There’s nothing remarkable or novel in major companies signing up sportspeople—in this case, a boxer, wrestler, long-distance runner and badminton player, respectively. It is not unusual for the company to be unrelated to the world of sport either—decades ago, cricketers Kapil Dev and Farokh Engineer famously grinned for grooming products Palmolive and Brylcreem, respectively.
Over the last two years, sports sponsorship has begun to look beyond cricket. 2017 was a breakthrough year for the business of sport in India, according to a 2018 report by the sports business news company Sportzpower, prepared in association with Group M’s ESP Properties. Athletes in sports other than cricket produced a sequence of good results as well—badminton player Srikanth briefly became world No.1 in April, boxer Mary Kom won her sixth world title in November and Manika Batra clinched medals in table tennis at the Commonwealth and Asian Games, to name a few.
This augurs well for companies that are looking to attract eyeballs, even if they do not find an immediate connection between the brand and the athlete, says Neerav Tomar, managing director and chief executive, IOS Sports & Entertainment. His company manages Mary Kom, Batra and athlete Hima Das, among others.
What do companies gain from these associations? How do they draw a parallel between their communication and what the athlete stands for? Do they see tangible results through these associations?
For several years now, MRF has been synonymous with cricket, partly owing to the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai that trains fast bowlers. This tyre company also has a significant bat sponsorship deal with Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli which gets it invaluable visibility considering the amount of time the Indian skipper spends on the field scoring runs.
When financial services company Edelweiss first signed up badminton star Saina Nehwal in 2015, it was based on her persona as a determined, down-to-earth person. “That fit in with our values," says Shabnam Panjwani, head of marketing communications, Edelweiss Financial Services. “After that, we followed the same principle of supporting young women athletes."
“Legends don’t retire," says Satish Sharma, president (Asia Pacific, Middle East, Africa), Apollo. “Sachin has led his life admirably, has no controversy, and you would have never heard a sportsman give the kind of speech he gave when he retired (in 2013). As a personality, he is far beyond cricket."
Bridgestone comes across as a product that stands for solid attributes and strength, which fits well with an athlete like Mary Kom, says Tomar.
Edelweiss has endorsement deals till 2020 with hockey player Rani Rampal, Hima Das, shooter Heena Sidhu, table tennis’ Batra, gymnast Dipa Karmakar and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu. The company has given them life covers of ₹1 crore, ₹10 lakh health insurance and a ₹5 lakh investible corpus. The group spends 15-25% of its marketing budget on sports (including partnerships with the Indian Olympic Association), says Panjwani.
For smaller companies, sportspeople offer instant visibility—and newer firms are taken seriously when they associate with superstar athletes.
Mansoor Ahamed, founder and chief executive of apparel brand Attiitude Fashions Pvt. Ltd, says West Indian cricketer Chris Gayle came on board not only as the face of the brand but also as an equity holder. Gayle invested in the nearly three-year-old label because he loved the idea and its personality, says Ahamed.
For companies to find a connection with the sportsperson isn’t difficult. “Physically, you are in top form, and we will ensure you are in top form financially" is Panjwani’s message.
Sharma adds: “Enabling Apollo as a brand enables people on their journey. Sachin is a symbol of that, as someone who is known well in India and in many markets where we have significant presence. We feel that the transparency of his persona and the life he has beyond his sporting years augurs well in connecting the dots."
Gayle’s close to 15 million followers on social media are in the same target group as Attiitude’s. “Around 65-70% of his followers are in the 16-28 age category. Even though he is 30-plus, his followers are young, and they are our customers. Chris is fashion conscious, which appeals to younger audiences. He entertains his audience," says Ahamed.
The Bengaluru- and UK-based Attiitude boss finds Gayle’s “bad boy" image an advantage for the company. “We are bold and disruptive. Whatever Chris does, he does it spontaneously. He is not shy of making a statement. That’s what the young generation is today—they are bold, spontaneous, they don’t shy (away) from criticism. We don’t believe in the politically correct."
Edelweiss’ Panjwani says that between 2016-18, there was a 130% jump in customer acquisition, driven partly by their association with IOA and sportspeople. “This association needs to be sustained long term and not be a short-term marketing activity alone. This has never been a RoI (return on investment) in the traditional sense," she adds.
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that cricket appeals to the country," says Apollo’s Sharma, adding that it is too early for the company to see tangible results from its association with Tendulkar. “Our vision is to be the leader in the market. Sachin stands for all sports. There are several aspects to this association—it’s not unidimensional."
“Chris has been on board since inception," adds Ahamed, referring to the cricketer. “He is wearing our gear on most posts in social media."
While cricketers remain the most obvious choice for sponsors, others are catching up. Greater television time, media coverage and results on a global stage will push more companies to seek sportspeople other than cricketers who also make for good role models among the youth.
“There is tremendous value for an Olympian, since they are motivated not by money but by winning for the country," says Panjwani.