Anirban Roy Choudhury

Olympian Neeraj Chopra's glory can dent cinema-cricket duopoly in brand world: Experts

Chopra threw the 800 grams javelin 87.58 metres to be on all the Indian news channels during prime time. Will it be enough to take him to the hoardings?

India won seven medals at the just concluded Tokyo Summer Olympics. The country won its first-ever track and field Gold in Javelin throw. When Neeraj Chopra, the Gold medal winner, landed back home, the police had to escort him out of the airport to a private van. Thousands at the airport wanted a moment with him. A selfie, an autograph, just one moment.

Now, various brands too are lobbying around Chopra and other Olympic winners to ride the wave, or what is called 'moment marketing'. The question is, how long will the moment last?  

Celebrity endorsements in India start and end with Bollywood and cricket respectively. The country never had a Michel Jackson-type popstar (Pepsi inked a $5 million deal with him after his iconic 'Thriller' album in 1983). So, from 'Dil Maange More' (Pepsi) to 'Taste the Thunder' (Thums Up), it has all been either cricket or cinema.

Occasionally, Sania Mirza, tennis star and multiple Grand Slam winner, or chess grandmaster Viswanathan Anand bagged an odd deal. Mirza, in fact, was the first one to break through the cricket and cinema clutter. When she was at her peak, she charged Rs 75 lakh a day.

In 2016, after the Rio Olympics, another brand ambassador emerged. Ace shuttler PV Sindhu grabbed Silver medal, improving on Saina Nehwal's Bronze medal four years earlier (2012 London Olympics). Back-to-back medals made the popular racket sport aspirational.

Then, the brands followed. Baseline Ventures, which has been managing Sindhu's career ever since she was 17, started securing long-term deals with multiple brands. In 2019, Sindhu rose to No. 5 in the annual Forbes list of highest-earning female athletes. The magazine pegged her earnings at around $5.5 million.

"We have managed to break the glass ceiling. It is all because of her (Sindhu's) consistent performances," says Tuhin Mishra, MD and co-founder of Baseline Ventures. Sindhu currently endorses Bridgestone, Visa, Bank of Baroda, Pooja Developers, Li-Ning, Stayfree, PNB MetLife, ShareChat, Vizag Steel, and Google. Mishra and his team at Baseline are at an advanced negotiation stage with a few more brands that have expressed interest in Sindhu.

Olympian Neeraj Chopra's glory can dent cinema-cricket duopoly in brand world: Experts

Before and after Sindhu, all deals with non-cricket, non-cinema 'icons' were tactical in nature. Brands associated themselves with athletes immediately after they won laurels at international events. But the association lasted only a few days or a couple of months. Baseline made Sindhu available to select brands on terms and conditions that enhanced her equity. Brands are required to associate with her for a longer duration and book her dates well in advance. She charges Rs 1.5 crore a day.

From Mirza's Rs 75 lakh a day to Sindhu's Rs 1.5 crore a day, it's been a long journey over a period of 10 years. The money doesn't necessarily have to come out of cricket or cinema. It is not a "fair comparison," says Mishra.

Samit Sinha, founder and managing partner at Alchemist Brand Consulting, argues, "It is an absolute duopoly that cricket and cinema continue to enjoy in India." But he says that Chopra's track and field Gold may change things. Chopra is six feet tall, well built, handsome, fair and just 23-year-old. He has a long career ahead of him and, in all probability, another Gold three years down the line (2024 Paris Olympics). He will continue to perform at the top level.

While Chopra is the 'woke' ambassador for brands, there is a problem. Unlike cricketers Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma or Rishab Pant, Chopra will only appear on mass media once in a year during the World Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, or Olympics. These are the only occasions when track and field events are televised.

Tuhin Mishra
Tuhin Mishra

"If managed well, there is a way to deal with the lack of exposure on television," says Mishra. Digital and social media can emerge as tools, but it will be a herculean task to remind the common man about the greatness of the athlete.

