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SOLD OUT – How the IPL Sponsorship Slate Braved The Pandemic

As the edition wrapped up on Tuesday night with a record viewership, one thing that has emerged is that just how powerful a marketing platform the IPL remains.

The coronavirus pandemic seemed to have upended the IPL’s branding applecart, but its bumper 13th edition has defied expectations, both logistically and from a marketing perspective. Back in September when the remarkable rebound was set in motion even the BCCI President himself praised the efforts of the league on the commercial front. In a quote tweet response to BCCI’s announcement of a new Official Partner being signed for the IPL, Sourav Ganguly congratulated them with the words “Well done bcci and team ..in spite of tuff (sic) markets ..”

As the edition wrapped up on Tuesday night with a record viewership, one thing that has emerged is that just how powerful a marketing platform the IPL remains.

Ganguly’s comment was after the IPL announced CRED (a members only club that rewards individuals for timely credit card payments and provides access to premium experiences) coming on board as ‘Official Partner’. CRED’s first major foray into cricket sponsorship. “We are delighted to have closed the deals for two official partners with the IPL, defying the apprehension that had set in after the initial weeks of the lockdown and the pandemic. Everyone had predicted that sponsorship volumes will fall, but contrary to those expectations, it’s actually gone up.”, says Bhairav Shanth, co-founder and Managing Director of ITW, the consulting firm which was involved in facilitating the deal. He also points out that brands seem confident of the IPL platform, because it is simply the biggest primetime entertainment property there. “The league commenced at a time when brands were looking to rebound from the tough six months and I think it was the perfect platform for them to get the best value out of their marketing spends” he says, explaining why brand and advertiser interest remained unabated.

Back in the beginning of 2020, things were looking gung-ho for the league and its franchises when Marriott Bonvoy signed a three-season deal as Loyalty Partner for the defending champions Mumbai Indians in February. Then the pandemic hit, and things came to a standstill. So, how did things turn around? It was in part because of how agencies were able to pivot and reposition. Away from the spotlight, they worked on fine-tuning the focus and pitch of the country’s pre-eminent marketing platform for the new normal. “The paradigms of Return on Investment or Return on Opportunity based investments in sports properties is becoming a relic of the past in this fast-changing environment.” explains Paroksh Chawla, the CEO of ITW Catalyst, the agency behind the Marriott deal. The young agency, set up less than a year ago, has gone on to clock deals with six out of the eight IPL franchises, on the strength of what Chawla calls “a consulting-based approach” in figuring out the right fit and solution for a brand through evaluating their Return On Objective(s). “Every single brand we have worked with in this short period of time has been given a customised sponsorship solution based on their objective”, adds Chawla.

That kind of thinking is also evident when one looks at the other big brands who have boarded the IPL marketing train. There is Mobile Premier League (MPL), a mobile gaming platform, who have embraced cricket because of the access it provides to their specific target audience. They were the shirt sponsors of the Irish cricket team during the ODI series against England and at the IPL will be seen as principal sponsors of the Kolkata Knight Riders. As Abhishek Madhavan, the SVP - Growth and Marketing at MPL puts it, “we look forward to the upcoming cricket season.”

So, are brands bullish about the IPL again? “It isn’t difficult to convince brands because if you offer great value, there will always be takers regardless of the external environment”, says Shanth by way of explanation. “ITW has signed up CRED and Unacademy as official partners for the IPL and for individual franchises, we have more than 16 partners, including MPL for KKR, TCL for Sunrisers and Marriott Bonvoy for Mumbai Indians. Our approach has been to find the correct fit for brands and create a customised offering that fits the objectives they want to achieve. So, IPL is 100 percent sold out,” he adds. May be that’s why the IPL retains its sheen as a marketing platform - this subtle shift in how brands are utilising it, moving from a one size fits all approach to seeking bespoke solutions.