In 2017, professional football player Tanvie Hans moved from Delhi to Bengaluru. In the past, she had represented English club teams like Tottenham Hotspur Women and Fulham Ladies FC before returning to India.
“I moved to Bengaluru because I felt the pulse of football was growing a lot more here than in Delhi,” she recalls.
In the new city, her main contact was Swetha Subbiah, a personal trainer and one of four Nike-certified fitness instructors in India, with over a decade of experience. Tanvie first met Swetha through a Nike commercial campaign in 2016.
“One evening in November 2017, after much convincing, Swetha took me out to her friend’s party. At the party, her friend was super excited when she heard that I was a footballer and asked ‘Why don’t you teach me and a few of my girlfriends how to play?’.”
“Responding to her request, we booked a ground for that weekend. We didn’t have too many expectations and thought that 4-5 women would turn up for it. We thought it would be a one-time ‘fun session’. Much to our surprise, however, 17 women turned up,” Tanvie tells The Better India.
Tanvie and Swetha designed a 1.5-hour session for the women, who were mostly in their mid-30s. For the first half hour, Swetha deployed her skills as a fitness instructor and made them warm up to prepare their bodies for sport. Then, Tanvie organised “some fun football drills”.
“We had music in the background, and the whole idea was to make sure they have a good time and maybe learn a little bit in the process. After the first session, the women came back to us and said they loved it. They wanted us to organise these sessions for them every weekend. That’s how our community started and grew,” says Tanvie.
This session gave birth to Sisters In Sweat, a community exclusively “for women, by women, and stitched together by sport”.
Founded by Swetha and Tanvie, the objective of this for-profit organisation is to bridge the gap of women dropping out of sports, especially after school or college. With multiple sports formats including football, basketball, and touch rugby, they give a community of over 3,700 women from many walks of life regular access to sports.
“When Sisters In Sweat started in 2017, it was primarily a bunch of my friends between the ages of 35 and 40. But since 2017, we’ve grown significantly. The average age has come down to 25-30, but we do have girls as young as 12,14 and 15 playing with us. The oldest member that played with us was 65 years old,” says Swetha.
“We have women in the corporate world, lower management executive level and upper management like CEOs of companies. We also have a handful of entrepreneurs, mothers, homemakers and college students,” she adds
“Initially, the assumption was that at least in college you had the opportunity to play sports. But what we are understanding now is that even in educational institutions, unless you make it to the school or college team, that opportunity is actually quite limited. Overall, we are catering to women of a variety of profiles and age groups.”
Opening avenues for women to play sports
Why do women drop out of sports, especially after school or college?
“It has been ingrained in our mindsets and our culture that sport is essentially for boys and men, given the aggressive nature of contact sports. At the school level, some institutions offer sports for women but are very selective with the kind they offer. This is seen in colleges as well. After school and college, even having access to organised sports is practically impossible, which is why I feel women drop out. They just lack the opportunities to play regularly,” argues Tanvie.
And so, Sisters In Sweat is trying to open new avenues for women to play sports.
“We are providing opportunities for women to play with other women so that they feel comfortable and safe. We organise it all for them so that they just have to turn up and have a good time,” she adds.
Sisters in Sweat has an on-ground presence in Bengaluru and Mumbai. All their physical sessions are organised there, primarily in Bengaluru, which also doubles as their headquarters. They launched their Mumbai operations earlier this year and note that “there has been a good response”. In the long run, their aim is to create a pan-India community spanning multiple cities.
“In Bengaluru, we run weekly football, basketball, badminton, and touch rugby sessions, as well as organise runs every Sunday and cycling events every quarter. We also do swim sessions in collaboration with the Nisha Millet Academy. For everything else apart from swimming, we have hired our own coaches and organise sessions ourselves,” explains Tanvie.
Sisters in Sweat has also recently tied up with BFC (Bengaluru Football Club). They give community members tickets to watch their men’s football game live at the stadium whenever it happens in the city. This is just another way for them to encourage women to be a part of the city’s sporting culture and watch the sport that they are actually playing.
