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Byju’s has a tie-up with Fifa, the world body for football, which is conducting the ongoing World Cup tournament in Qatar. Amul has a tie-up with Viacom 18 for India’s broadcast and streaming operations, as well as a regional partnership with Argentina and Portugal, to cash in on the popularity of their star strikers, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, respectively. Some eight other brands have cast themselves as sponsors of the broadcast/streaming in India of the biggest sporting event of the world. But is advertising the only game in town, when it comes to something as big as the World Cup?

Is advertising the only thing possible with an activity that goes on for a month, captivates millions of fans in India, and has myriad possibilities and contact points for audience engagement, in the form of players, popular teams, spectacular moments in the game, past records, past heroes and so on?

Companies can use football for employee engagement. Give them flexible hours, to let them watch their favourite teams in action. That lets employees know that the company cares for them, and values them as individuals with interests that go beyond their work.

Companies can gain subliminal traction that goes beyond any particular product, project their brand as something that stands for passion and excellence. Hyundai experimented with a song associated with the World Cup in 2010 and has been working with it since, to partner the K-Pop act BTS for the World Cup song of 2022.

Lots of Indians remember the cheeky ad from Pepsi, which could not make it to official sponsor of the 1996 cricket World Cup but, instead, stole the limelight from sponsor Coca-Cola. Nothing official about it – went the Pepsi tagline. Without an official sponsor, that ad would not have worked. And without an event to sponsor, there would have been no sponsor. So, Pepsi’s ability to project itself as a free-spirited brand, in contrast to the restrained officiousness of official sponsors, depended on the cricket tournament it did not sponsor.

It is that kind of creative imagination that is missing in action. Where are companies sponsoring football quizzes? There is an official Fifa fantasy sport with a set of official sponsors. But that is not the only gamifying possibility with a football tournament of the scale of the World Cup and the scope afforded by so many star players with unique styles of play, unique hairstyles and signature moves with the ball and to celebrate a goal.

Where are the tour operators offering tempting sites from Portugal, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, France and Italy, to ride audience obsession with these countries’ star strikers and glorious teams? Where are the companies sponsoring quizzes on football trivia?

Football is a craze in Kerala, Goa, West Bengal and the Northeast. It is a major passion among the elite in North India, who stay up late watching the English Premier League, the Champions League or the Euro Cup and whose kids kick the ball clothed in the fancy jerseys of their favourite teams. Companies that want to target these markets and market segments can do a lot more to ride the soaring ball to reach their own goal.

And it is not just the audience in India that matters. Indian companies that have growing ambitions abroad, ranging from Hero and Mahindra in automobiles and the likes of Godrej with its haircare products in Africa, to the information technology majors with potential markets around the world, Football is a major vehicle to ride into the consciousness of their target audience.

It is time Indian companies stopped treating cricket as the be-all and end-all of sporting opportunity for marketing and brand building and started deploying imagination to convert the palpable excitement over football to their own advantage.

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