Sports sponsorships have always been a high-visibility marketing tool for companies. In recent years, however, organizations have focused on benefits that go beyond brand awareness and sales. More and more Indian organizations are using sports sponsorships as a strategic tool for employee engagement and motivation.

A former state-level tennis player and ex-banker, Deepthi Bopaiah, calls herself a “failed athlete". Now the executive director of GoSports Foundation, a non-profit venture, she works as an implementation partner to make sure that corporate support reaches the right athletes. Bopaiah designs programmes that help companies support athletes for the long run. Citing the example of the ongoing Asian Games, she says there is a feeling of prestige and kinship among employees when they see the athletes supported by their organization doing well. One such moment of pride came when the foundation partnered with IndusInd Bank during the 2016 Rio Paralympics Games. The bank was supporting 11 Indian athletes, three of whom came back with medals. “That’s when we realized the full impact of how proper support puts differently-abled athletes in a position to accomplish their dreams. We then adopted the entire blind Indian cricket team which went on to win the 2017 Blind Twenty20 Cricket World Cup," says Sanjeev Anand, country head, commercial banking, and deputy head, corporate and commercial banking, IndusInd Bank.

A former national-level squash player himself, Anand also leads the non-banking sports vertical, IndusInd For Sports. He says the bank shares these stories with their 25,000-strong employee base. “We’ve also used the powerful stories of the Paralympians in various leadership off-sites where they address our employees and talk about resilience and perseverance. The engagement levels at these events is unbelievable."

Rashesh Shah, chairman and chief executive officer, Edelweiss Group, often uses values common to the brand and sports —teamwork, responsibility, informed and rapid decision-making and the drive to succeed—to communicate with his leadership teams. Edelweiss’ foray into athlete support started as a philanthropic effort with Edelgive Foundation in 2009. Edelgive, along with the not-for-profit Olympic Gold Quest, started sponsoring Mary Kom, P.V. Sindhu and many young female athletes under the overarching mission of women empowerment. “After the London Olympics, when Mary Kom came to Edelweiss House (Mumbai), there was almost a stampede, and a resounding welcome. There was a sense of pride that we supported her. We crowdfunded her Manipur boxing academy by getting the employees to raise funds. They felt such a kinship with Mary Kom that they willingly contributed time and effort," says Shabnam Panjwani, head, marketing, Edelweiss Group.

IndusInd Bank staff during the blind cricket team’s T20 World Cup win in Bengaluru. Photo courtesy: IndusInd Bank
IndusInd Bank staff during the blind cricket team’s T20 World Cup win in Bengaluru. Photo courtesy: IndusInd Bank

Over the years, the Edelweiss Group has increased its involvement in sports sponsorship , adopting five women athletes: Dipa Karmakar, Rani Rampal, Manika Batra, Mirabai Chanu and Heena Sidhu. “Our employees are always caught up in transactions, targets, goals and growth, but these uplifting stories shared during townhalls and employee events give them a deep sense of purpose, and ownership of a mission bigger than themselves," says Panjwani.

Any organization’s focus on sports and athletes goes towards building a culture of well-being, performance and tenacity. Anand says that IndusInd bank, through its Get Set Go initiative, encourages employees to participate in marathons by sending them registration reminders and getting external trainers to speak to them about training and eating right. “In 2016, when we were principal sponsors of the Indian contingent for the Rio Olympics, we also started our fitness pledge—the Fitness Quotient. Everyone in the organization had to go online and pledge to do somethings that would increase their fitness quotient—stop smoking, climb stairs, eat cleaner—and then nominate someone who would help them achieve that," says Panjwani.

Bopaiah, while delighted that more companies are looking at sports sponsorship seriously, throws a caveat. “Companies should realize that employee engagement with sports persons will truly happen only if it’s invested in the athelete for the long run," she says.

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