The Game Changers: Converting Athletes into Brands

The Game Changers: Converting Athletes into Brands

If cricketers are among India’s most saleable stars, behind them is a new breed of sports marketers who coach them to game the market

If the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the most entertaining show of sporting talent and celebrity in India, what then is the World Cup—the 2019 series of which is currently being played across England?

That may be a rhetorical question but not the one that follows.

If these are among most powerful sports-celebrity conclaves in the world where other games—besides cricket—are played, how do you rank the top players?

Enter: the athlete’s endorsement manager. A single professional or a group of specialists hired by a company who bats for a player.

Nikhil Bardia, head of sponsorship sales at IMG-Reliance does not demur when this ball of questions land in his boundary. On 6th May, The Economic Times reported that IMG Reliance (a joint venture between Reliance and international company IMG that manages sports, entertainment and talent) had raised over 150 crores in sponsorship value with 30 deals during the IPL series that concluded last month.

(Disclaimer: IMG Reliance also publishes The Voice of Fashion).

Bardia and his team are busy scoring business runs as three players—Hardik Pandya, Rohit Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah—in the India squad playing currently at the 2019 World Cup in England, are managed by IMG Reliance.

The stakes are high. Brands that have signed on Sharma, Bumrah and Pandya are watching with thrill and vigil while new ones are on a shopping trip.

Everyone in this game has his eyes peeled. On display and sale are narratives and persona. Some is natural, but most is learned. The latter is a graph of course corrections given the evolving rules of trial by sponsorship.


(From L-R) Cricketers Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Krunal Pandya.

The New Sports Brokers

Call them The New Sports Marketers or The Game Changers, it is experts like Bardia–or Bunty Sajdeh who works with Virat Kohli–who control the strings. “It is about converting a player into a brand. And it is not only about on-field performance, says Bardia explaining the rules of this highly profitable gaming show. “Earlier agents who set deals between a brand and an athlete would take a 10 per cent cut and be done. Now it is about partnership with a brand to create influence as well as an influencer,” he says. Talking engagingly about “engineering a narrative”, Bardia says linking a sportsperson to a brand—in this case a cricketer to a top league sponsor—is about building a narrative. And writing a captivating story. (read our report: The Importance of Image in Cricket.)

Understanding the target group (TG) that a brand wants, finding the right fit, positioning the appeal of the player in accordance with that, advising on social media image and posts, appearance, hair and styling, vulnerabilities and strengths—it is a complete advisory service. Unlike the past, where the player as a high achiever and aspirational figure could pick Panerai, Mastercard or Colgate (all once endorsed by MS Dhoni), those signed up now by companies “handling” them are assigned experts in different fields—social media, grooming, PR—to work with. Every photograph shared on social media is first assessed to see if it fits with the story that is being marketed. The overall strategy manager plays goal keeper and security guard. Everything comes for a fee. But it scales up the game and eventually the star athlete (or the athlete made into a star) earns more.


(From L-R) Cricketers Rohit Sharma, Hardik Pandya, Jasprit Bumrah, Krunal Pandya.

A Good Story

How the player comes across to the audience in the first place is perhaps the point where the narrative begins. So Indian skipper Virat Kohli (who has the maximum brand endorsements among Indian cricketers) is known to be a fitness freak, a disciplined vegetarian, a genius. He is also a good looking man with extraordinary cricketing talent and unique achievements. He would fit perhaps the TG of most brands. Even so, there is strategic deliberation in how the brands he endorses are signed up. Last year, at the Mumbai launch of Chrono XL Classic 3018 Limited edition collection, personalised for Kohli (he is a Tissot endorser), he turned to his managers when asked (I asked him that question myself) about the diversity of his brand portfolio—from Vicks, Volini, Boost, Manyawar to Audi, Tissot. He thanked them for the “strategy”, admitting that there was one.

That’s the name of the game. “Rohit Sharma prioritizes cricket, wife, daughter, animal welfare—these values sync with the consumer TG of brands that value a family first image,” explains Bardia. Among the brands Sharma endorses are Hublot, Adidas, Sharp TV and World Wide Fund for Nature among others. Now read it backwards and you will see the script.

Hardik Pandya’s image on the other hand was of a young man from a humble background setting high goals on and off the field. About Pandya, Bardia says that “once you build a brand, it bounces back. A brand is an asset,” he says citing the example of Maggi and Dairy Milk, food brands that were taken off shelves after controversial reports on their ingredients/ adulteration.

Those on this side of the fence who follow “product endorsements” as a game of worth and wealth must perhaps never forget the role of the coach.