Quite a few people can rattle off the batting averages of Indian cricketers going back to Sunil Gavaskar. However, for how many people does the name Sardar Balbir Singh ring a bell? The India Sports Marketing Forum (ISMF) 2008, organised by the exchange4media Group, was held in the Capital on September 12, covered several issues concerning marketing of sports in India and why others sports have lagged behind cricket. The ISMF was presented by Indian Cricket League (ICL) in association with e-sense.
The first session post-lunch focused on the topic ‘Why sports, and why only cricket?’ The panellists included NP Sathyamurthy, Joint President, Lintas Media Group; Latika Khaneja, Director, Collage India; Subhinder Singh Prem, MD, Reebok India; Abhijit Sarkar, Head-Corporate Communications, Sahara India Parivar; Mahesh Ranka, GM, Relay Worldwide. Freelance sports anchor/ commentator Charu Sharma moderated the session.
Sharma said, “When Kapil Dev retired, the big question was, when will the nation get its next Kapil Dev? We need to have a sporting tradition in our country.” The question that Sharma put across to all panel members was ‘why sports?’ “This is because sports cut across all barriers. It is visually appealing, involves human emotions and is inherent with excitement, where else can you get that? Most sports are lovely to watch and they get you international recognition. Taking all these into account, why won’t anyone with a sane mind promote sports?” Sharma asked.
Sponsorship versus marketing
Abhijit Sarkar said, “We at Sahara hate to use the word ‘sponsorship’. We like to associate ourselves with sports or sportspersons. We got associated with cricket when it was not at the top, our only reason to be with the game was our passion for it. We don’t consider ‘win-ability’ a primary criterion. The world of sports needs support and goodwill is precious to us.”
Latika Khaneja pointed out, “We have to differentiate between marketing and sponsorship. Sahara and Reebok are the only two companies that pick up people who are not so famous. Sahara supports young cricketers. It helps build up brand loyalty. The Sahara Group had signed on Abhinav Bindra when he wasn’t well-known. It is not all about sponsorship, it’s about a strategy that works.”
NP Sathyamurthy commented, “We need to understand the engagement sports has with the audience. I don’t think we find many sponsors like Reeebok and Sahara. The question is, how well can a brand leverage sports as an event? This will lead to complete the integration of brand idea.”
According to Mahesh Ranka, “The reality is that the moment someone wants to invest, it has to work for the brand – long term or short term. The critical part is how long the brand associates with the person and how far it goes. A brand ambassador should live a brand in public imagery in order to take it to the consumer.”
Here, Sharma asked, “Where does the world of sports go when India has so many obstacles?”
Subhinder Singh Prem replied, “Sports originated with the gladiators, where it was played in the spirit of winning. You can never watch a match without taking sides. You live a part of it when you watch a match. We sponsor athletes who are our consumers. We also patronise other sports like football and tennis. The need of the hour is to work at the grass root level, for example, Reebok has 900 fitness trainers in schools. The buoyancy of sports inspires us.”
Commenting further, Khaneja said, “Sports marketing has to have a connect with the brand. Companies don’t promote sports other than cricket because they are not as lucrative and do not generate much ROI. Companies like Tata and Sahara have the luxury to encourage off-beat sports. We shouldn’t judge companies harshly vis-à-vis sports.”
Sharma summed up the session by saying, “Although other sports need the professionalism of cricket, you don’t have to be an NGO to sponsor a sport.”
At the end of the session, a frail Sikh gentleman walked up to the podium and shared his views on what ails Indian sports. The very fact that he remained unrecognised till he introduced himself, speaks volumes. He was Sardar Balbir Singh, part of the Indian hockey team that bagged three Golds at three consecutive Olympic Games along with the legendary Dhyan Chand.