Sport of call

Kuber Chopra | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 25, 2016

Beyond cricket: A Pro Kabaddi league match under way in Jaipur - Photo: ROHIT JAIN PARAS

From IPL to winter games, the new-age consumer for sports has truly arrived

A well executed drop shot can freeze time, a timed alley-oop can make a grown man jump off his seat involuntarily, last ball finishes aren’t for the weak-hearted and watching a 100 m dash is no less exhilarating than Discovery Wild. All this contrasts with most other scripted programming we see on TV, and online.

In 2008 I did my final year business thesis on the sports marketing landscape in India. The IPL was in its infancy so no one could make a GIF of Bhajji slapping Sreesanth. Indian celebrities were still shy of using Twitter and marketing was a bad word when it followed sport. Eight years on, we have a Prime Minister who has made marketing fashionable, IPL has turned young Indian cricketers into millionaires one way or another, and there are more team names to remember across leagues than there are states in the country.

Except for hockey’s perennial fight against familiar internal demons, a lot has changed. There are some key themes around this shift:


The success of IPL not only meant that cricket (BCCI) found another cash cow, but also that Indian sports found a formula that worked.

Prime-time TV + foreign players + high-profile/Bollywood ownership + mid-show entertainment + city rivalry = Successful League

“I can’t stand cricket but for the IPL” is a response we recorded in 2012 while conducting research for an alternative sports event for an energy drink company. The Leagues have been marketed for scale; for the lack of a live sport audience culture, advertising is dumbed down to equate sports with entertainment. Again, IPL (SET Max) set that precedent with Sooraj Barjatya film-like campaign titles ( Manoranjan ka Baap, India kaTyohaar and such). Bharat Bandh was the only one that led with a powerful cricket insight, but bombastic execution and lack of any cricket itself made it self fulfilling. Anyway, since it found success even Star adapted it with a pinch of salt. Le Panga for kabbadi and Baddies for Badminton have a good-to-be-bad millennial Kohlisque tone.

Thankfully sport is still at the centre of their campaigns.

Star’s heartburn

In 2007, when Star Sports, an experienced sports producer, lost the broadcast rights of IPL to Sony, it meant that every summer a film channel would clock higher TRPs not only in sport but also across categories. The rest of the year Sony would stay lean on sport (with the exception of high-profile international football like the World Cup) and Star Sports would be the go-to channel for the sports lover (Premier League, Wimbledon, US Open, F1 being their marquees). It was still a big miss for Star. Being a 10-year deal though, they couldn’t do much about it.

Since then, Star has tried to make up for lost opportunity by co-conceptualising leagues in other sports such as hockey (twice) and football before they struck a chord with the indigenous kabaddi, followed by badminton and most recently with a football league, ISL. In this period Sony launched a channel dedicated to sport (Sony Six), added NBA and UFC to its programming and has now tied up with the Disney-backed ESPN to bid for the IPL when the contract expires in 2017. Star, on the other hand, has the rights to the digital telecast of the IPL on HotStar mobile app and is touted to be the aggressor once the contract expires.

Women in sport

Though cricket is still near synonymous with sport in India, the charge by other sports has been led by women in individual sports. The meteoric rise of Saina Nehwal, the face of badminton in India, Sania Mirza’s high-profile career and Mary Kom’s rags to respect story has broken the gender barrier and made professional sport a plausible option for women. Culturally each of these has fed the feminist rhetoric with liberal fathers and husbands from diverse backgrounds playing their part.

The success these ladies have enjoyed at the international level has meant that they are icons not only for women. This is interesting, though, as you would rarely see them endorsing gender-neutral products. A barrier for the next generation to surmount, perhaps.

Express globalisation

The internet and international travel for Indian professionals has meant that the equity of international sports leagues is fast gaining popularity among at least the young SEC A audience. This allows marketers to target media spends wider yet sharper, as compared to earlier when Indian cricket was the only contested property.

This has also meant that Asian brands making a go for the Indian domestic market have invested sponsorship money in the leagues and the franchisees associated. The IPL’s title sponsorship going from Indian real estate major DLF to Pepsi and now VIVO (who will be going after Micromax’s market share) almost mirrors economic activity in India.

Social media and share economy

Among the current IPL teams, the most successful Mumbai Indians has 9.7 million Facebook followers.

Every Indian sportsman save Rahul Dravid has probably clicked a selfie and generated online engagement. Their handles are well managed and mentions are up for sale if brands are interested. You can start from the high-profile and go down to the long tail of young stars being picked up during the IPL auctions. This has meant that brands and their marketing partners need to be nimble.

Social Media is real time, 24/7 and interactive. Shiva Keshavan, an Indian athlete who competed in five Winter Olympics was ushered online by our company under the pseudonym 100thofasec. During the Sochi Winter Olympics he received significant traction from top Indian sports journalists and now enjoys a following of over 45,000 on twitter. We even conducted a crowdsourcing campaign for him on He was able to raise some money to compete. Preparing to compete in the 2018 edition of the winter games he is again looking at crowdfunding to raise monies in a shared economy. Between debates over mad IPL bidding for uncapped player and Keshavan’s desperate bid to compete in yet another Winter Olympics is the entire sports marketing landscape of India.


Partnerships such as IMG-Reliance-Star means coming together of great sports production, broadcast and financial muscle needed to develop large-scale sports properties. Good production and marketing would mean that sponsorship monies will come in and spread around multiple sports. Football and basketball are expected to attract international companies whereas cricket, the attention of Indian and Asian companies going after the B-town audience. There will also be an upswing of alternative sports such as mixed martial arts, skateboarding, and obstacle racing led by top metros. The trickle down to B towns will be faster than one can imagine.

More media money will be spent on social and influencer marketing. This will lead to a rise of young digital celebrities and companies around the ecosystem. Emergence/resurgence of people such as Milind Soman (as a runner) is also to be expected. Newer social media channels such as instagram and snapchat will have a cheaper fan acquisition cost in the coming few years as compared to Facebook and Twitter.

Government will still be the prime driver for those interested in Olympic disciplines and should look at development of track and field as a means of engaging with the youth instead of wasteful spending. If you speak to a sportsman, he will tell you that for India to become a sports powerhouse and unlock the potential of sports marketing, appreciation of basic disciplines such as track and fields needs to grow.

Brands must think of themselves as partners instead of merely sponsors and must demand inclusive contracts that include engagement with players and fans alike in large leagues. They must innovate with partnerships such as Delhi Daredevils and YouWeCan cancer awareness where the team wore a lavender jersey for one game in IPL 2015.

There must also be more regional initiatives such as the Adidas Uprising where brands own properties that encourage participation of the citizen sportsman.

If the ad revenues of Star and Sony are an indicator, sports is a growing industry. It has inherent qualities that no other discipline does. This, coupled with alu-tikki-burgerised programming and leagues building legacies, can result in greater viewership over a long time. However, it doesn’t need to be marketed like a saas-bahu soap. Sport isn’t fictional, yet it tells riveting stories of triumph over hardships, dominance, survival, excellence and so on. That’s what endears the consumer to sport.

Kuber Chopra is CEO, Think Rasta

Published on February 25, 2016
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