Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Will Sindhu be the next Virat?

For far too long, sponsors have taken the no-brainer route to celebrity management
I was born in a cricket-crazy era, in a country that knew and followed only one sport — cricket. When Australia was playing England at Melbourne, you could be rest assured that several thousand cricket crazy nuts, including yours truly, would be up at 5.30 am, clutching transistor radios close to their ears and trying to listen to the commentary from different angles, hoping to hear the score over the frequency crackle.

Our tribe grew as India won the cricket World Cup in 1983. This, coupled with the phenomenal acceptance of colour TV and the opening of the skies (so that we got to watch cricket from all parts of the world) meant that the whole country became cricket obsessed.

It is hardly surprising, then, that this was the only sport that marketers followed and believed in. People like Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni lost count of the number of brands they were endorsing, while other sports languished without sponsors and support. 

Changing times
It is in this context that the news of PV Sindhu, India’s silver medallist at the Olympics, winning a ₹50 crore sponsorship deal is such great news. It even makes a diehard cricket tragic like me happy!


And competition and choice is always a good thing, lest cricket and its administrators get too complacent. 

Making their presence felt
As cricket, and if one may add, cricketers, became increasingly pricey, marketers tried to promote other sports; like Kingfisher tried to push football. But they soon discovered that the concept was more exciting than the results.

In the midst of all this, the IPL continued to top the viewing charts, despite being dogged by criticism, scandals and match-fixing. Well, the IPL did teach other sports a thing or two, with them soon following suit and hosting their own leagues — not the least of all, Kabaddi.
The power of television
Here, the credit must go to the broadcaster, more than anyone else, for modifying the game — for moving it from sandy villages to the metros, for playing it indoors, and transforming it for TV audiences, with celebrities rooting for teams from the front rows.

The channel had the capability and vision to move the telecast to mainline channels , and the TRPs zoomed. This leads us to an important lesson.

In the Indian context, the power of television can never be overstated. We don’t need bums on seats in India — we have people in their couches with a remote in their hands even as celebrities laugh all the way to the bank, some even investing in other sports, like football.
More power to the ladies

My passion for cricket does not blind me to the challenges of using cricketers as celebrities who endorse brands. While some of them can set the stadia on fire, sadly, they can hardly set pulses racing as some have very poor personalities and are hardly photogenic.

And whether we like it or not, we must accept our predilection for a pretty face or good looks. It was in this context that someone like Sania Mirza seemed to make sense — she was charming and a sportswoman of international recognition. 

Martina Hingis of Switzerland and Sania Mirza | Reuters  

Others who might have been Olympic medal winners too could not capitalise on their success, because a sport like athletics has limited following here. Nor too did other games benefit by way of increasing popularity or viewership.

It is in this context that Sindhu’s sponsorship deal is such great news. Her amazing show at the recent Olympics galvanised an entire nation as she seemed to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal show.

To add to that, she seemed extremely presentable with a phenomenal attitude and great regard for her coach, who had been the driving force behind her success and her aggressive transformation. Sponsors fell over themselves in signing her on for appearances and brand endorsements — far in excess of what her predecessor Saina Nehwal was able to garner. 

P V Sindhu being felicitated at an event in chennai   
Rajeev Bhatt
Saina Nehwal  

This augurs well for the sport of badminton too, with centres of excellence like Hyderabad emerging.
Look elsewhere
For far too long, sponsors have taken the no-brainer route to celebrity management by picking MS Dhoni or Priyanka Chopra. This has led to brand dilution since no one knows who is endorsing what.

Can they step back for a moment and reconsider their options beyond film stars and cricketers? Can they step out of their comfort zones and place a few bets on some sportsmen and interests that are less obvious and yet lead to dramatic results?

Imagine if someone had signed on PV Sindhu before the Olympics. What dramatic gains might have ensued! Let’s hope for Indian badminton’s sake that PV Sindhu does not get sidetracked by the accolades and endorsements, and realises that the way ahead for her and Indian badminton will be upward only if it is built on her personal success on the court. 

Let’s wish her well, for we need more Virats and not only in cricket!

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