When Ajinkya Rahane swung his bat to victory for Rising Pune Supergiants in the Indian Premier League (IPL) match against Mumbai Indians last week, he had more than just his league fans lustily cheering him on. A team of talent managers and brand specialists working closely with the Indian test team vice-captain since June 2016 were exulting too. Rahane, a proficient cricketer with a loyal set of fans is a relative novice in the world of brands but experts say, the time is ripe for the likes of him, Karun Nair, Ravindra Jadeja, Shikhar Dhawan among others to stake their claim in the grand IPL brand sweepstakes. At present, India captain Virat Kohli and former captain MS Dhoni are top endorsers. The two have close to 30 brands and command around Rs 200 crore in endorsement fees annually. Their brand values have soared as their cricketing talent has been matched by an equal amount of savvy off the field too. Does that leave any space for other cricketers to step into the spotlight? A few years back, the answer may have been an unequivocal no. But times are changing; with the emergence of digital as an influencer medium and with companies willing to explore different endorser engagement options, the ongoing IPL is being seen as the ideal platform to launch the endorsement careers of a new set of cricketers. Social superstars “Digital is the game changer. Brands looking at spending big money will just go in for a Virat or a Dhoni. But those who are looking at tactical associations, will turn to digital which is aggressive and cheap as a medium,” says Neerav Tomar, MD and CEO, IOS Sports and Entertainment. The new cricketers are all active on social media and brands hope to gain from their huge following on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The nature of the endorsement deals are changing too with brands willing to engage with cricketers for a certain number of tweets in favour of a label, or a cause that the brand supports, instead of an all-out television commercial. For instance, all-rounder Ravinder Jadeja whose twitter handle #SirJadeja has 4,17,000 followers has signed with Mahesh Bhupati’s apparel brand Zeven for apparel and bat sponsorship. His brand team says that Jadeja is open to purely online relationships that leverage his large digital following. Ramakrishnan R, co-founder and director, Baseline Ventures, the sports marketing and talent management company that handles Jadeja says, “It is important to capitalise on the strengths and grab opportunities when they come along.
At times, as managers, we have to approach the brand with a plan and make them see the potential a player has as an endorser.Digital play Another reason the tenth season of IPL could make brands out of more cricketers is that the traditional model of blocking several days of the endorser’s time for a single brand is giving way to new, lean arrangements. Brands are willing to look at an engagement that is more online, with a few days of shooting or presence at an event. According to a senior executive with a talent management firm, digital media has opened up a number of avenues whereby a brand can use the bouquet of its rights with the celebrity and the content it has created to engage its audiences more effectively than in the past. “We are going to see new technologies using Augmented Reality and virtual experiences being leveraged by brands,” says Raghavendra Patnaik, CEO Gaames Unlimited, the sports marketing and talent management firm that handles Karun Nair, and also manages Australian David Warner and India’s Murali Vijay. “Big bang endorsements in general, by which a brand signs up a megastar and shoots a number of different campaigns throughout the year, may soon become a thing of the past,” says Patnaik. Selective engagement Companies are also getting more cautious getting into endorsement deals. While the leadership position enjoyed by Dhoni and Kohli is undisputed and off spinner R Ashwin is slowly inching into the Rs 2 crore to Rs 2.5 crore a year bracket, it has been a slow few years when it comes to new deals. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, for instance have not signed anything new in a while. Neither has Suresh Raina, who is seen as a T-20 specialist. While their talent on the field is not in question, brands have hinted that they want greater visibility from their endorsement stars—either on the field or through other events and engagements off the field. Ramakrishnan says, “It’s about ensuring your brand (the player) is visible enough for other brands take notice. As long as there is a brand fit, the duration or the fee should not be the focus, but the quality of the association matters,” he adds. Brands want a better fit, not just a big name endorsing the product. Patnaik says, “Tactical may well become the new strategic. Some brands and their campaigns have such a strong synergy with the positioning of the endorser that commercials take a back seat and even if the deal size isn’t huge by itself, the impact such a campaign has on the endorser’s and brand’s profile is a significant gain.” “I always give the example of Yuvraj (Singh). His career status notwithstanding, any brand would be ready to pay for his endorsement. Similarly if you see today, both Rahane and Jadeja are in-form players, but the latter has more recall. Even with Kohli and Dhoni, their off-field personalities complement their brand endorsement careers and make them lucrative for brands,” says Indranil das Blah, partner and COO at CAA KWAN.