In September, ace shuttler Saina Nehwal signed with Rhiti Sports Management a Rs 40 crore endorsement deal that makes her one of India's top-earning sportspersons outside the wealthy world of cricket . The deal is significant not only for the Olympic bronze medallist but also for other non-cricketing athletes as it highlights their growing brand power.
A lucrative deal for a badminton player would have been unlikely a few years ago in the cricket-obsessed nation. But the situation has changed now, and corporate advertisers as well as brand promotion companies such as Rhiti Sports are looking for athletes across the sporting spectrum. Besides Nehwal, boxers Vijender Singh and M.C. Mary Kom and wrestler Sushil Kumar, all Olympic medal winners, are among those who have bagged endorsement deals in recent years.
Shuttler P.V. Sindhu feels there is more optimism in Olympic sports Photo: A . Prabhakar Rao
What explains this trend? Undoubtedly, on-field success is the most important factor that determines the level of support a sportsperson gets from companies. People looking at commercial rights in Indian sports say Olympic sports have seen a rise in popularity
as Indian athletes have steadily improved their record at the international level. Since Leander Paes won a bronze in tennis at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, at least one Indian has climbed the medal podium at every subsequent Games. The best performance was in London 2012 when six Indians including Nehwal won medals. Before Paes, the last Indian to win an individual Olympic medal was the grappler K.D. Jadhav in Helsinki in 1952.
Experts cite another reason for the changing trend - the overdose of cricket, what with the annual 20-overa-side Indian Premier League tournament that stretches for nearly two months as well as test and one-day series that take place throughout
Olympians are not the only ones on sponsors' radar. One of the best-known faces in Indian sport who is neither a cricketer nor an Olympian is Viswanathan Anand. The five-time world chess champion's endorsements are managed by sports management company TNQ Sponsorships India. Managing Director Kuruvilla Abraham recalls the time when he sat down with Anand in 1997 to match his qualities with the brand image potential sponsors wanted to showcase. Intellect and trust were the qualities Anand projected, and Abraham felt these would fit well with either the computer services industry or watch makers. Eventually, it was computer-education provider NIIT, which chose Anand to endorse its brand.
Abraham says companies are changing with times. "I find companies are now looking at sponsorships as a long-term strategy," he says.
Rs 40 cr value of the three-year deal signed by Saina Nehwal with Rhiti Sports
While NIIT promotes chess, other companies such as Hero MotoCorp and Monnet Ispat & Energy also sponsor non-cricketers. Monnet has a Rs 18 crore sponsorship deal with the Indian Boxing Federation from 2010 to 2017. "Monnet associated itself with boxing as it represents power, strength, agility and endurance, which syncs perfectly with our direct operations - steel, power and mining," says Sandeep Jajodia, Chairman and Managing Director.
Greater coverage from the media has also increased chances of individuals getting endorsements. Latika Khaneja, Director at Collage Sports Management, feels getting endorsements is a matter of "capturing imagination." She cites the growing marketability of Nehwal as an example. "I don't think anyone cares about badminton, but she (Nehwal) is interesting."
What kind of numbers are we talking about? No one wants to hazard a guess. "Figures in the press are wonderfully wrong," says Khaneja, who declined to give an estimate. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the size of the Indian sports market in 2010 was $1.48 billion. That, however, includes endorsements as well as gate receipts and television rights.
Prakash Padukone, former All England badminton champion and co-founder of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), displays cautious optimism. "There may not be a significant jump in sponsorships for Olympians, but it will be much easier to find support now than in the past," he says. OGQ is one of the recent not-for-profit private initiatives that aim to improve India's medals tally by handpicking exceptional sportspeople and help them bridge the gap with the best. Athletes, however, are bullish and believe there could be a knock-on effect once one person breaks through. "I see more optimism in Olympic sports. It has changed a lot since Saina (Nehwal) came up," says P.V. Sindhu, 17, handpicked by Padukone for OGQ as a future badminton champion. "I have a fan page on Facebook started by someone I don't know. I can sense a more positive mood around me."Sanjiv Shankaran and Goutam Das