New Delhi: Virat Kohli is in England for the ICC Champions Trophy cricket tournament, which marks the start of a formidable season for the Indian team in his first year as captain in all three formats of the game.
India has been at the top of its game for the past year, rising to No.1 in Test rankings, but most of its wins have come on home ground. The next year or so will be different, with the Champions Trophy to be followed by a series of tough overseas tours that promises to test Kohli and his team’s mettle.
But at least in one aspect of his career, he has already left all other sportsmen in India behind—his brand value. In October, a report on India’s most valuable celebrity brands published by Duff & Phelps, a New York-based corporate finance advisory firm, put Kohli’s brand value at $92 million, second only to Shah Rukh Khan’s $131 million.
In less than a year, this has now jumped to somewhere around $120 million, according to Kohli, who also revealed that he has signed a new deal with tyre maker MRF Ltd. His management team refused to give details of that deal. Kohli spoke in a recent interview about managing his brand equity and why he is rethinking endorsing products that don’t suit his lifestyle. Edited excerpts:
You were the second most valuable celebrity in India before you signed a Rs110 crore deal with Puma in February. What do you think your valuation is now?
The Puma deal happened alongside the MRF deal, so it must be $120 million plus now. These are just numbers for me, it’s something my management informs me about. It’s not something I strive for or work towards, it’s just a by-product of whatever I’m doing in my professional career, so the focus always remains on that. But yes, these things are an important facet of your life and I have a strong management team that’s really doing a good job with me on that.
Even Sachin Tendulkar at his peak or M.S. Dhoni at his peak did not command the reach and value that you do now. What has changed in the way sportsmen in India are marketed?
I can’t really pinpoint that to anything but you have to understand where the commercial market is going. In general, the money has increased in the sport, the money has increased with brands, so it’s always going to be a progress. The guy coming in after this group of cricketers is done, they may make more money with brands. And the game is progressing as well, going a little bit more global, and all these factors play a massive role in your brand valuation going up. But it also has to be a natural thing for people to find that connect with you. I haven’t made a conscious effort towards that, I’ve just been myself, but maybe people have started connecting to me in a way, and that’s one of the reasons. When you are playing on the field your emotions are raw, and if people connect to you, they do; if they don’t, they don’t. It’s as simple as that.
How do you manage your time? Do you participate in the process when you are making a deal?
I’m part of everything actively. Nothing is blindly signed, it’s always discussed, and my management also does not bring things to the table that do not connect to me. The owner of the company (Cornerstone), Bunty (Sajdeh), I’m very close to him and he understands my personality, my character, so they won’t bring something to me that does not resonate with me in any case. But even then, it’s subject to whether I like it or not. A particular brand may be very big but the campaigns they are willing to do, or the creative freedom may not be in our hands, and if that doesn’t resonate with what I believe in, I can still reject it.
So you would reject something if it does not, say, align with your well-known fitness philosophy?
When I started my fitness turnaround, it was more of a lifestyle thing initially. But now I think it has become so important to the sport —everyone’s taking it up in such a big way—that for me it’s become a part of my thinking pattern. If something goes away from that, I would not want to be a part of that or be promoting that. We are actually on the cusp of making some big changes on that front. Things that I’ve endorsed in the past, I won’t take names, but something that I feel that I don’t connect to anymore. If I myself won’t consume such things, I won’t urge others to consume it just because I’m getting money out of it.
Your Puma deal runs for eight years, which is quite long, and you get a fixed payout from them. How hard were the negotiations? What are your obligations?
I don’t think the negotiations were hard. My primary demand or my condition was that I want to start a sportsline of my own, especially in cricket. Although you might say that it’s the biggest sport in the nation, if you want to go and buy cricket clothes it’s very difficult to get good quality stuff. I understand how big a role the way your clothes are made plays in the way you feel on the field. If it doesn’t have enough ventilation—small things matter a lot—it might just produce too much heat within the attire. I wanted to create something on that front. Puma was willing to do that with me. They have the creative freedom to make something and make those changes immediately and there’s no lapse in what I want to do and what they wanted to do with me.
Tell me a little bit about the Virat Kohli Foundation?
The foundation we set up quite a while back, but to get it rolling we needed to raise funds in a big way. The primary reason was to give children facilities in basic education, sports, work with schools and colleges to do sessions. We wanted to do these things but it took a bit of time to come together. But now we are up and running and we are doing a charity dinner in London as well for the foundation, so whatever funds we raise from that, we will then figure out what the issues are that we want to address. This is something I would like to do much more in the future.