MUMBAI // The television commercial features the Indian cricket international Sachin Tendulkar portraying himself.
He is on the pitch, ready to face a formidable bowler at a nail-biting moment in a match. There is a feverish excitement in the packed stadium. The bowler charges down towards the crease, but is abruptly signalled by the umpire to stop. Tendulkar looks nonplussed.
The leg umpire is blocking the view of the pitch for a very special onlooker in the crowd - the "hero", an unknown face, slouched in a cosy chair in the VIP gallery. The leg umpire is quickly plucked away and the game resumes.
Then another rude interruption. The hero's mobile phone trills. The cameras picture him on the big screen. The players wait for him to finish his call. He finally hangs up, and the game resumes.
Tendulkar swings the ball away like a champion and scores a double century. He is later feted by the "hero" - the imitation of one lucky winner from among 1.2 billion people who will hobnob with sporting icons and get to watch the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup, which began yesterday, from a select vantage point.
The advertising campaign, titled "World Cup ka Hero" in Hindi, was conceptualised by the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather for Castrol, an industrial and automotive lubricants manufacturer. Castrol has reserved almost one third of its annual marketing budget for this campaign alone. It is one among many centred on the sport currently dominating television screens in India. The World Cup is to India what the English Premier League is to Britain - perhaps even bigger. In this nation teeming with cricket aficionados, the sport enjoys a cult status rivalled in popularity only by Bollywood.
According to TAM Media Research, a television audience analysis firm based in Mumbai, cricket dominated television ratings last year, with about 176 million viewers compared with 57 million in 2003.
With this year's World Cup, interest in the game has touched a new peak as the subcontinent is co-hosting the huge sporting event for the first time in 14 years, alongside Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with more than half of the tournament's 51 matches scheduled to be held in India. Six days after the World Cup ends, the fourth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), another popular cricket extravaganza, is due to start.
Advertisers and marketing companies are in the throes of a multibillion-rupee advertising blitz to capture viewers and cash in on the growing frenzy. Brand spending on both events could exceed 30 billion rupees (Dh2.43bn), according to Indian media reports.
ESPN Star Sports - the official broadcaster for the tournament that will televise matches in 181 countries after a US$1.1bn (Dh4.04bn) deal with the International Cricket Council (ICC) - is expecting a windfall.
A slew of sponsors have come on board - Hero Honda, Vodafone and Sony India are the joint presenting sponsors and Maruti Suzuki, Nokia, Airtel, Philips and Pepsi have pitched in as associate sponsors.
If India performs well, entering the knockout stages, ad spot rates - currently pegged between 350,000 rupees and 400,000 rupees per 10-second slot - could jump sixfold, according to Sanjay Kailash, the executive vice president for ad sales at ESPN. The company has not sold out all its ad spots. It is saving some for the last minute, in the event India does enter the quarter-finals or semi-finals - or beyond. That could be an opportune time to jack up spot rates even further.
Set Max, the official broadcaster for the IPL, is expecting a windfall of 8bn rupees to 8.5bn rupees once that tournament begins after the World Cup frenzy dies down. It is banking on companies such as L'Oreal, the maker of Maybelline lipstick, and other brands targeting women consumers who are likely to avoid the testosterone-induced frenzy surrounding the World Cup. Such companies are more likely to advertise during the IPL, which is more popular among women viewers as it involves teams owned by Bollywood celebrities and high-flying socialites.
TAM Media Research says women accounted for 36 per cent of viewers over the IPL's first two seasons. In its third season last year, that number swelled by another 2 per cent.
In 1983, when the Indian cricket team first won the coveted World Cup title at London's Lord's stadium, there were fewer than 3 million television sets in India. By 2007, that number had risen to 105 million sets, mirroring the explosion in spending by India's upwardly mobile middle class.
With a growing ad market in a nation of 1.2 billion consumers, hundreds of television channels have proliferated in the past decade. According to the consulting firm KPMG, television ad revenue rose 6.8 per cent in 2009 to 257bn rupees. That ad spend, analysts say, will grow exponentially in the coming years. Just 112 million households - representing half of India's families - have TVs and, with growing incomes, there is a large, unsaturated market.
With the advent of third-generation technology boosting mobile advertising in India, the world's fastest-growing telecommunications market after China has more than 700 million mobile phone subscribers already. The Internet and Mobile Association of India says text and display advertising grew from 7.85bn rupees in 2009 to 9.93bn rupees last year. India is currently the fastest-growing mobile advertising market in the Asia-Pacific region.
But television remains the fastest-growing medium in the country. PricewaterhouseCoopers says India's television industry, a major contributor to an otherwise underperforming media sector, could grow at 12.9 per cent annually over the next four years to $10.45bn.
Several brands have made significant investments in cricket orientated promotional campaigns this year, but that could be a huge gamble, analysts say.
Most of companies involved are counting heavily on the exploits of the Indian cricket team, which will control consumer behaviour.
"If India crashes out early, it will be devastating," says Rohit Maheshwari, an analyst with the consultancy Kisan Ratilal Choksey, based in Mumbai. "Last-minute inventory of ad slots will come down, ticket sales will suffer and the interest in the tournament will wane."
That is exactly what happened in the previous World Cup, hosted by the West Indies in 2007. The early exit of India left sponsors, broadcasters and tour operators in a tight spot. There were numerous ad spots and a lot of sporting merchandise left unsold.
ESPN this month sought a 6bn rupee insurance cover from General Insurance Corporation of India on a hefty premium of 90 million rupees. It will compensate ESPN for any broadcasting loss arising due to cancellation of matches because of bad weather, civil unrest or a terrorist strike. The Board of Control for Cricket in India, co-organiser of the World Cup, has sought insurance cover of 4bn rupees from the same company as a safeguard against similar disruptions.
But neither ESPN nor the sponsors are immune from losses that may arise through an early exit of the Indian team.
"If the host nation goes through to the end, there is a sustained interest. All I can hope for is that the host nations remain engaged as deep into the competition as possible," said Haroon Lorgat, ICC's chief executive.
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