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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Sponsors search beyond Indian cricket

While the marketing money that floods cricket makes it hard for any one sponsor to stand outs, smaller sports offer open fields.
Indian spectators cheer during the Hero Hockey India League match played between the Delhi Waverider's and Punjab Warrior's in New Delhi. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP
Indian spectators cheer during the Hero Hockey India League match played between the Delhi Waverider's and Punjab Warrior's in New Delhi. SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFP

Indian companies have long flocked to be associated with cricket, given the nation’s obsession with the sport. Other sports are, however, gradually growing in sponsorship appeal as new leagues are launched – including one yesterday – and companies look for cheaper, uncluttered pathways to promote their brands.

“The cost of associating with the highest level of cricket is very, very expensive and out of reach of a lot of corporates,” says Bunty Sajdeh, the chief executive of Cornerstone Sport and Entertainment, an agency which represents sports stars including the cricketer Virat Kohli and India’s football captain, Sunil Chhetri.

“Even if companies have the financial backing, they don’t see too much value in associating with the cricket because of the amount of sponsors already present that they will be sharing the space with. There are over 2,000 brands in cricket in this country and it’s vey easy to get lost if you’re not a top 10, top 20, top 50 spender.”

Following the model of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, which began in 2008 – and, according to the London-based consultancy Brand Finance, achieved a brand value of about US$3 billion last year – new leagues for lower-profile sports have emerged in the past couple of years. These include the Indian Badminton League and the Hockey India League (HIL), both of which began last year.

“Up until two or three years ago, there was no credible, significant sport to invest in, in terms of getting a return on your investment,” says Mr Sajdeh.

While cricket stars in the IPL are auctioned for more than $1 million, the very best hockey players in the HIL are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars.

The badminton league’s second edition, which was to take place in September and October, has been postponed to the beginning of 2015.

And this September is the scheduled kickoff date for the Indian Super League, a football league which is a joint venture between the global sports company IMG and the Mumbai-based conglomerate Reliance Industries.

“There is a growing interest in sports sponsorship in India,” says Rohit Ohri, the executive chairman of Dentsu India and chief executive of Dentsu Asia Pacific, the advertising and PR agency which recently won the creative account for the Delhi Dynamos in the upcoming football league. “Cricket sponsorship has become very cluttered and ownership of cricket as a platform has become virtually impossible. As a result, brands in India are looking for new platforms to associate with like football, hockey, badminton and tennis.”

The latest entrant, the Pro Kabaddi League, began last night, with Mumbai’s U Mumba team scheduled to play the Jaipur Pink Panthers. The eight-team kabaddi tournament is being broadcast on Star Sports, a major Indian sports channel that is also the league’s lead sponsor. Kabaddi is an Indian sport in which players must capture opponents while holding their breath and chanting the word “kabaddi”.

Charu Sharma, an Indian commentator and the former chief executive of the IPL team Royal Challengers Bangalore, set up the league with the Indian industrialist Anand Mahindra, whose interest range from finance to tractors.

While Mr Sharma says that it is difficult for non-cricket sports such as kabaddi to raise corporate sponsorship, he thinks that their commercial appeal to grow.

“People are just so quick to criticise the fact that sponsorship hasn’t come easily or the commercial circles around these other leagues are not brimming at this point of time,” he says. “It will take time.”

Everyone agrees that India’s sporting mindset is beginning to broaden.

“Can we be classified as a sporting nation?” asks Mr Sharma. “Of course not. We don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the history, sport is not that big in our culture. To get people’s attention towards sports, to get them to watch, play, is difficult enough. To get companies, corporate, commercial support, that will take a lot of hard work. In the last two or three years or so there is some initial nascent action in trying to get other sports out of this huge shadow of cricket and try to find a little place in the sun.”

Akhil Ranade is the chief executive behind the Bengaluru Bulls, one of eight teams in the kabaddi league.

Like Mr Sharma, he acknowledges the difficulty of attracting sponsors, but says that the field is slowly tilting in the favour of the smaller sports.

“Just to give you a balance of how sports sponsorship is structured, a couple of years ago maybe around 70 to 80 per cent of the sponsorship spends that were happening in India were on cricket. But that number would have reduced to probably to about 45 to 50 per cent now.”

Golf and running events are attracting the most attention in terms of corporate interest, he says.

“Cricket has become a little arrogant,” Mr Ranade says. “It has become prohibitive for brands to enter and sustain it as a marketing activity. It’s become exorbitant.”

Tata Group, one of India’s biggest conglomerates, is very active in sports sponsorship.

United Breweries, which owns the Kingfisher brand, is an important sports sponsor in India and owns a cricket team, a football team and a Formula One team based in the country.

“The number of channels that are broadcasting sports has increased,” says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, the senior vice president of marketing at United Breweries. “There is definitely an exploding, growing interest in sports, sports broadcasting, sports viewing, sports sponsorship opportunities – and a lot of it is non-cricket.”

He even says cricket has lost its cachet with the young and well-off.

“Cricket is increasingly becoming very mainstream, very broad. It has higher appeal in smaller towns than in urban metros and is not cool anymore, if you know what I mean. With the younger, affluent, more educated consumers, it is non-cricketing sports, specifically football, Premier League, Champions League, that [are] beginning to hold their attention.”

That is showing up in the rates at which the company is allocating its marketing rupees.

“In the last four to five years, we have grown our spends on cricket by close to 50 per cent, on a much larger base. However, our spends on other sports have practically doubled, on a smaller space,” Mr Sheikhawat says.

He says it will take a half-decade to reshape the sports hierarchy.

“We’ve got badminton proposals, hockey proposals,” says Mr Sheikhawat. “We are looking at all these but at the moment they don’t have the numbers that cricket can bring to the table, but I’m sure the situation will change very rapidly, perhaps as early as the next five years.”

Miihier Singh, 25, from Mumbai, is a national physique (bodybuilding) champion and know the challenges of securing sponsorship for a more niche sport in India all too well. He has to pay his own way to travel to international competitions, earning money by organising workshops and mentoring and helping clients train.

Many top athletes in India live in poverty.

“I’m lucky because I’m educated but a lot of these guys aren’t educated and can’t come up with good business ideas to allow them to go ahead,” says Mr Singh. “Half of my colleagues who are competing in the US, they are very well off, they get their sponsors. In India we’ve really got to struggle.”

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