A marketer working for an apparel brand refers to Usain Bolt, and says Chopra has the potential to scale up to similar heights as a brand ambassador. Known as the fastest man on earth or 'Lightning Bolt', the Jamaican sprinter, who retired from international sport in 2017, won eight Olympic Gold medals.

German sportswear brand Puma roped in Bolt as its brand ambassador and used to pay him a $10 million a year fee. Even after his retirement, the brand reportedly still pays him $4 million a year. "What kind of brands Neeraj endorses will determine a lot. Early in his career, he should not land himself in a fiasco like (footballer) Ronaldo and Cola brand. At the same time, he should not endorse brands that are downmarket," says Sinha.

In the past, Country Delight Naturals, Gillette India, Mobil India, iQOO, among others, dished out around Rs 10 lakh a day for Chopra. This amount won't work anymore, believe analysts. "He should not make himself available to any short-term deals and, at the same time, must not sign deals that need him for at least three days a year," asserts an expert. Rs 1.5 crore a day is a realistic figure for Chopra to start with, but he won't have many takers.

"He is photogenic and that is the biggest advantage. Also, what he stands for will determine a lot," adds Sinha. The one disadvantage, though, is his typical Haryanvi accent. "Smart creative heads can deal with it," says a media planner.

Olympian Neeraj Chopra's glory can dent cinema-cricket duopoly in brand world: Experts

Kohli was one of the first Indian athletes to bag deals in excess of Rs 100 crore. Puma, which competes with Nike, Adidas and Reebok, signed Kohli for a multi-year deal of over Rs 100 crore. MRF too pays Kohli more than Rs 100 crore and then there are Hero Motocorp, Manyavar and a wide range of brands that find him appealing.

Sharma, who apart from playing for team India also captains celebrated franchise Mumbai Indians in the Indian Premier League (IPL), rakes in around Rs 1.5 crore a day. After he rose to popularity on the back of performances in Australia and started leading IPL team Delhi Capitals, Pant saw his brand endorsement deals rise to above a crore a day.

Besides Chopra and Sindhu, Mirabai Chanu in weightlifting, Ravi Kumar Dahiya and Bajrang Punia in wrestling, Lovlina Borgohain in boxing and the Indian hockey team also bagged medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

Samit Sinha
Samit Sinha

"It is unlikely that people will rush to take a selfie with the wrestlers or boxers after a few days have passed. People now don't even recognise (retired weightlifter) Karnam Malleswari (the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal). That is the harsh reality. However, Chopra and the collective success of the Indian contingent will dent the duopoly in celebrity endorsement enjoyed by cricket and cinema," says Sinha.

Adds Mishra, "At the end of the day, it is the value proposition that matters for the brand. It is the same for cricketers or non-cricketers."

Mary Kom, six times world champion and Bronze medal winner at the 2012 London Olympics, came closest to the hype that Chopra has now created. Kom can speak fluent English, but in India, the 'Firangi Fundas' are restricted to fair skin only. He Hindi is poor. But most importantly for Mary Kom, people who look like her are often teased as 'Chinki' in India's heartland and, so, her record as a boxer could not help her rise above a few occasional deals.

She had signed for Puma's training range and Nestle's whitener, apart from being on the sacks of cements that are packaged and consumed in Northeast India. CAknowledge pegs her net worth to be around Rs 7 crore. "It is the biopic starring Priyanka Chopra that has helped her remain popular," says Sinha.

The biopic garnered makers Rs 64 crore at the box office. But her biggest moment in the brand ambassador game was probably at the 2019 Goafest, where she asked, "What's going on," albeit subtly, when host Boria Majumdar asked her to sing after the session in one of the 'Knowledge Seminars'. Custodians of most large brands saw the saree-clad Indian woman sing and walk away with grace.

Analysts expect Chopra to write a different script from Mangte Chungneijang, aka Mary Kom, in the digital age. "He needs to play the upmarket premium game, with smart managers handling his portfolio." Chopra threw the 800 grams javelin 87.58 metres to be on all the Indian news channels during prime time. Will it be enough to take him to the hoardings?