Non-cricket sports turn lucrative for brands

Sponsors are discovering that sponsorship of other sports ensures better returns, unlike cricket where sponsorship fees have shot through the roof.

In the past few years, cricket mania and cricketers’ fees have skyrocketed to stratospheric levels, thanks to the craze for IPL’s (Indian Premier League) T-20 cricket. But as sponsorship fees for cricket shoot through the roof, this has come as a blessing in disguise for other sports hitherto ignored by sponsors. From football to tennis to Luge, it seems the time for non-cricket sports has finally arrived. In fact, sponsors have begun to notice sports other than cricket. In a country where millions eat, breathe and live cricket, this is no mean achievement.

But this isn’t an argument about cricket versus other sports. It is simply about increasing the fan following of other sports so that these sportspersons can finally emerge out of the shadow of cricketers and take their place under the sporting sun. It is also about what different brands in India are gradually realising: pound for pound, cricket no longer gives the same bang for the buck as other sports. Unlike cricket, while other sports have been starved of sponsorship for decades, today they are ideally positioned to deliver a better rate of return for every rupee spent.

Moreover, select brands have realised there is an apparent disconnect between some cricket celebrities and the products they endorse. For advertisers in India, the face that connects with the audience needs to have critical bonding. But the fizz can sometimes evaporate in an instant when the public discovers their demi-gods have been caught on the wrong foot in unsavoury scandals or other similar shenanigans.

Rise of Other Sports

With other sportspersons not being a pampered or spoilt lot, they continue to lead more disciplined lives with little risk of running afoul of the images their brand endorsements build up. Furthermore, sportsperson in other disciplines have been performing well globally, and victories in international tournaments against the world’s top 10 players have been winning them a larger fan following in India. For instance, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu’s exploits against top shuttlers have captivated many fans and given a big boost to badminton in India. In chess, Viswanathan Anand held the world champion’s crown for many years, before surrendering it late last year to Norway’s Magnus Carlsen.

Not surprisingly, during the past few years, advertisers have been placing their money on sports other than cricket. Consider some examples. In February 2013, Cairn India became co-sponsors of the Indian hockey team for a period of three years. The sponsorship covers the senior as well as junior teams and includes both the men and women’s hockey players. Through this sponsorship, Cairn seeks to revive hockey in India and take the sport to new levels that may recapture the nation’s past glory of global supremacy during the days of the legendary Dhyan Chand.

If Cairn sponsors hockey, General Motors’ brand Chevrolet has supported football via its partnership with Manchester United in India. As the Official Automotive Partner of Manchester United, Chevrolet has pledged to unite football supporters worldwide through this popular sport.

Unusual Sport, Unusual Predicament

One of the most unusual sports to be sponsored by a private company in India is Luge. As one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympic Games, in this sport athletes race down an icy, high-banked track, notching up high speeds of 140 kmph (90 mph). In the Olympic Luge, the slider (called a ‘luger’ in non-Olympic settings) lies down on a fibreglass sled, without any braking system, and heads feet-first down on the icy track. Incidentally, Luge athletes can end up with serious injuries if they fall off the sled.

An Indian who has mastered this sport is Shiva Keshavan - a four-time Winter Olympian. The first Indian representative to compete in Luge at the Winter Olympic Games, Keshavan holds the Asian speed record of 134.3 kmph. Also the reigning Asian Cup Gold Medallist and a speed and track record holder, Keshavan’s achievements are remarkable because Luge has no scope for practice in India and awareness levels are low too. But Keshavan has overcome hurdles by making his own Luge board and practising on busy Himalayan highways - racing past trucks, cars and cattle to emerge as the champion that he is today.

Recognising this lone warrior’s efforts, MTS (a telecom brand of Sistema Shyam Teleservices Ltd) had appointed Keshavan as its brand ambassador two years ago. Since then, MTS has actively supported Keshavan in his quest for Olympic glory, although Luge is not a popular sport in India. Unfortunately, due to the political standoff between the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the IOA (Indian Olympic Association), the Indian Olympic movement has been derecognised. Consequently, Indian athletes cannot participate in the Sochi Winter Games as representatives of India and are only eligible to participate under the Olympic flag.

Olympic Dream

For an athlete fiercely proud to represent his country, this is a crushing blow indeed. Given the lack of support for Luge in India, Keshavan received an offer to represent Italy in 2002. But he refused saying, “I am an Indian and want to contribute to the country that I was born in.” Keshavan is now a ‘Citizen Olympian’ and while he cannot represent the Tricolour, he still represents the people of India and the combined aspirations of a billion people eager for an Olympic medal. But thanks to the low awareness of the sport in India, there is little public support for Keshavan’s predicament.

Undeterred, MTS has initiated moves to drive support for Shiva Keshavan and his dream of Olympic glory, motivating him in the run-up to the Games and his quest for a medal. Titled #IndiaForShiva, the crowd-sourcing campaign is pivoted around Twitter to get people to send in their wishes, support and cheers for Shiva. The campaign was launched on 26 January, India’s Republic Day, and will continue through the Winter Olympics at Sochi from 6-24 February 2014.
Leonid Musatov, Chief Marketing & Sales Officer - MTS India, says, “MTS as a brand has always believed in providing a platform to talented youngsters, who bet on themselves, challenge reality and don’t let the present come in way of their future. We have always believed in Shiva and his dedication to the sport of Luge, despite the sport not being as popular as some of the other sports in the country. Now, when the chance to win the Olympic medal is so close, it is time that we all stand behind Shiva and cheer for him”.

Clearly, despite the cricket mania that still sweeps the country, other sports and sportspersons are finally finding sponsors to support their cause. Such sponsorships will ensure that, apart from cricketers, other sportspersons also find their place under the sun.

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