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We have always been a cricket-loving nation but 2016 saw a breakthrough in non-cricket leagues that had long been in the offing.

There were two seasons of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) as well as the Kabaddi World Cup—kabaddi sponsorship alone increased by 154% over the previous year, according to “ESP Properties-SportzPower: Sporting Nation In The Making-IV". Since 2016 was also an Olympic year, there was a surge in non-cricket athlete endorsements too. Brands have jumped on the bandwagon, targeting specific groups.

Why is it that sports other than cricket now resonate so passionately?

Cricket’s ongoing Indian Premier League (IPL) challenges brands to push the envelope every year in slogans, packaging and overall identity. From “Jumping Japang" (2013) to “India Ka Tyohaar" (2015) to “Happy Wala" (2016), the core of the IPL campaign always gives the feeling of being one with all of India.

But while cricket may trigger a visceral attachment, sports such as kabaddi, football and wrestling come with a “community" feel to them. While cricket is mass, sports like football, kabaddi or badminton are market-specific and help brands engage their captive audience. Football, for example, has a huge fan following in Kerala and the North-East, so engagement levels are high.

Major categories like automobiles, telecom, mobile handsets, consumer goods and e-commerce, among others, joined hands at the central and team levels to sponsor sports like kabaddi, football, badminton (Premier Badminton League) and hockey (Hockey India League), hoping to tap into both the rural and urban segments.

Kabaddi is allowing brands to expand into the rural market. The PKL had mobile-handset manufacturers, banks, automakers, electrical goods manufacturers and e-commerce firms as associate sponsors and beverage and food brands, among others, as official partners. Similarly, the Kabaddi World Cup had e-commerce, consumer goods and beverages firms, among others, as sponsors. People in rural areas may be swayed by cricket but they worship a different kind of athleticism—the type that is raw, earthy and diametrically opposed to “cosmopolitan".

The sports industry may keenly analyse the share of sponsorship between cricket and non-cricket, but both categories held their own despite ups and downs, collectively contributing to an increase in numbers. Comprehensive sports sponsorship grew across the board in 2016, to $941 million (Rs6,400 crore), a big jump from $825 million in 2015, according to the “ESP Properties–SportzPower" report. Going by the data, 2012 saw a negative growth rate of 17% (Rs4,404.5 crore) and 2013 a negative rate of 1%; 2014 saw a growth of 9% (Rs4,616.5 crore).

Social media and the rise of conversations through digital platforms have enabled a trajectory for non-cricket sports that is noteworthy. Social media conversations and search volumes differ from sport to sport. While the base of the International Premier Tennis League audience is small, social conversation and search volumes are higher than for other sports leagues. So the International Premier Tennis League audience has the most digitally active sports viewer, according to the ESP report, while the PKL audience is the least active.

The Rio Olympics in 2016, despite the poor performance by Indian athletes, provided top-of-the-mind conversation. P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi Malik rose to cult status, raking in endorsements to upset the reigning triumvirate of Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza and Mary Kom.

After the 2012 Olympics, Nehwal had five brands with an average fee of Rs75 lakh and Sushil Kumar, two brands with an average fee of Rs40 lakh. In 2016, Sindhu had six brand endorsements, with Rs15-18 crore in total value, and Malik had two brands with an average fee of Rs50 lakh.

By virtue of their being Olympians, they cut through class, strata and the rural-urban divide, gaining pan-India acceptance. Sindhu joined the league of global icons with a major beverage company signing her on. It is because of these female sports personalities that 2016 saw a defining rise in the number of women, both in stadia as well as in terms of TV viewership, over previous years.

There is a steady growth of female viewership year-on-year. According to PKL’s consumer study, the number of women watching the Pro-Kabaddi League has grow since Season 1. Over the years, IPL viewership among women has remained steady, with an average 2.5 television rating.

Broadcasters and brands may still be working on cracking the non-cricket sponsorship conundrum—around 65:35 right now. But it’s true that you can now experiment a great deal with sports in this category, through different kinds of leagues, tournaments and events. So while cricket may continue to be the big driver, India as a sporting economy will grow steadily through both cricket and other sports.

Vinit Karnik is business head, ESP Properties (part of WPP’s GroupM)—sports and entertainment sponsorship, ROI and strategy specialist

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