Industry POV

War of leagues: With IPL & ISL, is India emerging as a sporting nation? - Ashish Bhasin

05/10/2016

For brands investing in India’s nascent sports leagues it’s a tense, high stakes game. Play only if you’re in for the long haul.

A recent commercial for the Indian Super League (ISL) is a triumph of imagination over experience. India is football crazy, if this ad is to be believed, with a mania for the sport that makes the South Americans, the English, and the Spaniards look like mere dilettantes. In this age of po-faced realism and #unstereotype, it’s great to see a film blissfully unbothered by how unrealistic it is.

However, of such ads are hype for a series, and hopefully an entire franchise, built. Depending on who you ask, this ad and similar commercials for non-cricket themed sports are either wishful thinking or a prescient glimpse into the future of India as a sporting nation.

Inspired by the IPL formula, several leagues have emerged over the last half decade, with varying degrees of consumer and advertiser interest and success. According to Jaideep Ghosh - partner and head, transport, logistics and sports, KPMG India while cricket dominates corporate sponsorship, money raised by the other sports is on the rise. On ground sponsorship was up by 300 per cent in kabbadi, 92 per cent in football, 53.5 per cent for marathons and 32 per cent in tennis. And in 2015, the Pro Kabbadi League generated a revenue of Rs 45 crore for its broadcaster Star India.

India’s tentative attempts at becoming more than just a single sport nation are roughly mirrored by its fortunes in the Olympics over the last six decades, theorises Debabrata (Debu) Mukherjee, vice president, marketing & commercial, Coca-Cola India and South West Asia: “We are now seeing green shoots in individual sports: shooting, archery, wrestling, boxing, badminton and tennis.” He doesn’t hazard a guess on which of the upcoming sports will hit the big league but believes, “the headline is - there is space for more sporting properties.” This is reflected in Thums Up partnering with kabbadi and Coca-Cola with tennis and football.

Even corporates like Hero Moto Corp, formerly synonymous with cricket is now covering golf and hockey besides being title sponsor for Indian Super League. DHL, closely associated with Formula 1 and rugby globally, has come on board as associate sponsor of the Indian football tourney. Says RS Subramanian, SVP & country manager, DHL Express, India, “ISL is the third most watched/ attended football tournament in the world, and the largest in Asia.” Besides opting for sports that emphasise its brand values — speed, passion and teamwork — DHL hopes the partnership will connect it to a larger audience through brand visibility in stadia, publicity, and official communication.

So what’s a brand that finds cricket too cluttered or expensive to do?
Option A is to invest now, grow with the game and reap rich rewards. It’s what a lot of the clients of IPG Mediabrands are doing according to CEO Shashi Sinha. He expects the universe to expand further with popular basketball franchise NBA and the EPL getting more serious

about India. He says, “The channels will need these properties to sustain an all year round schedule. Many male oriented brands — handsets, ecommerce brands, telcos are coming on board.” For instance, IPG client Amazon which is reportedly spending Rs 20 crore just on the opening of the ISL.

To the people who consider these franchises underperforming laggards, Sinha says, “Two or three years is too short a period. That they are able to sustain some numbers around cricket is the larger story. India is extremely underleveraged on sports.”

While a popular whipping boy in the press and among fans, the BCCI is still a robust, wealthy behemoth — the same cannot be said about the bodies backing many of the other sports in India. Bhasin believes these sports can grow only with properly administered sports bodies, consistent in view and approach. And the ability to make each season bigger than its predecessor.

The flipside to a brand coming in early and taking home a disproportionate chunk of glory is the sporting tourney collapsing, unable to sustain itself. In short, transforming the until recently, slightly mundane world of sponsorships, into a high risk, high rewards game of glorious uncertainties. One where every sponsor hopes the cliché about the “game being the winner at the end of the day” comes true at least for the sports it has invested in.

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