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ESPN-Star Sports signs on Sachin Tendulkar.

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ESPN-Star Sports signs on Sachin Tendulkar.

ESPN-Star Sports(ESS), India’s premier sports channel on Satellite TV, has hired Sachin Tendulkar to give itself a ‘brand-ambassador’. The channel is expected to announce this in a press conference today. Manu Sawhney, the Managing Director of ESS (India) is already in London. He is expected to address the press from there. Sachin, who is in England on tour with the Indian team, is likely to be by his side when he makes this announcement. According to a source who was part of the deal-making process, ESPN-Star Sports has been into negotiations with Sachin for the last few weeks. When contacted yesterday, Manu Sawhney said “I am not in a position to talk about it right now.” He did not deny the information, though.

Sachin’s is, certainly, the most expensive endorsement brands have ever paid for in India. Barely two years back, Mark Mascarenhas – his agent who died in a car accident early this year, had reportedly underwritten him for Rs. 100 crores in five years. Some of the leading brands in the country pay top dollar to get Sachin to woo customers for them. They are from as diverse segments as beverages, TVs, tyres, biscuits, shoes, mobikes, cars, web-portals, credit cards, toothpastes, etc. That, a media organization too, even if a TV channel for sports, would need Sachin’s services has come as a surprise. But then, there is a context to even this development.

Sony and SET Max announced on 31st of May, the hiring of Kapil Dev as their ‘brand-ambassador’. This was to kick-off their campaign to sell Cricket to the advertisers, cable-operators and viewers alike. Having acquired the rights to some premium cricket events, including the ICC knock-out, scheduled this September and the forthcoming World Cup of Cricket to be hosted in South Africa next year, they have a lot to sell and recover. MAX never had a well-defined identity, to put it mildly. It showed, among other things, live Cricket too but, at best, sporadically. Therefore, this made ample sense for them. They needed a strong image makeover to acquire the right profile for such a mega-event. And Kapil’s task was to lend them his face, presence, appeal and, in the process, lubricate the pipeline for the moolah to flow smoothly.

But then, do ESPN-Star Sports combine, need a sportsman, even if a super star, to reinforce their sporting credentials? Or is it a case of over-reaction? Not too long ago, ESS had announced with great fanfare that they had rights to show Cricket from eight out of Ten Test playing countries and, that in 2002 itself, they had 261 days of international cricket, out of which India played on 82 days. Why then do you need a Sachin? What will he do? What made ESS, after becoming synonymous with sports television in India, search for a prop for itself to help sell its credentials? The answers are not easy but an attempt is in order.

In 1996, when ESPN and Star Sports merged to create a joint venture, the motive was to stop bleeding each other in competitive bidding and selling. Mantra was to buy cheap, sell dear, share the spoils and be happy. To compete with, there was an occasional DD for the India-venue-cricket. Slowly, Set MAX muscled in but remained on the margins. Zee too announced a sports channel and won marketing rights to DD’s cricket in an aggressive bid. Loss of a few grand slams here or a world cup football there happened, but it was no big sweat. Not till last February when the tables were truly turned. ESS lost its bid for the next two cricket world cups. The ICC knockout was already gone. (ESS showed the first ICC knockout in October 2000, from Kenya). To cap it all, the world cup football this year did not go to a sloppy pushover like DD who could never have been a threat. It brought along a new aggressive player in Ten Sports. Ten Sports is bank-rolled by petro-dollars from Sharjah’s Sheikh Bukhatir and run by ex-ESPN hands like Chris McDonald at the helm and ad-sales people down the line. Set MAX too preferred ESS to poach for its dedicated team for Cricket ad-sales. Ten Sports also garnered the rights to show Formula-one live. These were exclusive with ESS till the other day. Suddenly, ESS finds itself ambushed by serious and big-time competition.

But then, it still doesn’t answer why Sachin. After all ESPN prides itself with a legacy. A legacy that found expression in the Hollywood flick Jerry Maguire. ESPN has always been more than the sum-total of all the sports and Sports Stars, put together. The biggest and the most successful of the Sports Stars have begun their quests, aspiring to be on the Channel. So said ESPN about itself. To their debutant employees, to their viewers, to their advertisers, to their advertising agencies while briefing them on creatives…to even themselves! All that now will have to step aside and make way for Sachin. ESPN has found itself a new agent. Why?


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