“We are also planning to collaborate with other such football clubs across India. We also collaborate with athleisure wear brands or brands that promote healthy eating habits,” she adds.
Finding a sense of community
But how do their sessions encourage women to stick with sports?
Tanvie says that for one, their membership is free and a one-time process. “Anyone interested can go on our website, fill in the details and book any event or session. You pay per event or session but you don’t pay for membership. We have kept membership free because we don’t want a fee to become another barrier for women to join our growing community.”
“Also, as much as possible, we design the session to be fun. When a woman attends our session, she feels like she had a good time, burned calories and made friends,” she adds.
Sisters In Sweat also markets itself as an organisation that presents sports as a recreation and social activity for women.
“We emphasise a lot on the community model. Even after the session is over, we all go out for breakfast together and get to know each other. In almost every session, we have new people joining us and that is exactly what we want. We want the community to keep growing. We always tell women to start by attending one session and that they would want to keep coming back,” says Tanvie.
Among the women who have found this sense of community is Tanvi Kaur, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist with her own practice.
“As a sports person, it has been a great way to play a sport again thanks to Sisters In Sweat. Their sessions gave me the opportunity to play the team sports that I used to play in school and college. I played basketball at a national level, and picking up a ball after 15-16 years was a big deal for me,” says Tanvi.
“Attending their sessions has also helped me assimilate better into the city and create a social space. I don’t know whether it’s a Bengaluru or a Sisters In Sweat thing, but the community or sisterhood here is extremely inclusive, welcoming and encouraging. That spirit runs in the founders of Sisters In Sweat and their whole community,” adds Tanvi.
As part of their community offering, Sisters In Sweat is also trying to create an ecosystem for women in sports where they have the opportunity of finding gainful employment as coaches or in managerial roles. Within their team, they have one girl who is a professional football player and heads the operations for Bengaluru. They have several female coaches.
In fact, their first preference is to hire a female coach in whichever sport they launch. “Of course, there is a bit of a roadblock there because there aren’t too many female coaches currently, but we are hoping that it will change. Whether you want to do something at the management level with us or you just want to be a coach, we try to provide those opportunities,” says Swetha.
Where women find inclusivity
Sisters In Sweat plans to expand its operations in pan India over the course of the next few years. Having said that, from time to time, they do host one-off events in different cities or plan to do so before they fully establish themselves in a new location.
Swetha explains, “We are a for-profit organisation and have a couple of revenue streams, primarily coming from brands that associate with us like Manchester City FC, Puma, Nike, Bare Necessities, The Whole Truth Foods, etc. We also look to partner with brands in the health and wellness space as much as possible.”
As far as their sessions and the revenue they generate, they “try to keep the sessions as affordable as possible” because they want to be inclusive.
“Most of our weekly sessions for sports like touch-rugby, football and basketball are priced at Rs 500 in Bengaluru and Rs 700 in Mumbai (excluding GST). In Bengaluru, we also do game nights and run clubs priced a bit lower than our weekly sessions. Every week, we organise about 12 to 14 sessions in Bengaluru and 2-3 in Mumbai. Every month, we organise anywhere between 50 to 60 sessions in both cities excluding our events,” says Swetha.
They earn revenue through sponsorships for their events, sessions, etc. Most of the time, each of their events has a different sponsor like Tata Tetley and Living Food. On 27 November, they have their ‘Sweat Fest’ coming up, sponsored by the athleisure brand CAVA. Their next big event in Bengaluru is on 18 December, hosting the annual Christmas football tournament.
“As our community has grown and women tell us stories of how much joy sports has brought into their lives, we were really inspired. This gave us the purpose and reason to invest all our time into building this community,” notes Swetha.
You can follow ‘Sisters In Sweat’ on Instagram here.
Edited by Divya Sethu; All pictures courtesy: Sisters In Sweat.
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