Mahendra Singh Dhoni has many identities. As one of the most favourite captains of the Indian cricket team, he has captained the team in all the three formats of the game (test, ODI and Twenty20) and led the World Cup winning team twice, received the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award and the Padma Shri and lastly, is the owner of the Supersport World Championship motorcycle racing team.
In June 2013, Dhoni ranked 16th in the list of highest paid athletes in the world (and the only cricketer in the top 50). The TIME magazine added Dhoni to its "Time 100" list of 100 most influential people of 2011.
Adding another feather to his hat, the master cricketer has just signed a deal to endorse Barclays Premier League (English Premier League) in India.
Recently, badminton too borrowed support from cricket to gather eyeballs for the first Indian Badminton League slated to start on August 14. The marketing campaign released for IBL showcases well known badminton players wearing cricket pads and asking, 'Is this what we have to do to get your attention?'
One striking difference between these two cases, however, is that while IBL has used its own stars such as Saina Nehwal, cricket gear notwithstanding, football in India doesn't boast a household name. Baichung Bhutia, although fairly known, was not perceived as close to the masses. Thus, the choice of celebrity to grab eyeballs had to be from cricket.
Shortcut to viewership?
The broadcaster STAR Sports took aboard M S Dhoni with a view to familiarise the erstwhile less-familiar sport, football. "Barclays Premier League (BPL) or English Premier League (EPL) is not a very popular brand in India, whereas virtually every Indian knows M S Dhoni," says Samit Sinha, founder and managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting. He adds, "What the association will do to the game is that it will create basic awareness about football."
However, will Dhoni will be able to increase the ratings of the tournament?
Insiders feel that the initial stages will be about viewership but later, the association could leave a lasting effect on the popularity of the league. Darshan M, managing director and CEO, Machdar Motorsports, says, "At least this partnership will ensure the tuning in to the tournament by the segment of viewers that is common to the two sets, 'non-football fans' and 'ardent Dhoni-fans', though appointment viewing isn't ensured."
The channel has made efforts to educate the masses about the game by bringing in programmes that simplify the various aspects of the game. The population, which is well-versed with the nitty-gritty of cricket, will get to understand football better.
R Sridhar of Ideas-RS explains, "Even if these are two different sports, the essence of both of them remains the same; both are about team work and winning. This is a classic example of promoting football by using the credibility of cricket. This is a very interesting way of doing it and has created a lot of buzz."
As for IBL, Indranil Das Blah, Kwann suggests that it's not bad to use cricket as we know that cricket attracts eyeballs as no other game does.
He adds, "It can be used as some kind of crutch or comparison. For any other sport in India apart from cricket, how do you attract eyeballs? By using either a cricketer or a Bollywood star. Using cricket for promotions by the broadcaster or agency as a crutch is good as long as it serves the purpose of getting more viewers."
Brand-effect, either way
Now, while it's known that Dhoni is arguably the biggest brand in cricket, this is possibly his first commercial association with a non-cricketing sport. Prior to this, the star cricketer was seen playing football in Pepsi's Change the Game campaign.
Even if cricket is the biggest craze of the country and Dhoni, the biggest celebrity for it, can football gain popularity on the back of cricket? Will Dhoni's association make that big a difference to Barclays Premier League as a brand?
Says Sridhar, "This challenges everyone's beliefs about sports associations. Ideally it is not an unknown thing to use a well-known established brand to promote another product category. This man, a champion in cricket, is now lending his name to another game."
It depends on how intelligently the campaign uses Dhoni. But with this cross-sport association, will the star brand endorser of cricket dilute his own value?
Sridhar says the association will not hamper Dhoni's brand value. "I don't think brand Dhoni will be affected in any way. He is ultimately standing up for an international sport, almost equally important as cricket. Had he gone ahead to associate himself with a Hututu or a Khokho, might have been a problem," he says.
Sinha seconds Sridhar and adds that this will create a long term effective association for brand Barclays Premier League.
Darshan suggests that Dhoni, as a brand, has mass appeal. "He is not that highly urban and sophisticated brat. He appeals to the rural and semi-urban Indians in a very big way." Gaining traction with the rural/semi urban masses could also explain the channel's decision to launch Hindi feeds commentary for select 100 matches of the league.
Talking of cross promotions in sports, cricket has often used Bollywood, but sports personalities from other sports are not big enough is to promote cricket in India.
Why a cricketer?
There is a two pronged reasoning to this, suggest brand consultants. Firstly, being a cricket crazy country, India has never had similar big names in any other sport. Also, sportsman is a wider canvas than cricketer or footballer. Undoubtedly, though, cricket has the largest profile, and one has to select from it.
Sinha of Alchemist Brand says, "Another reason is that nowadays, in the pre match practice during cricket matches, these players play football instead of catch practice and stretching. This has created a lot of familiarity with the otherwise unknown sport, even to the masses."
Lastly, the analysts suggest that the broadcaster should use brand Dhoni to market the league rather than the (upcoming) telecast for higher returns. "As for IBL, I think it's a great campaign promoting through the stars of its own sport but using cricket very strategically," explains Blah.