Mahendra Singh Dhoni is chary of considering himself a trend-setter. The introverted Indian cricket captain is an intensely private person who is, nevertheless, at home in public glare. His maverick days behind him now, the charismatic 29-year-old from the cricketing outpost of Jharkhand today stands tall as a true youth icon, a shining example of how talent will get its due, no matter from which part of India it originates.
Much like Sachin Tendulkar did, more than a decade and a half ago, Dhoni has fired the imagination of a cricket-mad nation that is slowly waking up to the reality that India has sportspersons from other disciplines too who can be world-beaters. That said, cricket continues to be the number one draw, not only from a spectator’s point of view but also from a commercial perspective, best illustrated by the string of high-profile, big-buck endorsements that the Indian captain has inked in the last few months.
Long before the Indian Premier League transformed the lives of little-known cricketers by bestowing upon them unheard of sums, cricket economics had made its presence felt. Less than 15 years back, players received no more than Rs 25,000 as match fee for representing the country in Test cricket; today, that sum stands at a whopping Rs 7 lakh, an acknowledgement that the longest format of the game is still cricket’s most cherished version, but also an indication of the ever-growing financial clout of the sport.
While the IPL, with its unbeatable mix of cricket and entertainment, ushered in the era of staggering bank balances, the influx of big money into the bat-and-ball game can be traced back to the early 90s. The entry of satellite television into Indian air waves couldn’t have been better timed, for it coincided with the blossoming of a phenom who made sure single-handedly that Indian cricket would be short of neither fan-following nor financial incentives.
Tendulkar’s early days as a young David taking on mean Goliaths in alien lands and unfamiliar terrain were beamed ‘live’ into millions of Indian homes. Consequently, his drawing power that was a direct fall-out of his exceptional skills became all too obvious, and foreign and Indian commercial enterprises alike quickly wisened up to the possibilities that tying up with the young genius could throw up.
Little Master’s blast
As early as in 1994, Tendulkar signed a deal said to be in the region of Rs 1.25 crore per year with tyre manufacturers MRF, whose sticker he bore on his bat. Compared to Dhoni’s Rs 26 crore deal for three years with the UB group, or even his Rs 29 crore deal for seven years with Maxx Mobile, that figure might appear miniscule, but when one factors in inflation, and the fact that Indian cricket hadn’t seen money of that magnitude before, Tendulkar’s first mega deal was as monumental an achievement as the string of on-field records he has since stacked up.
In a way, that opened up the Indian market; Jagmohan Dalmiya’s vision and enterprise in the lead-up to the 1996 World Cup in the sub-continent firmed the cricket-commerce relationship and since then, Indian cricket has been in the pink of health financially, even during the recession phase which affected practically every other walk of life.
Lalit Modi tread more adventurously, sometimes dangerously so, as his brainchild, the IPL, finally saw the light of day. As a concept, the IPL wasn’t necessarily a big hit from the off; it wasn’t until Dhoni, thrust into the hot seat for the first time, led a young side minus Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid to the inaugural World T20 title in South Africa in 2007 that the Indian fan, and the establishment, totally bought the Twenty20 format. The rest, as they say, is history.
Dhoni was the most expensive buy during the IPL auction in 2008, going for $1.5 million a year for three years, though the following year, he was supplanted by the England duo of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, each of whom was bought for $1.55m. Earlier this year, Dhoni inked a Rs 210 crore, three-year deal with Rhiti Sports Management to ‘manage’ him – arrange endorsements, set up shoots, organise interactions with clients, in short, handle his commercial obligations. At the last count, the 29-year-old who endorses 22 varied brands, is the most visible face of Indian sport, and has emphatically graduated from long-locked rustic to a suave, polished icon who symbolises the confident and bold new India.
Tendulkar, all of 37 and surely on the last legs of a glorious career, still commands great value. In 2006, management firm Iconix signed him up for three years for Rs 180 crore. He was 33 then!
Successful but ‘boring’
Given cricket’s visibility and star power, not to mention the massive on-field successes of the national team, it is inevitable that cricketers will gobble up a major chunk of the financial pie, though it must be stressed that the creation of an ‘aura’, if you like, plays its part. Men like Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina have made as much out of endorsements in far less time as have more accomplished but less aggressively marketed achievers such as Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman, successful sportspersons but ‘boring’ from a commercial perspective.
Sania Mirza’s commercial value has perhaps more to do with visual appeal and the novelty of a reasonably successful Indian woman tennis player than on-court heroics, while Saina Nehwal’s image makeover in the wake of her recent triumphs and her Rs 1 crore deal with Airtel clearly suggest that performance alone is no guarantee to attract eyeballs.
With more and more Indian sportspersons lighting up the world stage, the Domino effect is all too apparent. Money is filtering through to other sports beyond cricket as, at last, India looks at sport as more than mere recreation.