Will sports PR in India grow into a multimillion dollar business?

The hard work, the sweat, the tears, the cheers, the lessons from winning and losing. That’s sport, whether you are a player or an avid spectator. A few years ago, all of this intense emotion would have been reserved almost entirely for cricket. In a country where no other sport seemed to exist, recent wins in badminton, boxing, shooting and wrestling have focused attention on other sports as well, paving the way for the start of the business of sport PR in India beyond cricket, adding growth to the sector overall.

Having handled PR and branding for sports stars such as Jwala Gutta, Saina Nehwal, Andrea Petkovic, Ashwini Ponnappa, Virender Sehwag, Jeev Milkha Singh, Baichung Bhutia and Gagan Narang, Udita Dutta, Director of Artsmith - Concepts & Visions,  is extremely optimistic for the future of sports and PR. "Cricket wise it runs into millions of dollars but other sports is still in its nascent stage. People are just getting the hang of it. It has the potential to grow into a billion dollar business in no time, but for that it is essential that our players keep performing and as a PR agency we do not compromise on quality and money.”

Considering that estimates for the entire PR business range very widely (MSL Group India estimates it at US $ 140 million and Assocham at US $ 6 billion), even multimillion dollar growth in sport PR would do much to drive growth generally for PR in India.

Flagging off badminton, boxing, wrestling, tennis and golf as high growth hot spots for sports PR, Udita adds; "All the strategies should consolidate in attracting attention and hence promote the event just not as a PR product but as a brand. So our efforts are to push the product as a brand with enough visibility so that every effort can finally translate in brand imaging for the client and sports.”

Sports PR insiders believe that PR for sports has one huge difference from PR with other companies, it's about both PR and branding. It’s important for the PR agency or consultant to create strong concept brands around the sportsperson and sports. And this is something that that PR for other sports can certainly learn from cricket, for which India is the biggest market in the world. As Joy Bhattacharjya, Advisor to the IPL 2012 champions for cricket the Kolkata Knight Riders, says, "Cricket, especially in India, has been extremely successful in its brand marketing. A lot of the success rests with its ability to convert specific hero worship and admiration into more interest for the game.” Joy adds that there are challenges in “creating a unique identity for the team and its fans which transcend the fan following of specific players or owners. The team eventually must be more important than the parts.”

For sports PR to deepen in the country a collection of sports stars are needed across other games. Once again, learning from how cricket grew, Joy points out that “As a nation, we tend to follow personalities rather than teams and concepts. Indian cricket has been blessed with larger than life personalities with huge and committed fan followings. Also, compared to other sport, Indian cricket has been fairly successful. These would be the two factors most contributing to its success.”

Sports industry watchers, such as senior sports writer Norris Pritam, believe that the time is right for creating a buzz around sports and discovering relevant stars with strong personalities; providing PR professionals work at understanding the sportspersons and their sports. Norris says, “Sports PR has to start at the grassroots with the sportspersons. So many sportspersons are not considered saleable, but that is only because they have not been sold properly. The field is ripe for people like Saina Nehwal and others, who have both talent and good looks and also speak well. It is time to move away from Tendulkar who definitely don’t need any PR.”

Norris adds that “PR professionals must sit down with the sportspersons, really understand their game and plan stories around them. There are so many great human interest stories that can emerge, if you take the trouble to understand them.”

Norris also points out that there are opportunities for not very well known companies to invest in low lying sports and therefore gain a profile.” Look at the example of Monnet Ispat and Energy Ltd, which got into boxing when there were not many takers for the sport. Now with five-time world champion and London Olympic bronze medal winner Mary Kom, just about everyone knows Monnet. “

Explaining the challenges in promoting sportspersons, Norris says that “sportspersons outside cricket, tennis and golf often do not speak well and therefore need a lot of off-field support to gain a profile. Sometimes PR professionals get to know the sportspersons just two days before the event. Sports PR cannot work in isolation of the game. They must get to know the sportsperson well before they begin to promote them. If you take the trouble to do so, the returns on relatively less expensive sportspersons are high.”

Udita Dutta agrees that there are many challenges, but the rewards are equally exciting; “Challenges are many folds. Firstly, clients at times are rigid and do not understand the value of making the event saleable for the media. And that is where our agency has played a crucial role. For example, for the Yonex Sunrise Indian Open Superseries 2012, all the dailes nationally covered the event and Times of India gave us half or more than half a page space in spite of the IPL being played at that same point of time. Though Saina Nehewal lost out in the second round, the coverage did not dip. This wasn’t the case in the previous years."

There is a slow but steady rising interest in sports in this nation of a billion plus, one of the best examples of this is the launch of the Hockey India League which satisfied audience thirst for smart sporting formats. While Hero MotoCorp recently pulled out of sponsoring cricket IPL team Mumbai Indians, it has declared that it will continue to associate with the Hockey India League. The next five years may just see sports PR score a high goal not only for the PR industry, but also for all sports in India.