When the Champions League begins amid the now-typical glitz and glamour in Bangalore on Thursday evening, much of the buzz will centre on how the tournament - and the concept - could change the game of cricket and the lives of the cricketers. For the suits who keep the game's economy moving, cricket's first global inter-club tournament opens up a whole new set of opportunities for advertising and sponsorship. Teams from outside India, keen on grabbing a slice of the one pie that has stayed reasonably intact through the recession, seek Indian sponsors who in turn see the benefits of overseas exposure.
In short, think global, act local.
That's what prompted the Sussex Sharks to tie up for this tournament with Royal Stag, a whiskey brand from the Pernod Ricard stable, for logos on helmets, caps and trousers, and Pepsi as shirt sponsors.
Sure, the tournament is played within the Indian marketplace and therefore viable for local companies but Sussex chief executive Dave Brooks underlines the bigger picture in seeking domestic sponsors. "We have a long historical link with Indian cricketers from Duleepsinhji and Ranjitsinhji to the Nawab of Pataudi and now Piyush Chawla. We are keen to build on that in the largest cricket market in the world and our heritage makes us attractive to local sponsors."
You don't even need a historical context - the Eagles, South Africa's domestic Twenty20 runners-up, have tied up with Karbonn Mobiles, a relatively new entrant in the Indian mobile phone market and are eyeing more such deals. "There is a big market in India and the IPL and the Champions League Twenty20 serves as a great vehicle for any sponsorship and awareness campaign," Johan van Heerden, the Eagles chief executive, said. "The response from the Indian sponsors has been very good though it was very short notice."
There could have been issues with the teams' main sponsors back home but it doesn't seem to be the case. "Our UK sponsors, RDF IT Solutions, agreed to stand aside for this competition as they do not operate in the Indian market," Brooks said. Ross Dykes, chief executive of Otago Volts, has a slightly different explanation - the sheer magnitude of the Indian market. "There is no conflict with our domestic sponsors as they realise they cannot compete on a global market - particularly when we are playing outside their geographical sphere of impact."
Though the deals are short-duration, like the tournament itself, there is optimism about the prospects of a longer association. "The deal is short-term for the Eagles but, hopefully, it will be long-term for the South African teams that qualify in future," van Heerden said. "In fact, we are hoping for a long-term impact in the Indian market in terms of club branding as well." It's a sentiment Brooks echoes: "We expect our Indian deals to be short term but you never know - it may develop into something over the long term."
The feeling is mutual among the sponsors. For the fledgling Karbonn, who has also tied up with the Cape Cobras, the small step might just turn out be the proverbial giant leap and it's looking at cricket to help it bridge that gap. "Cricket in India is treated as almost a religion and the Twenty 20 format has wide appeal," said Sudhir Hasija, MD of United Telelinks, one of the stakeholders in the company. "This tournament gives us the opportunity to build brand awareness. We do plan to take Karbonn Mobiles global, and this gives us an opportunity for a wider exposure."
Sudha Natrajan, president and COO of Indian media management company Lintas, points to IPL 2 in South Africa as proof that global cross-branding can succeed. "The local sponsors would benefit as the feed is global and the tournament would go to different countries in the future. As the telecast would be global, having international players and teams to sponsor at relatively lower costs than it would to sponsor the international ICC teams would be an advantage for advertisers. And that's a win-win for the Indian sponsors."
Her one caveat: The sponsors should do deals on a year-on-year basis instead of firming up a three or five-year commitment.
The Otago Volts, New Zealand's Twenty20 champions, are yet to close any deal though they are in negotiations. That hasn't stopped them, though, from joining in the planning. Dykes suggests that national boards take an active role in ensuring the longevity of the sponsorships with every franchise of the particular country. "If the Champions League Twenty20 is ongoing, then any one of New Zealand's six provincial teams could be competing in the future. With little lead time available this time around, the sponsorships will be one-offs. However, to try and establish consistency, New Zealand Cricket (NZC) is looking at the sponsorships being longer term and applicable to teams in any given year."
What Dykes, Brooks and van Heerden don't spell out, but which is implicit in their words - and in Natrajan's calculations - is the reasonable expectation among market watchers that the Champions League will eventually acquire the status, and consequently the longevity, of its more illustrious counterpart in European football.
"The possibilities are immense," said the head of an Indian media-buying agency. "It may travel the route of the UEFA Champions League. It will be interesting to see how the Indian fans, or even fans from the other clubs, respond to the occasion. In fact, the fan base will be another major factor that the companies will need to keep in mind in future."
What fans' response largely hinges on is star appeal - the more big names in a team, the greater its brand identity even if on-field performance is below par. Hence, Sussex know that Chawla's presence will help, as will the presence of bigger foreign stars "Players like Dwayne Smith and Luke Wright are well known in India," Brooks said, "and by the time we head home, a few others will be too."
That's what Otago are banking on too. They aren't a household name in India by any stretch of imagination but they have a few players who are, and who could help them close the deals. "I am sure having names like Brendon McCullum in our side has a positive impact on how our potential sponsors view our commercial worth," Dykes said.
Eagles' van Heerden went a step ahead to compare his team's endorsement value with the other South African representative in the tournament, the Cape Cobras. With a number of big names including Herschelle Gibbs, JP Duminy and Charl Langeveldt, the net worth of the Cape Cobras far outweighs that of the Eagles. "We could see the difference between the two," van Heerden said. "The Cobras have world stars and that secured them far better returns on sponsorship."
Of course, not all the franchises have managed rich pickings. David Townsend, the New South Wales Blues communications manager conceded they have been unable to secure final sponsors and so will retain their current Australian sponsor, the Roads & Traffic Authority. They may have winners on the field in Brett Lee and David Warner but in the equally competitive world of boardrooms and bottomlines, they've already conceded bragging rights.
Judhajit Basu is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo.
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