Why wealthy sporting legends don't mind looking silly in ads

Cricket is a paradise for advertisements as they can be run at the end of every over.
Cricket is a paradise for advertisements as they can be run at the end of every over.


  • They are willing to appear in ads that diminish their sporting aura but don't seem to care about what commercial appearances do to their dignity. What might explain this?

For nearly a quarter century, when Sachin Tendulkar played cricket in front of half the world, he did nothing for a moment that would make us laugh at him. As long as it was cricket, actually as long as it was the real world, he did everything right. Even when he stood on the field with his hands on his waist, one thought that is the way to stand on the field. But when ads would come on featuring him, he could make us cringe. His peers, too. It bothered us a bit to see them this way, but we understood money. They had a limited time in the sun, and the match fees was modest, so they needed to endorse products. But then, many of them are still at it.

They have all retired as very wealthy men, and they have been consecrated as legends, and they continue to ham in bad ads flogging products like mutual funds and engine oil. When I see Tendulkar now, I wonder why a sporting icon would wear a costume that I somehow remember as a red onesie and flog an app to sell used cars? How much money is enough for legends to quit doing this?

I am not saying there is anything wrong in icons appearing in ads. This column is an expression of my own incomprehension at why legends who took great care to be elegant and correct when they played their sports, do not seem to care about a loss of dignity appearing in mediocre ads. For very wealthy men, who are also national treasures, how much money is enough money?

When we look at the phenomenon without sanctimony, and when we look at the world not as a problem that needs to be solved, but as plain evidence of what people are, we can begin to see an aspect of life that is not intuitive.

Advertisements can enhance the myth of a sport star, as they did with Michael Jordan. But when the success of a commercial does not depend on the glorification of the athlete who is endorsing it, and the product itself has nothing to do with any sport, we see our legends getting diminished. But they seem to think it is worth the price, which is what is interesting about the phenomenon.

In any case, this form of diminishing is better than what the first generation of cricket legends endured after retirement. When I was a reporter for a magazine, I would call up some of them for quotes, and they would ask for money. One of them held on to the last shred of his dignity by trying to make it look like a joke, but he truly was broke and needed money. There was also a West Indian legend, and if you knew who he was you wouldn’t believe it, who used to ask for money for interviews, not out of greed or bitterness, but because he needed it.

When I ask people why wealthy sporting legends still do ads, that too ads that make them look bad, almost everyone tells me that they do it to stay “relevant," to remain in our porous heads.

I am not so convinced. I think it is just about the money. It is easy money. Normally, an endorsement just takes a day’s work and could be worth crores.

If Don Bradman were alive today, what is the value he would put on accepting, say, a Fevicol commercial? I think he wouldn’t do it. He did appear in ads, though, but he promoted only sports equipment. He also promoted “road safety," strangely not to protect drivers from other drivers, but to protect Australian boys who played cricket on the road from vehicles. The boxer Muhammad Ali, too, has appeared in commercials, but from what I gather, these were advertisements that promoted sporting goods, and so it should not surprise us that these ads needed to venerate him. Those legends emerged well from their commercial appearances.

Cricket is a paradise for advertisements. They can be run at the end of every over. As a result, there are a lot of commercials during a match and a lot of money in product endorsements. It must be hard for cricket legends to resist the temptation of being paid a lot of money to look silly.

There is a difference between a legendary actor endorsing a product and a great athlete doing the same. Actors are professional entertainers in the business of farce. The legend of an actor depends not on fans understanding him, but in misunderstanding him. In a great actor, people see what they want to see; that is exactly what makes him great. So the aura of an Amitabh Bachchan or a Shah Rukh Khan is not diminished by the farce of product endorsement. A great athlete, however, is the exact opposite of an actor. He is adored by fans for what is real about him. A cricket fan loves Tendulkar because the fan is almost a historian of the game.

Some sport stars, though, are gifted with the lightness of actors. There are even some sporting legends without gravitas. Take Diego Maradona, for example. A man who did drugs and sought paid sex openly, he could probably have done any silly ad without diminishing himself as a football legend.

Also, take Hardik Pandya’s underwear commercial currently airing. It is interesting that one cricketer who does not look silly in an ad is a guy posing in an underwear. He has the physique for it; and the ad’s central focus itself is dependent on making him look great. And his own myth helps, that he is a cool cucumber.

If there is an Indian cricket legend who is in good shape, how much would it cost to get him to do such an underwear commercial? Suddenly, we begin to understand the matter of public dignity, and the fact that an endorsement fee, like your salary, is a payment given not for what you do, but for what you don’t want to do.

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