Indian television made the cricketing superstar

MUMBAI // Yajurvindra Singh, a renowned former Indian cricketer, who represented the country in the late 1970s, recalls that cricketers in India did not get sponsorship deals at all in those days. They considered themselves lucky to be able to get a 20 per cent discount at sports stores.

In stark contrast, it recently emerged that ace cricketer Virat Kohli, 27, who has delivered a series of match-winning performances, receives a reported 80 million rupees (Dh4.4m) for having a sticker of the Indian tyre manufacturer MRF on his bat. MS Dhoni, the Indian cricket team’s captain, meanwhile, is said to receive 60m rupees for the Spartan sticker on his bat, the Times of India daily reported.

“Over time, it has changed and people have realised the value of branding and the value of having a Dhoni, a Kohli and a [Sachin] Tendulkar,” Mr Singh told The National. “There was no commercial interest because cricket on television was not there at that stage. Cricket only came in after the Asian Games in the eighties, and that is when the viewership increased.”

Sports brand-endorsement deals are on the rise in India, with cricket – by far India’s most popular sport – leading the way, but with deals for players in other sports starting to grow too.

This trend reflects an expanding middle class in India, with disposable incomes on the rise. The IMF forecasts that the country’s GDP will expand by 7.5 per cent this year.

“Sports has a universal appeal and fan following,” says Hitesh Gossain, the chief executive of Onspon, an online sponsorship services platform in India. “Also, geographically India is spread out and its 1.3 billion population has different tastes and languages, but sports breaks all barriers, thereby making it a very effective medium to partner and reach across the length and breadth of the country, and the diaspora living outside India too. Yes, absolutely it is growing.”

The Swiss watchmaker Tissot in February announced Kohli as its new brand ambassador, joining Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, who has represented the brand since 2007.

Kohli, who is the highest paid Indian player in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, last year signed a 50-million rupee 18-month deal with the German car manufacturer Audi, and he has also appeared in adverts for Pepsi.

But when compared to sports such as basketball and baseball in the United States and football in Europe, sponsorship in India is lagging.

Basketball star LeBron James, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the US, in December landed a lifetime deal with Nike that, it is estimated, could be worth more than US$500 million.

Dhoni, Kohli and Tendulkar, who retired two years ago, made it into fourth, seventh and eighth place, respectively, on the Forbes list of the 100 richest Indian celebrities for 2015, which compiles rankings based on a combination of money and fame. Dhoni and Kohli had earnings of more than a billion rupees, including endorsements. Of the 21 sports personalities that made it into the rankings, which were dominated by Bollywood stars, 14 are cricketers. Topping the list of the highest-earning non-cricketing sportspersons was badminton player Saina Nehwal, with earnings of about 170m rupees, including endorsements. She was in 47th place in terms of income and was followed by tennis player Sania Mirza in 55th place, with more than 130m rupees. India’s best football player, Sunil Chhetri, with earnings of 12m rupees, was in 99th place on the list.

“With the advent of multiple sports and niche targeting in terms of fan following, the market is set for explosive growth,” Mr Gossain says.

“Sports which were unheard of, like kabaddi, have started garnering a mainstream audience. And the TRP [television rating point] and engagement levels are very encouraging. This has propelled lesser known sports like table tennis, karate and wrestling to start commercialising themselves into consumer-friendly formats like leagues and across multiple platforms.”

The success of Indian athletes in the Olympic Games is also helping to drive the market, he adds.

“With athletes like Sushil Kumar, Vijender Singh, Abhinav Bindra and Saina Nehwal getting Olympic medals, the audience has started relating to non-popular sports like wrestling, boxing, shooting and badminton – thereby increasing brand interest automatically.”

Nehwal won the first Olympic medal for an Indian in badminton at London 2012, which helped her in attracting sponsorships and to net a sponsorship deal worth tens of millions of rupees with Edelweiss Financial Services, which is based in Mumbai.

Gaurav Natekar is India’s former No. 1 tennis player and is now the chief executive of Mahesh Bhupathi Tennis Academies, a sports organisation.

He said it was considered “not good” 25 years ago, when he was playing, to take on brand endorsements.

While some endorsements were trickling through to tennis players such as Mirza, there is “nothing really earth shattering”, he says.

“I think it’s growing. It’s just a question of how fast or how slow.”

Outside of brand endorsements, he says that corporates were increasingly sponsoring athletes as part of their CSR programmes.

Hyundai Motor India has Bollywood’s biggest superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, as its brand ambassador. While it does not have an Indian cricketing brand ambassador, it recognises the reach of the sport. It has an agreement with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to be an official partner for all its matches in India.

“Indians love cricket and they also love their cars, and that is one of the reasons Hyundai has always been closely associated with a sport like cricket,” says Y K Koo, the managing director and chief executive of Hyundai Motor India. “We expect that the partnership will help Hyundai gain access further into the countryside and achieve new markets.”

Not all brands are going for numbers and mass appeal with sports-sponsorship agreements in India, however. Swiss luxury watchmaker Frederique Constant decided to associate with polo player Samir Suhag because this niche sport allows it to reach its target market effectively.

“Our decision to be associated with Samir Suhag is because he is truly living his passion,” says Arun Marc D’Silva, the India director of Frederique Constant. “Playing polo at the highest level in India for close to 20 years is a clear demonstration of his commitment. And through the sport of polo, Frederique Constant is very elegantly introduced to Indian royalty and exclusive audiences, who are absolutely relevant to the brand.”

Akshaya Kohle, the director of sales at ESPN Digital Media India, says that “advertisers globally resort to sports as a category for reaching out to this passionate audience [of fans]”.

He adds that “the spurt in digital growth has been a game changer for sports as a category, by opening up opportunities for fans to engage and interact with their favourite teams and players”.

While Mr Singh’s cricketing heyday came 40 years too early to be lucrative, he is happy to see Indian athletes having the opportunity of highly paid careers. 

“You see the viewership,” he says. “Not just cricket, even sports like kabaddi, tennis, football – they have all started getting a lot of viewership. India has got a population that is growing towards sports. Viewership is coming in millions. The growth is there, it’s only going to take time.

“The other thing is that the franchisees who are buying the teams are not only successful corporate guys, but also people like fellow sportsmen and actors, and they want to make money and build the brand. The latest marketing techniques are being used.”

Looking ahead, Mr Singh believes that modern cricketers will command even higher prices for their sponsorship deals.

“Suddenly people know their value,” he says. “I don’t think anyone knows how high it can go.”

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