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Storyboard | Brands need to pay attention to Indian sportswomen for more than a moment

It’s time for marketers to diversify their associations with female athletes and level the playing field, say media and sports marketing executives.

July 29, 2021 / 09:31 AM IST
Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who won the silver medal in Tokyo Olympics, arrived at the New Delhi airport on Monday, July 26, 2021. After her podium finish, she had said she wanted to eat a pizza. Cue: Domino's Pizza, which has announced a lifetime free supply to the Olympian. (Image: Reuters)

Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who won the silver medal in Tokyo Olympics, arrived at the New Delhi airport on Monday, July 26, 2021. After her podium finish, she had said she wanted to eat a pizza. Cue: Domino's Pizza, which has announced a lifetime free supply to the Olympian. (Image: Reuters)


After Mirabai Chanu bagged a silver medal at the ongoing Tokyo Olympics, the Indian weightlifter shared that the first thing she wanted to do was have pizza. Like every brand worth its social salt, this moment was turned into a marketing opportunity by Domino's Pizza. The brand pledged to provide a lifetime supply of free pizza to Chanu. Domino's even delivered pizzas to Chanu's residence in Imphal, leaving her family surprised by the pies at their door.

The brand stayed true to its 30-minute delivery promise, in a manner of speaking. It did not waste any time to capitalise on this moment of someone else's glory. There was free pizza for the athlete and free publicity for the brand. But for sportswomen like Chanu, that's far from a win-win deal.

The fast-food brand wasn't the only newsjacker that day. Amul, Britannia and Dunzo took to social media to celebrate and co-opt Chanu’s historic victory.

Industry executives tell Storyboard that marketers have to get serious about investing in female sports talent in the country rather than just riding on their success for a fleeting moment. Shashi Sinha, chief executive officer of IPG Mediabrands India, says, “Consumer memories are normally short-lived. It’s time for marketers to look at long-term commitments to derive value.”

Ramakrishnan R., co-founder and director of Baseline Ventures, the firm that manages brand and endorsement deals for badminton star P.V. Sindhu, archer Deepika Kumari and boxer Pooja Rani, among others, believes that in such cases, moment marketing lacks credibility: "A true partnership is one in which brands continue to support and back athletes irrespective of results and be a part of the system in which pipeline of athletes follow.”

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India sent its largest-ever female contingent to the Olympic Games in 2021. However, this hasn’t significantly bumped up marketing spends on these players. According to industry estimates, less than 3% of the total sports sponsorships are directed to women in India.

Sports talent managers tell Storyboard that, though women cricketers, badminton players, and boxers are climbing up the endorsement charts, most other sportswomen in India don’t earn even a tenth of what these handful of more famous sportswomen receive in terms of earnings from brand deals.

Read more: South Asia Union | Women athletes from South Asia come together to share challenges and wins

Gaurav Bahirvani, founder and CEO, One One Six Network, is of the opinion that India has a ‘mindset’ issue, which is not prevalent in mature markets like the US and the UK. At Bahirvani’s UK office, for instance, 50% of all brand inquiries in sports marketing are for female athletes. However, in India, it is less than a third. “This is because several categories in India don’t consider women athletes as a direct fit, but can’t provide a valid explanation for the same if asked. It’s been going on for decades, and brands have just been following the 'unsaid rules',” he adds.

The true sign of a matured sports marketing industry is when brands don’t distinguish between female and male athletes. “Sport is beyond what is being televised. There is a huge ecosystem, but unfortunately, we are hardwired to believe that sports is only what is being televised,” says Ramakrishnan.

One way to change that mindset is to create collaborative initiatives that “nurture talent for the long haul”, suggests Sinha. On the other hand, Bahirvani says, India also needs more talent managers who can pitch brands the stories of sportswomen differently and meaningfully.

For now, all eyes are on India's Olympians. Why can't she have her pie and eat it too?

Read more: From Mirabai Chanu’s pizza to Vasily Alekseyev’s mighty meals
Priyanka Nair
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