Hit, but miss

Written by Jyoti Verma | Kiran Yadav | Alokananda Chakraborty | Updated: Oct 28 2007, 04:35am hrs
Despite recent wins like the Asia Cup Hockey tournament, corporates have refused to look beyond cricket when it comes to sponsorships. Sania Mirza and Baichung Bhutia are among the few exceptions who have been able to get the backing of big companies. For games like hockey and football its been worse with never-ending tussles for endorsements. FE tries to find out why...

In an interview to a leading news channel recently, Jeev Milkha Singh rued that no big sponsorship has come his way despite him being rated as the Indian sportsman of the year for 2006 by most television news channels and newspapers. When Singh the highest ranked Indian golfer in the world, who broke into the global Top 100 last year said this, he was echoing the sentiment of millions of Indians players and sports fans alike who wonder why Samsungs Team India comprises mostly of cricketers or why a Hrithik Roshan has to necessarily shake a leg with a Sourav Ganguly in commercials for brands (in this case Hero Honda) that are known to sink big bucks into sports sponsorships.

Of course it is not necessary to look far to trace the reason for this general disconsolateness. In the last five years, we have seen around Rs 1,000 crore of sponsorships. Of this, 60% goes to cricket. The rest is for other sports and fashion, points out Devraj Sanyal, CEO, PDM India, a below-the-line-advertising and event management company.

At the end of the day, it is about the kind of money involved, which again is a factor of a games following, Sanyal reiterates. In the US or in China, where sports are picked as careers, sponsorships come easy. In India its a never-ending tussle for endorsements and verbal fisticuffs (It would be interesting to see what kind of reception I get when I come to India by the end of this month, Indian chess maestro Viswanathan Anand reportedly said after reclaiming the chess world title in September) between cricketers and those who choose other sports.

Undoubtedly, cricket remains that most popular sport in India, followed and understood by millions of people. And its financial strength comes precisely from that its popularity. Cricket has a strong domestic league structure in the country you have the well-established Duleep Trophy (a domestic first-class cricket competition played between teams representing geographical zones of India) and the Ranji Trophy (a domestic first-class cricket championship in India between different city and state sides, equivalent to the County Championship in England); and it is played in schools and colleges besides every bylane and nukkad. Other sports have a long way to go before they can be commercially exploited, says Samir Kale, president, SportzPR and MD, CMCG India.

Not every player of the game is raking in the moolah though. How many players are able to make money even in cricket Maybe, just 20 or 30. I know so many of them who dont even have jobs, says ace shooter Jaspal Rana. That said, crickets popularity has grown also from the way it is packaged. The Twenty20 World Championship final match between India and Pakistan last month notched up TV ratings much higher than STARs ever-popular family soaps. And guess what Female viewers bolstered the viewership numbers like never before. I put my money in cricket because it gives me returns, says Kale. It is an easier medium to reach out to people. It will work out to be far more expensive for me if I invest in, say, hockey.

But then, how is it that no other sports has reached the stature if we may use the word of cricket, and has managed to generate the kind of passion the game does. At the end of the day, it could be put down to a lack of marketing push actually. And many sports analysts and commentators have put the blame squarely at the door of the various sports federations.

In a column way back in 2003, Harsha Bhogle, the most well-recognised sports host on television wrote, India needs to rediscover another sport and might well have had, if the custodians of other sports had not made it so easy for cricket. If there is only one marketable sport in India, it is partly because the BCCI sold itself hard and because the others sold themselves short. Cricket needs a rival but the others are unwilling to play that role. They may talk about it, but playing it is a different matter.

Which explains why most non-cricket sports personalities with the exception of tennis star Sania Mirza, and of course, Viswanathan Anand (NIIT) and Narain Karthikeyan (BPCLs Speed) have failed to draw sponsors. Golf, interestingly, is a case study by itself. Sponsors are lining up to back events, but not to sponsor individuals. Take LG Electronics, among the leading consumer durable players in the country, which has taken on the mantle of sponsorship for the Indian Golf Unions National Amateur Tour for the next three years. The LG Indian Amateur Golf Tour will touch 11 cities incorporating 13 events, making it a nationwide tour. Says V Ramachandran, director, sales and marketing, LGEIL, We are trying to shift our image to being a premium brand from the masses to the high-end segment. For this we need to talk to a different target audience ... to build a strong relationship. Golf gives us this platform. But were yet to see a golfing star in any of the companys ads on TV.

On the other end of the spectrum is Indian hockey. The team won the Asia Cup Hockey tournament; beating South Korea 7-2 in the final. Despite the hoopla, it hasnt been able to attract advertiser interest. K Jothikumaran, secretary general, Indian Hockey Federation, is unhappy at the way corporate houses remain biased towards cricket, even at a time when hockey is in on an upswing. He, in fact, mentions how the game found it really hard to impress sponsors for the Asia Cup at Chennai recently. At the last moment, BSNL and the Tamil Nadu government came forward and saved the day. Government support is positive but one cant deny that sponsors (even public sector undertakings) prefer cricket and make unimaginably higher investment in the game, says Jothikumaran. We are happy though for the recent sponsorship from City Limousine for womens hockey and the support of the Sahara Group.

Shooter Jaspal Rana he won three golds in the centre-fire pistol and standard-pistol events at the Doha Asian Games says the media should also share part of the blame. If other sports dont share a common platform with cricket, then the media should be held responsible for it. If you highlight a particular sport, it will obviously attract sponsorship. Its a cycle thats difficult to break. The sponsors dont care about the sport really; they care about the visibility their product gets.

Of course shooting does find support from the likes of ONGC and the Indian Railways. But what about corporate sponsors Say Pepsi I think it should be banned from India. It is bad for the health and also for our sports, says an angry Rana.

Bhogle would have agreed with Rana. In his 2003 article he had said, Television is the seed that breeds sponsorship, ignites passions and carries sport across boundaries. Formula One has shown that. A seemingly monotonous sport with invisible drivers thrives solely due to brilliant television.

But all this is not intended to undermine the potential of non-cricket sporting events. In fact, as a country, India is witnessing the reemergence of other sports. These include F1 (drawing to it bigger groups like UB Group etc) and cycling. Theres an event lined up on the lines of Tour de France (planned in November 2008), which is supported by the Murugappa Group (which may find synergy with its Hercules brand of cycles). The event is a collaborative effort of UCI (or Union Cycliste Internationale which is a professional cycling union that oversees competitive cycling events in the international community), the Cycling Federation of India and PDM, which has taken up a lead role in promoting the cause of other sports.

The Percept Group agency is said to be in talks with some big corporate sponsors for the cycling event. The agency is also planning to push adventure sports in the country and is firming up several initiatives in this space. Besides, it has an annual sports award to felicitate upcoming talent. Here too, it has the support of corporate houses like Hero Honda. The awards are slightly different from those like the Arjuna Awards or the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, which look at the best player in a sport. PDM claims to groom sportspersons by encouraging new talent.

Says PDMs Sanyal, India is a nation of worshippers. Once we establish faces like Sania Mirza or Baichung Bhutia, these sports cannot fail on eyeballs. In football the buzz is loud and clear post Indias convincing win at the Nehru Cup. Sponsors like ONGC and Sahara are investing big money. We expect this to grow to Rs 400- 600 crore in the next 10 years, he adds.

Rana is upbeat too. Cricket became popular after we won the world cup in 1983. Today it is an industry. Other sports will soon have their place in the sun too he is confident.