The advent of new sporting leagues has given a bunch of little-known brands the chance to own teams and get a low-cost advertising platform.
In the last two years, sport of the non-cricketing variety, has seen some interesting developments. A revival of hockey and football, the rise of badminton and the comeback of the near-forgotten kabaddi are attracting advertisers who cannot afford cricket.
The era of leagues has begun in earnest. Following cricket's IPL, now there are the Hockey India League (it is in its third season this year), the Indian Badminton League (set up in 2013), football's Indian Super League (2014), the Pro Kabaddi League (2014) and the World Kabaddi League (2014). The Champions Tennis League is expected to kick off sometime this month. Other sports could follow.
Fittingly, these IPL-styled leagues are attracting a new set of advertisers, most of whom have never used sport as a marketing platform. It is still early days but will the trickle become a wave?
Have small advertisers found a platform that will not be pulled out from under their feet when the big boys come out to play? Can they stay the course?
The Hockey India League, Indian Badminton League and Pro Kabaddi League are based on the franchisee model with 20 franchises owned by businessmen, corporate houses, Bollywood stars as well as former cricketers.
Some of the corporate houses that own franchisees include real estate majors, lifestyle brands and retail companies (see table). Sponsorship deals were bagged by brands such as Nise Gel, Uurmi Systems, Fastrax, TK Sports, Shiv Naresh, Golden Harvest Atta, GoSports Foundation and Magic Bus. Though these brands are big in their respective geography of operations, they do not have a national presence like a Parle, Airtel, Vodafone or Hero Motocorp. The last two, incidentally, are the main sponsors of the Badminton League and Hockey League respectively.
Srinivas Sreeramaneni, owner of Telugu Titans, a team that plays in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), says, "I think opportunities like PKL are good because sports enthusiasts like us can own a team here, and others who wish to be connected can join in as sponsors and reach out to their target audience." Is it because these regional brands have a chance to be national? "Instead of classifying them as local and national, I would classify them as traditional and non-traditional advertisers in sports," says Vinit Karnik, national director, entertainment, sports, and live events, GroupM ESP, the WPP-owned media agency's sports marketing division. Plus, it is cheap.
The cost of owning a team and gaining sponsorship deals with the new leagues is one-tenth of that for the IPL. The average cost of owning a team in the new sports leagues is about Rs. 1 crore (annual licence fee) while the sponsorship ranges between Rs. 50 lakh and Rs. 2 crore. A GroupM study on Sports Sponsorships in India suggests that on-ground sponsorship spends on cricket alone in 2013 was Rs. 508 crore while the team sponsorship was just over Rs. 600 crore.
Ashish Chaddha, CEO of Sporty Solutionz, the organisers of the IBL and a commercial partner of Badminton Association of India, says, "This is experiment time, but brands still see the value in them." Another interesting aspect the team owners pointed out was that most of them joined the leagues to promote the sport. "We wanted to support hockey, the national game," says Amar Sinha, CEO, Delhi Waveriders, the hockey team.
Sreeramaneni points out that if Japan could get judo into the Olympics, kabaddi can get there too. "But it's a Herculean task. Kabaddi is a great sport to be involved if presented in the right way, and when Star came onboard, I decided to join. If it was played on mud and from where it cannot be taken to the international level, I would have not partnered with it," he adds.
Sandeep Tarkas, president (customer strategy) and CEO, Bengal Warriors, Future Group, feels that kabaddi is a cool sport to connect with. "We saw a great opportunity for business also." And they know that they can make money only after 3-4 years.
Darshan M, CEO, Spoment Media, a sports marketing consultancy, says, "If the leagues can get their pricing right they will open a brand new window. It is unfortunate if they start comparing themselves with cricket and alienate themselves."
Sinha of Waveriders feels that the new leagues offer an "easy opportunity." The brands get seen on national television at a cost that is much lower than what they would have to spend on cricket. Activations, print ads and digital add to the visibility. Future Group's Tarkas says that a large number of people started talking about their brand after the PKL. Bidisha Foundaer, head, communications, Magic Bus, an NGO mentoring children, says, "We got good brand visibility with the stars wearing our logo on their T-shirts."
The opportunities for branding include jerseys, seats, perimeter branding, strategic break activations, team names, meet and greet, outside-the-stadium activation apart from the regular TV campaign for each of these leagues. Says Vikram Agarwal, director, Greendot Health Foods, which markets Cornitos Nachos Crisps, "Cornitos is the snack partner for the Jaypee Punjab Warriors team in this year's edition of the Hockey India League. We promoted our exclusive range through the team and players. Cornitos, in association with the players, also created awareness about hockey among school students in Punjab."
How and why did so many small advertisers get into these leagues? One big reason is that the big guns adopted a wait-and-watch approach for the first season. Tarkas cites the example of a big brand that backed off just a couple of weeks before the tournament kicked off. "We were demanding a sponsorship cost of Rs. 2.5-3.5 crore but were not able to get that. The first year needed a belief which the small advertisers showed."
Telugu Titans' owners used their own companies as sponsors to the team to promote them. Some of Sreeramaneni's companies are Uurmi Systems, OSI Consulting, Core Green and Greenko. He points out that they did not market the product in the first year. "We wanted to understand the consumption for the game on TV before any marketing," he adds.
A Note From the Editor
I thoroughly enjoyed watching Mary Kom. Would anyone have bothered to make a film like this, say, five years ago? I doubt it.
Cricket's long shadow on other sports has been the subject of much lament. Don't the achievements of Viswanathan Anand rival those of Sachin Tendulkar? What about Saina Nehwal and the always-on Leander Paes? Cricket is played in only about a dozen countries whereas games like tennis and chess are popular across the world. And yet within India the only real stars play cricket; everyone else is an also-ran.
Now suddenly, a bunch of alternatives is upon us. A badminton and a hockey league were launched last year; this year kabaddi's extraordinary popularity has stunned everyone. How did a sport that most youngsters haven't even seen, capture the public imagination and reach 435 million viewers? To top that, 170 million Indians watched football within the first week of the Indian Super League last month.
Cricket finally has competition. Even in Delhi streets, cricket apart, I see many children playing football and, within gated communities, basketball. How did this come about?
At the heart of this transformation lie media and technology. Satellite TV and the rise of direct-to-home allowed broadcasters to launch a number of sports channels that covered less popular sports. Viewers were relatively few – but what they lacked in numbers, they made up in passion.
If television whetted their appetite with world class sports, social media gave them an opportunity to congregate with like-minded people and to share their excitement about the game.
Local newspaper editions and radio stations played a role too. They encouraged their audiences to think local, helping them identify with the league team that represented their city or region.
Cricket had one other thing going for it: great business minds were always at work trying to figure how to create excitement. Who else would have thought of using Mandira Bedi, who played the bimbo superbly to entice first-time viewers of the game? Or thought of importing an alien concept like cheer leaders? Or even getting film stars to own teams?
Those same skills of showmanship are now being applied to other games, adding the dash of glamour that they so sorely needed. The Indian field looks more exciting than ever as even more games come out of the closet.