Mumbai: Dennis Lillee, the Australian fast bowler, can take credit for telling a 14-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, then trying out at the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai, that he would be better off focusing on batting instead of fast bowling. But it was the rapid strides India made towards a free market in the early 1990s, barely a few years after Tendulkar’s international debut, that made the man India’s first real sports-icon brand.
The man, in turn, made Indian cricket the business juggernaut it is today.
Sure, Indian sports had brand icons before Tendulkar. Cricketers Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, and tennis player Vijay Amritraj, appeared in several ads, but not till Tendulkar had India had a sports-icon brand who could hold his own among sportsmen from other sports and from around the world.
Indeed, as Tendulkar plays his 200th and last Test against the West Indies in November, he will be remembered not just for his on-field achievements, but also for bringing commerce into Indian sport long before Lalit Modi.
Today, Tendulkar may have been overtaken by India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a more popular brand, but his estimated annual earnings of $22 million—$18 million from endorsements and $4 million from cricket—in the financial year that ended in June, according to Forbes, is the result of 24 years of a squeaky clean image and more than 15,000 consistent Test runs.
“No one can replicate what Sachin has done as a brand in modern India,” says Anirban Das Blah, managing director of Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions.
“He epitomized this post-1990s India more than any other individual—a new generation that was unafraid to take on the West.”
Before Tendulkar, the biggest Indian sports brand was perhaps Kapil Dev. His toothy grin in the Palmolive advertisement was a success more as an entertaining piece of advertising than as an influential one, but when Dev’s image got marred due to his delayed retirement in the mid-1990s, Tendulkar took over as the next superstar.
One-Day Internationals really took off in India in the second half of the 1980s, following India’s historic World Cup triumph in 1983, and, more significantly, the victory in the mini World Cup in 1985 in Australia (the Benson and Hedges tournament) that introduced world-class sports broadcasting to Indians who had just woken up to colour television a few years ago.
Tendulkar, a natural stroke player, fitted in neatly and his entertaining brand of cricket gelled well with younger fans.
“He mirrored public sentiment. It made people feel Indians can take on anyone. His impact on society goes beyond the number of runs he scored, because he taught self-belief,” says Blah.
Tendulkar’s was the story of the underdog, as Shailendra Singh, joint managing director of Percept Ltd, says, of a boy from a middle-class family who broke through to the top, and that contributed to his acceptance among the masses.
Then Mark Mascarenhas, the flamboyant head of WorldTel, recognized his potential and signed up Tendulkar for $7.5 million in 1995-96 for five years and raised it to $18 million in a few years. Tendulkar became the Rs.100crore man, an industry of his own.
What will happen to his brand after he retires? Already, marketing experts say, his image has been diluted following his retirement from One-Day Internationals late last year and due to his continued poor run of scores in Tests over the last two years. But Harish Krishnamachar, senior vice-president and country head at World Sports Group (WSG), the company that manages Tendulkar, told PTI earlier this week that the “possibilities were fantastic”.
“Whenever he reaches a century, Sachin takes a fresh guard,” says Singh.
“It’s just rebooting, starting a fresh innings. I believe he has potential to start a brand-new innings. All he has to do is to reboot and reposition himself.”
There are others who disagree. A sports marketing executive, who did not want to be named, said Rahul Dravid would become a stronger brand than Tendulkar because he has greater relevance. “I don’t know what Sachin stands for outside of cricket,” he said.
Then, maybe, Indian cricket has become such a force by itself that there will no longer be brands as big as Tendulkar.
In their book The Business of Cricket, the authors Shyam Balasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam argue that it would have been impossible for another Tendulkar to become the pivot of Indian sports marketing industry. It was, therefore, only logical that the next big quantum leap came from not an individual but a concept—the Indian Premier League (IPL).
If that’s true, then the great Indian individual sports brand has retired in 2013.