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Corporate Jun 24, 2011

Sunil Gavaskar: Cricket’s original brand icon

By Shyam Balasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam

Editor's note: Sports marketing has exploded into a booming business. Cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are the face of everything from sodas to cars. But before all of them, there was Sunil Gavaskar. He launched Sunil Gavaskar Presents on television, he lent his face to products like Palmolive shaving cream, he even acted (abominably) in films. But he still was a man before his time argues ShyamBalasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam in their book The Business of Cricket: The Story of Sports Marketing in India published by Harper Collins India. Here is an excerpt from their book.

As Sunil Gavaskar was perfecting his square drive, Palmolive was perfecting his shaving.

The first time I (Shyam) heard these words was in 1974, at an air-conditioned theatre in Churchgate, when Bombay was Bombay and not Mumbai. These words were a part of a Palmolive advertisement. The reigning icon and probably the originator of sports marketing in India in its truest and most commercial sense, Sunil Gavaskar, was on the screen, shaving with Palmolive, and with each stroke of the razor, a field, a patch of the green cricket pitch, would appear on his face. These fields were a far cry from the dust bowls of the Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan we were so used to. He would lean into his perfect square drive with a stance to die for.

The film would invariably be a let-down after that...

Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar in action batting. Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images

Sunil Gavaskar in action batting. Evening Standard/Getty Images

Not just cricket

During the period 1974-82, sport in India was not just about cricket. Cricket was a leading sport but hockey was also a national passion, with India-Pakistan matches beingmust-watch games. Wrestling also had an appeal, with Dara Singh being a big draw. Badminton captured the headlines of newspapers as well, with Prakash Padukone winning a number of titles in the 1978-81 period, including the All England title in 1980. Vijay Amritraj rose as an exciting men's singles prospect and was billed as the 'A' in ABC(Amritraj-Borg-Connors) the three rising stars in men's tennis in the 1970s. Michael Ferreira also won a number of international billiards titles in the 1977-81 period. With the advent of black-and-white television in the mid-1970s came the obligatory advertisements. Nearly three decades on, I can recall almost word-for-word the Complan endorsement for 'Swimmers, athletes and particularly, growing children' - starring a now has-been Australian swimming coach - a sign that sport in India was not synonymous with cricket.

At that time, sport was great as a hobby, but not a feasible career option. There were horror stories of former greats who now lived in poverty or had turned to alcohol for solace, quite like the stories that emanate from the West Indies these days.

Then something happened that added a couple of zeroes to the sponsorship of cricket in India, taking it from thousands to lakhs - India won the cricket World Cup in 1983.

After the World Cup win, the commercial importance of cricket shot up. The players who won the World Cup had hit the jackpot. There were umpteen celebrations. A less-than melodious song, 'Bharath Vishwa Vijeyta,' was released in which Lata Mangeshkar had to sing better than usual to cover up for Yashpal Sharma.

The rise of sports marketing

In the aftermath of this victory, three other factors got the sports marketing phenomenon snowballing in India.

First, the Indian cricket team won another major ODItournament, the Benson and Hedges World Championship Cup in Australia in 1985, which was to be a precursor to the current ICC Champions Trophy.

Second, the market partially liberalised, with joint ventures between Indian and foreign companies being permitted, leading to strange sounding dual brands like Hero Hondaand BPL Sanyo. This further led to an infusion of new brands seeking to grow fast.

Third, the media market exploded with family soaps like Hum Log and Buniyaad. Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan would give it a further boost.

Though India could not sustain its performance on the cricket field, TV media and international brands seeking to make up for lost time would become a potent combination to drive money into sports marketing. The sports market skewedtowards younger players, and players like Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri benefited from this. Ravi Shastri became the Thums Up face of the new generation. Kapil's 'Palmolive da jawab nahin' ad is now more remembered compared to Gavaskar's original advertisement, simply because of the impact and reach of television compared to cinema. But Gavaskar, the original sports celebrity, perhaps ruing that he was born five years tooearly, would benefit too.

Even before the World Cup win, Gavaskar understood the commercial potential of cricket at a very deep level. He was a unique phenomenon in India: a batsman-cum-entrepreneur. In the US, such entrepreneurship would be celebrated, in India it was frowned upon. Before Gavaskar, there was Farokh Engineer, the 'Brylcreem boy', and C.K. Nayudu for 'Indian Tea', sans the razor-sharp business and entrepreneurialattitude that Gavaskar brought to sports marketing...

Continue reading on the excerpt on the next page

Audio extra:
How is the business of cricket faring these days after India's World Cup win? Could the IPL sans Lalit Modi live up to that high? We know what the three greats Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar mean for cricket. But what do they mean for the business of cricket? And if cricket is now big business what is it going to mean for us, the fans aka the consumers? Are we doomed to watch more ads interrupting our matches on television?

Firstpost.com's Samanth Subramanian chatted with Shyam Balasubramanian and Vijay Santhanam about their book The Business of Cricket.

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