soul of MI’. Ambani shared that under ESA, 21,000 children get a chance to watch the MI team play live in the stadium, every year.
As founder and chairperson of Reliance Foundation, the CSR arm of Reliance Industries, Ambani also heads the Reliance Foundation Youth Sports that works towards improving sports infrastructure, empowering coaches and providing equipment, while also offering grants.
The foundation also runs a Young Champs initiative that provides full-time residential football scholarships, with a focus on education, training, development, and international exposure.
Expanding to other sports, the foundation’s Jr NBA aids school-based basketball programmes across the country.