New Delhi: Neerav Tomar made a strange decision back in 2005. In a country with little to show in terms of a sporting culture outside of cricket, he started a small company, called Infinity Optimal Solutions (IOS), to promote non-cricket athletes. Tomar, a national-level squash player, was drawn to squash and boxing.
Over a decade later, after almost having to shut shop multiple times for lack of work and funds, IOS is now one of the hottest sports talent management companies in India. Tomar, 31, manages some of the country’s top athletes with his team, including boxers Mary Kom (for whom they struck a movie deal) and Vijender Singh (who turned pro on their advice); badminton player Saina Nehwal, wrestler Sushil Kumar, and even cricketer Suresh Raina.
In an interview, Tomar speaks about India’s most valuable athletes, the early struggles, and the 2016 Rio Olympics. Edited excerpts:
Who is your most valuable athlete right now?
I think Saina Nehwal is one of our biggest deals, worth around Rs.25 crore. When she won a medal at the 2015 world championship, we got quite a few deals; we’ve made close to 60% of the Rs.25 crore. The timing was perfect. She’s already done shoots for multiple brands and we’re just waiting for them to roll out into ads. She is our No.1 athlete in terms of endorsements and revenues.
She is a tough customer. She is very committed to her sport, maybe overcommitted. She’s a person who is so into her training that she has very little time for shoots and even time for herself. I know Saina from the 2008 Olympics. She had just started coming into the limelight, and back then we helped her by trying to get some endorsements, she helped us by coming to some of our events. We had been in touch with her for almost eight years before signing.
Last year was a great year for you, you had a spate of high-profile signings: Nehwal, Vijender Singh, Suresh Raina...
Yes, it’s been a great year. Suresh Raina was our first cricket signing. Finally, 10 years of our work started paying off. I knew it was going to take a decade to start a completely new concept, something no one has done before in India. It was literally a joke in 2005 to talk about sports outside cricket. There was just no market; even for cricket, there wasn’t much of a market because even the IPL (Indian Premier League) came in 2008 and then the sporting market started to grow. But before the IPL it was just a huge empty space. IPL gave a massive shot in the arm to the sporting industry; because of it we have the belief that localized top-level world sporting content will work, and work commercially.
Raina quit his long partnership with Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Rhiti Sports. Was that a dramatic signing?
No, it was a very smooth transition, not like Jerry Maguire! Rhiti gave us an NOC (no objection certificate). Most companies that managed cricketers were under the scanner for conflict of interest, so a lot of people wanted to move and find new pastures. In India, sports management is not very competitive yet. There is mutual respect and not much poaching in the market.
Yet when you were still a young company, you had some trouble with Vijender Singh.
Yes, this was in 2009. At that time we had struggled for years, and we had just one athlete with us, Vijender. When he won the Olympic medal in 2008, that is what kept the company alive. It was the first time we started making money. He was everything for us. Before that, the only thing we could do was get some cheap barter deals for clothes and equipment. After the medal, we struck so many deals. We got a deal with Pepsi, that was the first time Pepsi had signed someone who was not a cricketer or a Bollywood star.
But then in 2009, in the middle of the boxing world championship in Milan, Vijender went and signed up with another company without even telling me. And I was there with him from day one. It was a very dark time for me, for the company. For many months we had no work. We had lost our star. Actually, he was the only athlete we had. It took a huge toll on me and the company.
But you got back together last year, you were behind the decision to make Vijender fight in the pro ranks.
We kept in touch, you know, a text message once a year or so. Back in 2009 we had spoken about going pro. That was always the dream. New York, Las Vegas, world titles. Because we could see he was a phenomenal boxer, a thinker of a boxer, a good-looking guy, superbly confident, the complete package. That didn’t happen.
But last year, on 2 May, there was the Floyd Mayweather Jr- Manny Pacquiao fight. There was huge hype around it, a huge build-up, fight of the century and all that, so I sent a text to Vijender saying, “This was the dream, do you see what I was talking about 10 years back?” And I got a reply: “Let’s do it.” And then just like that we were back together, with the same energy, the same connect.
I said, “Listen now. Do you have faith in me, to take you the distance?”
He said, “Yes. If you make me fight Mayweather tomorrow, if I have the right trainers and the coaching, I’ll fight anybody in the world.”
Mary Kom is a big success story for you, but what was it like when you signed her back in 2008 to have a four-time boxing world champion who was unknown in her own country?
She deserved so much more systemic support. She was really unknown, it was so depressing. When we put Mary in the system—our sponsor engagement team, our events team—and we made the calls, they said: “Mary kaun? (Mary, who?)”. Nobody knew her! It was a very difficult time. One company came forward to sign her, a small figure, way less than Rs.10 lakh, just a gesture really, but that was important. Now that company has stayed with Mary for eight years, and also supports her academy. Now Mary endorses some 16 brands—a remarkable story. Her brand value—if you look at the overall scenario, including a book and a film— will be over Rs.100 crore.
In 2010, she won the world championship again, and we did a big event. That was the start. By the way, the boxing federation had not planned anything. We constantly started to work on her PR (public relations) image, on who she is, on where she comes from, her life story. I knew that Mary will win an Olympic medal, and I knew that the medal will change everything—we had seen the same with Vijender. I remember sitting right here in this office when Mary made it to the Olympics, we celebrated, ordered a few bottles of red wine. At that time, Vijender had moved on, and Mary was the only big name on our portfolio, nobody else. So then we went to London with her, and I was certain that she would get silver or gold, so the bronze was a shocker.
You were also behind her film deal. Was it odd that an icon of the North-East was played by Priyanka Chopra?
No. See, the thing is, at the end of the day, there are no free lunches, you know, in terms of the production house spending a lot of money. At the end of the day, it was business for them. They had to bring in a big star: here, it’s the only thing that sells. I think it was not a bad choice, and in terms of just portraying it right, they’ve showcased the best that they could showcase: her story, and the North-East part of it. Commercially, and reach-wise, it was brilliant. It has reached so much into the masses that Mary Kom became a household name. This would never have happened without the film, and the star.
You also recently signed a deal with the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and you made the controversial decision of bringing in Salman Khan as brand ambassador for the 2016 Olympics.
We’re trying to make Olympic sport a household name. How? People said why not Mr Milkha Singh? But we had a plan. We wanted four brand ambassadors who were very clearly from four walks of life. We wanted to get the most legendary name in cricket, we got Sachin Tendulkar. We wanted to get the biggest household name in Bollywood, there’s nobody bigger than Salman Khan. Now we can always debate about his issues and his personal life, but let’s keep that aside. People love him, there are masses who love him, ready to do whatever he says. Then you have the biggest musician in the country, A.R. Rahman, who has also given us the rights to his song, and we’ve requested him to make a jingle. And then we’ve got the biggest achiever in the Olympics, a gold medallist in Abhinav Bindra.
There are 150 million digital fans on social media right now. Through Salman alone, we’ve got 40 million. Imagine the reach of that.
It’s very important to bring these stars into it, who are household names, so that there’s brand value and mass reach. In the 89-year-old history of the IOA, this is the first time that they are trying to do proper commercialization. This can only mean more money for sports, for athletes, and an increase in popularity and participation.
Nobody looks beyond cricket and the comfort zone. Let’s sell what sells and forget the rest, that’s the attitude. How can any other sport thrive in that atmosphere?
What happens if we don’t win medals at the Olympics?
A huge drawback. But I think India will win at least eight medals. I won’t be surprised if we win 12.