India's goalkeeper Sreejesh Parattu Raveendran gestures toward a camera while sitting on the goal after India defeated Germany 5-4 during the men's field hockey bronze medal match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, on August 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan (Image: AP Photo/John Locher)
Over the last two weeks two young and brilliant Indian hockey teams have lifted the game in the country from the depths of defeat and despair that it had fallen into over the last 40 years. Both the men’s and the women’s team have dazzled TV audiences at home with their skills and their gritty performances. A bronze in the bag and hopefully another from the women’s team has lifted the spirits of the entire nation.
To get a sense of how massive their achievement is, consider just two of the teams that didn't even qualify for this Olympics: three-times Olympic champions Pakistan and South Korea, which had qualified for eight previous Olympics and finished runners up in 2000.
The last time India entered the knockout round of Olympic hockey was in 1976. The four decades since have been years of disappointment and frustration for the thinning fan base of what was once the country's most popular sport. Nor is this win, a flash in the pan. The team's performance in the FIH Pro League over the last two years had raised expectations even if there were fears the young lads might choke on the big stage. Instead, the team has delivered in style.
But if these recent gains have to be built on and institutionalised, Indian companies need to step up, in particular the marketing and advertising agencies that advise them on where to put their sponsorship money. Currently the bulk of it goes to one sport, cricket. According to a GroupM ESP report, cricket claims 87 percent share of the sports sponsorship pie in India. That mismatch needs to change. The money needs to be spread more evenly with larger amounts going to globalised sports such as hockey where on any given day, two dozen countries are staking their claims.
Nor should this be seen as some form of support for the game, a dole from the CSR budgets of companies. Players such as Harmanpreet Singh, PR Sreejesh and Rani Rampal are now proven international stars. After the Olympics showing, their names are part of the pantheon of Indian sports stars. Their achievements will motivate young boys and girls to pick up the stick in quest of glory in much the same way that Kapil Dev’s heroics inspired a one-day cricket revolution in this country or Saina Nehwal’s victories led to the resurgence of badminton culminating in the emergence of superstars like PV Sindhu.
For that though, the game of hockey and the players who have brought us laurels, need to be marketed intelligently and by people who understand it and can figure out the parts that lend themselves to marketability. In the past, other sports have often been treated as poor cousins of cricket. In an advertisement by a liquor company some years ago, a male model who wouldn’t pass for a footballer in a geriatrics’ game, asks another “Goal maru kya” (Should I hit a goal). No one in football has ever hit a goal. That transference of a cricketing term into football sums up the lazy marketing of other sports in India.
For all their efforts on a truly global stage, India’s hockey stars will be lucky to make as much as a rookie would if he turns lucky in the next Indian Premier League (IPL) auctions. Any of India’s cricketing superstars earns more in a year than would have been spent on the entire hockey team. This, despite the fact that India haven’t won a single major tournament in any form of the game — tests, one-dayers and T20s — over the last 10 years. This is in a sport which is played seriously by fewer than 10 countries.
While Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni surely deserve their riches, a new generation of sports stars is ready to be minted. Unlike their counterparts in cricket their performance already exceeds mere promise. Can Indian companies meet the challenge of creating a completely new asset class? They could take some tips from how companies such as Nike, Samsung and Hulu capitalised on the success of the United States Women’s National Team led by Megan Rapinoe who is a household name in a country where football is not even among the four most-watched sports.