Indian sportspersons as brands: Dream or reality?

Have you noticed how the heroes for the young Indian sports fan, besides some cricket stars, are actually F1 drivers, European and Latin American soccer players who feature in the European leagues, NBA stars, tennis aces like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and champion golfers like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson?
Indeed, one of the strongest spin-offs of the strong presence of cable and satellite TV is that competition for most Indian sport comes not so much from its international cricket calendar but from all sport that we get to watch from the comfort of our homes. Nothing wrong with that per se but it has left so little room for Indian stars to be in the collective consciousness of a nation for sustained spells.

Given this scenario, are practitioners of other sport helpless in becoming brands in their own right? Far from it. They are tremendous brands themselves but remain unexploited by the Indian market. I reckon even the Indian cricketer would have remained in the same league but for it recognising opportunity and seizing it.

Some years ago, around the time cable and satellite TV came in to India, Jagmohan Dalmiya and Inderjit Singh Bindra realised that tennis and golf were popular because they were played round the year – and, what’s more, broadcast live on TV. It did not take them much to chalk out a calendar that would ensure cricket on TV nearly all the time.

Over the last two years, the Indian cricket team has been seen playing on as many as 208 days of international cricket – Tests, ODIs and T20 games. And there was 45 days of madness that went by the branding of IPL.

Contrast that with Olympic Games gold medal winner Abhinav Bindra’s schedule. He competed in 10 international events in two years, each lasting but a maximum of an hour and a half. And, we do not know when his next event will be. In fact, he has told reporters to call him up after five months to know if he would shoot again.

Take the Indian hockey team, it played but 36 matches since the dawn of 2007. And the national football team 20 matches in the same time frame, winning the Nehru Gold Cup and the AFC Challenge Cup in the process. It just reinforces my belief that if other sportsperson to become brands, they need to be seen performing very often on TV.

Their federations and they themselves need to shed traditional thinking and come up with solutions that are in keeping with the evolving, TV-driven scenario. For far too long, they have not embraced change and have stuck to doing things in a way that pre-dates the onset of TV.

I heard a former marksman lament the other day that shooting is a non-spectator sport. Can nothing really be done about finding ways to make it a spectator sport? Here’s one way – and let me warn you that is not an original idea and is borrowed from golf. How about replicating the Pro-Am event from golf in shooting? This could allow the formation of teams that include competitive shooters, recreational shooters and even first timers.

Some other reasons for failure

Let us try and look at why I-League football, PHL and the tennis circuit haven’t developed as brands.

I-League, which will start in just a few days, is not quite a pan-India event. Of the 12 teams that will feature in the second edition, four teams each are based in Kolkata and Goa, three in Mumbai, leaving JCT (Phagwara) as the sole representative from outside these three States.

Quite inevitably, football fans from States like Manipur, Kerala and Tamil Nadu would prefer idolising players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack.

PHL made some fundamental errors, creating city-based teams but not as franchises. The Indian Hockey Federation retained the selection and running of the teams in its own control. And, in hosting the event in one or two venues, it lost out on the opportunity to cultivate loyalties in the teams’ home cities.

Tennis has an international circuit with as many as 19 events – four ATP Challengers and six ITF Futures for men and nine ITF Women’s tournaments – and some of these events are telecast indeed. But, the quality of the telecast is such that it can drive the viewer to reach for the remote control.

The lesson to be drawn is there for all to see: Merely placing a sport on TV alone is not enough. The quality of coverage is important too. The All Indian Tennis Association can help the TV channel in question find quality producers so that images beamed are watched by sports fans and not a wasted exercise.

The stakeholders’ challenges

The challenge before sports federations is simple: innovate, draw up a calendar that is not sporadic and will attract TV and other partners. Keep your sport in the limelight (and not for the wrong reasons) so that fans can follow it with passion. The focus of the officials must be on creating and sustaining a good series of events rather than seats of power in international federations.

The challenge for the champions of all sport is to be proactive with their own federations and help design innovative events that will draw people to watch – and hopefully participate; to state things in a positive manner and not just be critical of the system. I believe they must realise they have a responsibility towards their sport in making them more popular.

Viewed from a different perspective, brand managers need to take up seemingly tough asks and make brands of champions of sport that are not so popular on TV. It is time they go beyond riding piggyback only on cricket (and Bollywood) and start looking at developing other champions as brands.

And, the media? Well, news channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines must revert to covering Indian sport and not stop with just reacting to what the sports channels offer from overseas. There is a role for the media to play in encouraging youngsters to take to sport and then to sustain their interest.

1 comment for “Indian sportspersons as brands: Dream or reality?

  1. chitgo
    September 24, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    an excellent article Raj…coughs up a number of questions that I’d love to get some perspective from you on.

    I’d like to invite you to an event being organized at the India Habitat Center on the 26th of September in partnership with my firm. The theme addresses how India’s cities can leverage sports and culture for holistic development. We have a number of interesting speakers and discussion points lined up. Do email me at dhruv(dot)chitgo(at)gmail(dot)com in case you’re interested.


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