Bollywood stars and cricket players are no longer hogging the endorsement bandwagon. Emerging stars from badminton and boxing fields are beginning to get their share of limelight in brand endorsements. Post her golden glory at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games 2010, shuttler Saina Nehwal is seen as the next big thing in Indian sport. Nehwal has in her endorsement kitty, brands ranging from Deccan Chronicle, Fortune Plus and Herbalife. Nehwal is not the only emerging sports star cashing in. In the last year, Indian boxing has seen several successes come from the likes of Vijender Singh, Akhil Kumar and M.C. Mary Kom. And the interest of brands in boxing is more than visible with cola giant Pepsi signing on Singh as its brand ambassador.
Neerav Tomar, co-founder and chief-executive officer, Infinity Optimal Solutions Pvt. Ltd. (IOS) has a clear explanation on why his sports and talent management company has chosen to represent a majority of the emerging boxing talent including Kumar, Mary Kom and Pradeep Singh. “I identified what I thought would be the next few big sports in India, namely football and boxing. While football is taking a little longer than I expected to become a developed market in India, the development of boxing is apparent for all to see in the performances that we have been displaying on the international stage,” he says.
Selling a star
With sporting glory comes fame. And fame brings with it money, in the form of brand endorsements. Brands want to be associated with a star when his or her achievements are fresh in public memory. Tomar elaborates that some Indian boxers, shooters and shuttlers have been doing extraordinarily well on the international stage in the recent past and this has resulted in amazing media coverage for all of them, thereby, ensuring that they have become household names and are recognisable to the Indian people by face. “In these circumstances, suddenly they are almost as familiar to the Indian people as say a cricketer and are therefore immensely valuable to any brand that seeks to associate with them,” he adds.
As for the kind of brands that are approaching emerging talent, there seems to be great variety. Branding consultant, Harish Bijoor, opines that niche brands with smaller budgets are the first to focus on them. “I do believe every category can be made to show interest. Starting with the niche categories and moving down the broader segments till one reaches the jugular of the cricket-besotted marketer in this country,” he adds. Tomar addresses the specifics by saying, “I would have thought that more focused brands such as those in sports apparel, nutritional products would take on these other stars, while cricket and Bollywood would continue to dominate the mass brands. However, there is a crossover here as well with Vijender doing an advertisement for chocolates and Saina doing one for cooking oil. Therefore, it does seem that any brand that sees value in associating itself with even one of these smaller celebrities would do so and that the old cliché of cricket and Bollywood is going to fall by the wayside.”
As for who is leading the pack of emerging sports stars, Nehwal seems a clear favourite. “She has it all. She has merit of winnings. Consistency. Good looks and presence. A potent mix,” says Bijoor. Consumers would like to see more of Nehwal, too. Ekta Singh, mother of two, says, “It is great to see that my daughter has a star like Saina to look up to. I think she is inspiring young girls to take to sports and that makes me view the brands she advertises for more seriously.”
Cricket vs. the rest
While on the subject of comparison between cricket stars and the rest of the sports pack, there still remains a wide gap to be bridged, in terms of money. For instance, M.S. Dhoni recently inked a deal for Rs. 200 crore to endorse brands over a three-year span. Compare this to Nehwal whose paycheck per endorsement is said to be Rs. 1 crore. When asked if this gap was justified, Bijoor quips, “Not at all. It is just a demand and supply situation. Demand is big and supply is short.”
Tomar says, “By virtue of their more competitive pricing, it does make sense for several brands to choose the more ‘efficient’ option of a Mary Kom over a more expensive cricketer.”
Perhaps, another edge that emerging sports stars hold over cricketers is the timeliness of their feats. For sports fan, Ananthanarayanan, a recent gold medal win holds more merit than the past records of a cricketer.
Despite the enthusiasm of the masses and sports management companies alike, there seems to be no contention for the top sport in India. Cricket is far from being ousted and cricketing stars are still laughing all the way up to the bank. “With the Indian Test and one-day international teams performing really well and with the ‘home’ World Cup fast approaching, cricket is still the most ‘talked about’ game and cricketers are still the most popular icons,” reaffirms Murali K. Prasadh, a sports enthusiast.
There are efforts being made to grow other sports and this is a step in the right direction. “I do believe there is a need to use a menu of sporting options and sports personalities for the endorsement circuit. This menu must be devised and planned by effort. An effort that can be put together by a conglomeration of non-cricket sports stars. Imagine a fora of non-cricketing sports stars that put together brand related business plans for brands that ignore them. I think this is an idea whose time has come,” says Bijoor. It remains to be seen how long India plays the waiting game.