The 2017 Fifa Under-17 World Cup kicks off in India on October 6. The first ever Fifa tournament to be hosted by India will see matches being played across six venues in New Delhi, Navi Mumbai, Kolkata, Goa, Kochi and Guwahati. However, with just over three weeks left for the tournament to begin, the lack of any billboards or media advertisements about the tournament has left some sports marketing experts baffled.

“I have not seen a single billboard in Mumbai,” said a sports marketing professional who requested anonymity since he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. “Stories related to the World Cup are being published in the media but there is nothing in terms of advertising.”

The Field reached out to people in the other five host cities as well and no one had seen a single billboard or ad about the World Cup in their city.

“For something like the Fifa U17 World Cup, with less than a month to go, I don’t see it marketed adequately in India despite it being a huge opportunity,” said the professional quoted above. “Apart from the official broadcaster Sony, which is running a countdown to the tournament on its channels, nobody else is taking actively to it.”

When it comes to events as big as a Fifa World Cup, experts said light marketing begins at least six months prior to the tournament and then the heavy bits in the three months leading up to the event. However, this is an Under-17 World Cup, which isn’t as important for sponsors and for the global community as it is for India, according to marketing experts.

“Traditionally, Under-17 World Cups don’t have the budgets to do too much marketing,” said Joy Bhattacharjya, project director at the Local Organising Committee of India 2017. Bhattacharjya refused to divulge the marketing budget for the tournament, but said that the organising committee had been doing a lot of on-ground activities to generate a buzz, rather than buying advertisements.

The rise of on-ground marketing

The organising committee is focusing on hosting tournament-related activities on ground, which get what is called earned media coverage as opposed to the paid variety. “We spend our budget mostly on [organising] events, on earned media, digital and radio [marketing] closer to the tournament,” he said.

“For example, we had the launch of the emblem, the Mission 11 Million programme, the official mascot, the anthem. We had [former Spain captain Carles] Puyol come and launch the sale of tickets. We are focusing on radio right now. We’ve worked out a campaign with Radio Mirchi that focuses on the six host cities. That’s where the main money is spent.”

The organising committee is focusing on hosting tournament-related activities on ground (Image: IANS)
The organising committee is focusing on hosting tournament-related activities on ground (Image: IANS)

On-ground promotion, as opposed to media spend, has been on the rise, according to Rajesh Kumar, a sports marketing consultant. “Until a few years ago, there was only TV and print promotion. However, that is changing. For a tournament like the U17 World Cup, your target audience is the youth. If you organise on-ground marketing activities at, say, schools and colleges, the reach is far more and far sharper than having print ads.”

On-ground marketing also works out to be cheaper than media spend. A single billboard advertisement in Mumbai costs anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 14 lakh per month, depending on the size and location, according to media buying platform The Media Ant. A full front-page ad in the Times of India, the country’s most circulated English daily, can cost anywhere between a few lakhs to Rs 1.5 crore depending on the city.

“On the other hand, if you do an on-ground activation programme at a college, you can get it done in, say, Rs 50,000 to Rs 60,000,” said Kumar. “So you can cover multiple colleges in the same budget [as it takes for a media ad]. You can organise tournaments, get celebrities to attend events, boost engagement with fans. The reach will be far more focused.”

Bhattacharjya also said that putting up billboards was the responsibility of the host cities and assured that it would be done in the next two-to-three weeks. “No [media] campaign in India starts 15 days before the tournament begins. We just don’t have the budgets, especially considering it is festival time [when prices of advertisements shoot up]. It is purely a matter of sustainability more than anything else.”

Money spent wisely?

Most sports marketing experts The Field spoke to bought Bhattacharjya’s claim that the organising committee does not have a huge marketing budget. While Fifa earmarked $18 million, or Rs 115 crore, for the U17 World Cup, most of the money has gone into development of infrastructure. But whatever little budget was available for marketing, has it been spent wisely?

“I would have liked to see a bit more spend on digital marketing,” said another industry expert who requested anonymity. “I agree it doesn’t make sense to spend too much on billboards and media ads but I haven’t seen any marketing campaigns online as well. The target audience for this tournament is kids from 10-12 years of age to young adults, so digital is the best way to reach them. The organising committee is not doing enough on this front. Everything has been offline and I’m not sure that’s the right strategy.”

While the onus is largely on the organising committee, sponsors are also responsible for marketing a tournament and there has hardly been any action on this front as well. Apart from Fifa’s official global partners such as Coca Cola and Visa, the U17 World Cup has three local sponsors in Bank of Baroda, Hero Motocorp and Coal India.

The three companies have been supporting and promoting the organising committee’s on-ground activities but there hasn’t been any evidence of any other initiatives apart from this. The Field reached out to Bank of Baroda and Hero Motocorp for a comment but did not get a response before this story was published.

The organising committee is not worried about support from its national supporters because Fifa has global partners from where sponsorship money will come in, said the sports marketing professional quoted earlier. “They just want to do proper on-ground activation, not overshoot their budget, conduct the tournament smoothly and get some people to say it was a job well done. That’s all that matters.”