Reliance Wankhede. DDB Mudra Wankhede. Baseline Wankhede.

One of these three could very well be the new name of Mumbai’s iconic Wankhede Stadium soon. The Mumbai Cricket Association, which owns the stadium that is named after its former president SK Wankhede, is currently evaluating proposals from three firms regarding the sale of naming rights. The association expects at least Rs 100 crore over a five-year period from a company to add a prefix or suffix to the name of the stadium.

If a deal goes through, it will only be the second instance in the country when a stadium has sold its naming rights. In 2013, the Sahara India Pariwar had bought the naming rights of the Maharashtra Cricket Association’s then newly built stadium on the outskirts of Pune for a sum upwards of Rs 200 crore. However, the Subrata Roy Sahara Stadium’s name was changed to the MCA Stadium after the company failed to pay more than Rs 98 crore, according to a report in The Indian Express.

This means that the Wankhede Stadium could soon be the only branded sports venue in the country.

In the West, the practice is widespread – from London’s Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal Football Club, to Los Angeles’s Staples Centre, which has as many as six tenants, including the LA Lakers basketball team. The practice of branding a sports arena dates back to 1912, when the erstwhile owner of the American baseball team Boston Red Sox named its stadium Fenway Park after the Fenway Realty Company he also owned.

Private vs public

So why has it taken so long for it to come to India? Two main reasons: Firstly, the ownership. Most of India’s sporting venues are not privately owned like they are in the West. “They are either on government land or owned by the government,” said Harish Krishnamachar, a sports management professional and founding partner of Sportoid Sports Solutions. “As a consequence of them being owned by the government, they are mostly named after politicians.”

Case in point: the Wankhede Stadium. SK Wankhede was also a politician. Apart from the government, sports associations also own some of the stadiums, but this practice exists only in cricket. “The owners of the stadiums have an agreement with their donors and other investors regarding the naming,” said Dr PV Shetty, the joint honorary secretary of the Mumbai Cricket Association.

Secondly, selling the naming rights of stadiums becomes difficult considering the venues aren’t used frequently through the year. “We don’t have any longstanding sporting leagues,” said Krishnamachar. “Our longest league is going to be four months long, which is the Indian Super League. And even there, they don’t play at what is called an anchor venue in international business.”

An example of an anchor venue is the Emirates Stadium, which is owned by Arsenal. The owners of anchor venues usually sell the rights in a bundle, including the stadium name and other things such as shirt sponsorship, tickets and hospitality packages, and other branding.

The initial £100 million deal signed between Arsenal and Emirates in 2004 not only included the naming rights of the stadium, but also saw the Dubai-based airline become the club’s jersey sponsor. The deal was renewed in 2012 for £150 million, which extended the jersey sponsorship until the end of the 2018-’19 season and the stadium naming rights till 2028, reported The Guardian.

Arsenal have been playing at the Emirates Stadium since 2006 (Image: Paul Hudson/Flickr/Creative Commons)

“But that’s not the case in India,” said Krishnamachar. “The [Indian Premier League franchise] Chennai Super Kings cannot claim to own the MA Chidambaram Stadium. Neither can Royal Challengers Bangalore claim to own the M Chinnaswamy Stadium.”

Ambush marketing

A stadium sponsor also brings forth the possibility of a clash with a competitor during an international tournament such as a World Cup or the Olympics. Organisers of international tournaments usually demand what is called a “clean stadium”, where there are no commercial markings. This is done to avoid what is called ambush marketing. Organisations such as Fifa and the International Cricket Council are very strict about this.

In May this year, the European football association, Uefa, had demanded Wales’s Principality Stadium, whose naming sponsor is the Principality Building Society, to remove all its branding and cover 3,000 other commercial signs at the venue ahead of the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus. The ICC had asked The Kia Oval in London to do the same ahead of the Champions Trophy in June.

In Wankhede’s case, there could be a problem even during a local tournament. If Reliance wins the Wankhede sponsorship, Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, which is the title sponsor of the IPL, and Vodafone, which is the official telecom partner of the tournament, could potentially demand a clean stadium when the league starts.

Shetty said that the Mumbai Cricket Association will discuss the matter with the interested parties and reach an understanding before signing the contract. “Suppose there is a competing sponsor during tournaments, we will be sorting those things out now only,” he said. Considering the IPL will take up a bulk of the annual match days at the Wankhede, will it be worth it for a sponsor? For Rs 100 crore no less.

IMG Reliance and DDB Mudra did not respond to The Field’s request for a comment before this story was published. Baseline Ventures’ co-founder and managing director Tuhin Mishra said that discussions with the Mumbai Cricket Association were still on but the final contract will be done up in a way that “everyone’s interests are protected, whether it is the sponsor or a brand that comes along with the sponsor”.

Is it worth it?

Another unique feature of the Wankhede naming rights is the length of the deal that the Mumbai Cricket Association is looking at. At five years, it is quite less compared to the international standard of at least 10 years. Is five years enough to build up a brand name?

“There are far more effective and valuable branding strategies available within sport [than buying stadium naming rights], like associating with an event, being a tournament sponsor,” said Krishnamachar.

Renaming the Wankhede Stadium could open the floodgates for other such sports venue sponsorships (Image: Reuters)

Baseline Ventures is looking at it as a beginning. “As long as it is a positive start, it is a great move,” said Mishra. “Five years can turn into 10 eventually.”

Regardless of whether his company wins the naming rights or not, if any deal goes through it will be a huge thing for the industry, he added. “The organisations that own the stadiums would be plush with funds, which would help in the upkeep of those arenas. You need a good private-public partnership which is structured so that it is a win-win for both sides.”

Mishra chose not to divulge his company’s marketing plans if they win the naming rights but admitted that exposure was a vital part of the discussions. “For any successful venture, you do need to know beforehand how many days the venue will be used, otherwise how does one sell? The grounds are not used 365 days in a year but if we can create an ecosystem where naming is happening, that stadium is also marketed. The idea is not just to name it but also how you can market it well.”

If the Wankhede deal goes through, both Mishra and Shetty believe it will break open the floodgates for more such stadium sponsorships in India. “These are things that can become priceless,” said Mishra. “If it becomes an X Wankhede Stadium – that X becomes so prominent. Over a period of time, it starts getting known as that brand X’s stadium, so there is a huge opportunity. It is something other stadiums should explore as well.”

Shetty added, “Once one or two people do it, everybody will explore it because it is big money. This concept is very common abroad. If it comes here and is successful, it will catch up.”