India's improved performance in the last few international sporting events has gifted quite a few new faces to the brand endorsement circuit besides the usual cricketers and the few tennis players from the sports world.
Leading the list is Badminton player Sania Nehwal whose annual brand endorsement deals could make many top-rank cricketers envious, if we leave aside the Tendulkars and Dhoni. It is learnt that Nehwal today - after her stunning win at the finals of the Commonwealth games last year - commands between Rs 75 lakh and Rs 1 crore for a year-long contract. Many cricketers such as Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir or Virat Kohli would claim the same rate, or even less.
Besides Nehwal, the other names that have caught the brand manager's fancy are that of boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar, though their rates might not be at par with that of Nehwal's. Ashwini Ponnappa, Jwala Gutta (badminton players), or even the less popular ones such as Mamta Prabhu have also signed a few endorsement deals.
Public Sector companies or large B2B companies have always patronised the winners of international sporting events such as the Olympics or the Asian Games. Interestingly, what has changed now is that large consumer-oriented companies have opened their doors for these sportsmen.
One reason media observers attribute to this change is the need to break the clutter. There is too much of cricket happening in the ad world, which brought in the fatigue factor amongst consumers. Any new face brings in a kind of freshness and helps the brand stand out.
The annual cricket event, Indian Premier League (IPL) is also responsible for this shift. Sponsors of IPL teams often use the team's players in its ads, and it often conflicts with the brands the individual player endorses. For instance, a cricketer might endorse Nike in his personal capacity, but Reebok happens to be the sponsor for its IPL team. This is bound to cause confusion amongst consumers.
Indranil Das Blah, chief operating officer, KWAN Entertainment and Marketing Solutions, says, "Investment in a non-cricket sportsperson isn't huge, thus decreasing the financial risk. Hence, it is seen as a viable option."
One reason why a brand manager prefers one game over the other is the length of its calendar.
For instance, shooting or boxing will not even have more than one or two events in a year when the entire country watches it together, whereas cricket is played round the year. In such a scenario, it becomes difficult to retain the buzz throughout the year, around the players of these sports. This is where the professional talent management companies have played an important role to maintain the popularity of these non-cricketing sports stars.
However, the subsequent line-up of two major sports events last year - the Commonwealth Games, followed by the Asian Games - helped keep these sports persons in news for many months together.
Besides, many brands used these sports stars immediately after the win, when the buzz around them was maximum, only to have dumped them later. This trend seems to be changing now. Says, Hakimuddin Habibulla, Olympian (swimmer) and sports consultant, "The endeavour of talent management firms is to make these athletes larger than life, to maintain their visibility all through the year, and to ensure they don't fade from the media."
For instance, boxer Vijender Singh seems to have learnt the trick of maintaining visibility, and thus retaining the buzz, thanks to his managers. He is seen throughout the year across television shows, and at events and parties. If the boxer claimed Rs 25 lakh for an annual contract immediately after the Bejing Olympics, he now charges Rs 35 lakh for the same.
Media also has played a great role in helping these sports stars. They have derived inspirational stories around these sports stars and made them a topic of discussion in drawing rooms - a phenomenon which was earlier restricted solely to cricket. "Brand managers have successfully linked these stories to their brands," says Abhijit Avasthi, NCD, Ogilvy.
It's just the beginning. There's more to be done. Many believe that existing talent management firms are more like brokers who want to make money; real talent management is zilch. Instead, these managers need to add value in the athlete's life, regardless of how visible the sport is. Just like upcoming tennis star Somdev Burman, whose international managers ensure that he is photographed aesthetically, and positioned such that his brand price "should fall in the crore region when the time comes."