An NCAA for Indonesia? Selling college sports to sedentary nation


With a vicious twist of his racket, Agil Wahyudi slammed the shuttlecock, winning the point and the match and sending the Trisakti University badminton team into the next round of Indonesia’s most competitive college championship.

“Our hope for the competition is that it can get even bigger,” the 23-year-old Agil said, mopping sweat from his forehead.

The tournament for the national badminton title is run by Liga Mahasiswa, or LIMA, the largest college sports league in Indonesia, a nation of about 260 million. More than 200 universities from around the archipelago participate in a handful of sports — badminton, basketball, swimming, futsal and, soon, soccer — and the founder of Liga Mahasiswa, a 34-year-old, California-educated sports executive named Ryan Gozali, has plans to expand to high school and middle school leagues over the next few years. Leagues are organized by region, with the winners of regional competitions qualifying for a national tournament.

It is, if nothing else, a start. Before the emergence of LIMA, college basketball in Indonesia “was just like an organized pickup game,” said Daniel Gondosaputro, the women’s coach at Pelita Harapan University in Jakarta, who helped develop the sports leagues that culminated in LIMA.

Ricky Gunawan, the basketball coach at Harapan Bangsa Institute of Technology, said LIMA hadalready improved competitions by ensuring that students actually attended the universities they represent.

“Over time, universities are investing more in their sports programs because they see the names of their universities promoted at the national stage” when they succeed in a national LIMA tournament, he said.

Gozali has his own goals. At a time when wealthier Asian countries, like Japan and China, are investing heavily in sports, Indonesia, Asia’s third most populous nation, risks falling behind. Gozali, who spent his college years in the United States, is determined to improve Indonesia’s standing, especially in badminton and soccer, far and away the nation’s two most popular sports.

“We have 250 million people, and a genius is one in a million,” Gozali said. Yet Indonesia’s men’s soccer team is ranked just 177th — out of 211 — in the world.

“I’m a statistics guy,” he lamented. “I just don’t accept that fact.”

In its first year, 2012, around 2,000 student-athletes participated in LIMA competitions. Last year, Gozali said that number was about 5,000.

But Indonesia’s challenges to fielding competitive national teams, and producing top athletes, go deeper than a lack of training and development opportunities. Cities in this fast-urbanizing nation are crowded, hot and lacking in park space, meaning that residents have few places to play, or even to exercise. Limited sidewalk space and public transit options mean Indonesians travel mainly by car and motorbike, compounding the lack of national fitness.

Gozali said he hoped the development of a sports culture might go some way to improving an even more pressing concern: the country’s disastrous state of public health. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health predicted that the impact of disease on Indonesia’s workforce, troubled by heart and respiratory ailments and diabetes, would drain the country’s economy of $4.4 trillion during the next 20 years — far more, by percentage of economy, than in India or China.

LIMA developed from the efforts of private investors to develop university sports leagues. When LIMA was created, Gozali, its chief executive, combined the separate sports leagues into a single one, with the backing of initial investors. As a result, Gozali is expanding his sports programs into more corners of this ethnically and religiously diverse nation of 13,000 islands.

This year, the LIMA badminton competition is limited to athletes from Indonesia’s central islands of Java and Bali, but next year teams from Sumatra and Sulawesi will participate, too.

Gozali, a paunchy Chinese-Indonesian with a penchant for American hamburgers, is perhaps an unlikely apostle for sports and fitness. Raised in Jakarta, he and his family fled the city in the dark of night two decades ago, during the 1998 Asian financial crisis, after rioters blaming Chinese businessmen for the downturn burned Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese areas.

Gozali finished high school in Singapore before heading to California for college. After graduating from the University of California, Irvine, he worked in banking and biotech. But after falling hard for American sports culture, he left that work to indulge his passion for athletics.

In San Francisco, Gozali began working 16-hour days, commuting from a business development job that included work with clients like the NBA and the World Tennis Association to shifts as a manager of a local sports club. “Anything I could get my hands on,” he said.

In 2011, he decided to return to Jakarta, where opportunity beckoned.

“In America, it’s a mature sport market — I can do a good job but I won’t make much of a dent,” he said. “In Indonesia, it’s like the wild, Wild West, looking for the gold rush.”

His sports league has expanded quickly. This year, Gozali negotiated a television rights contract with Metro TV, one of Indonesia’s largest broadcasters, and he said LIMA’s revenue is already about $1 million a year. The league is already profitable, he added, but he is hoping the television deal — along with ticket sales and added corporate sponsorships — will guarantee its long-term survival.

But 19 years after Gozali first fled Jakarta, tensions are rising again. Hundreds of thousands of hard-line Muslims rallied this year to oppose Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s first ethnic Chinese-Christian governor in decades. Basuki, accused of insulting Islam, was soundly beaten in an April election marked by anti-Christian rhetoric, before being sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy in early May.

Though Indonesia remains a peaceful democracy, aspects of the political campaign, and the trial, were reminiscent of darker times.

Gozali said there were still people in the country who want Chinese-Indonesians like him to be “second-class citizens.” But he also argued that sports were one way to heal racial tensions.

The challenge, he said, provides him with a sense of purpose. “John F. Kennedy is like, ‘I’m going to put a man on the moon,’" he said. “My life goal is to see Indonesia qualify for the World Cup.”


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