Nineteen-year-old javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra recently became the first Indian track-and-field athlete to get an endorsement deal after he was signed on by American sports beverage manufacturer Gatorade on a four-year contract going up to 2021.
To put things into context, the only other active Indian sportsperson that PepsiCo, which is Gatorade’s parent company, has on its roster of brand ambassadors in India is Rio Olympics silver medallist PV Sindhu. Internationally, Gatorade has athletes such as Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi and Serena Williams on its roster.
Gatorade has said that Chopra will be visiting its sports science institute in Illinois, United States, during the term of the partnership to work on his training and match-day nutrition. “The move is a reiteration of Gatorade India’s commitment to encourage upcoming athletes and partner with them on their athletic journey by helping them improve performance by delivering proper hydration and nutrition,” the company said in a press release.
Moving away from colas
While the deal sounds great for a young athlete like Chopra, who is only just starting to make his mark on the global stage, industry experts believe PepsiCo India’s decision to sign on athletes with their sports drink rather than their cola was a deliberate tactic, especially after the Virat Kohli pull-out.
Just over a month ago, the Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli had decided not to renew his contract with PepsiCo India. Kohli had earlier hinted that he does not want to endorse any product that he himself would not consume because of health reasons.
The cricketer endorsed Pepsi cola for six years prior to the break-up. “Gatorade are trying to get more aggressive in the endorsement space because a lot of athletes now are not endorsing soft drinks,” said Dhruv Mullick, an independent sports marketing and management consultant. “Gatorade could not sign Virat because his sports-drink category was blocked by Royal Challenge, which is United Spirits’s sports drink under surrogate branding,” he added.
When brands lose out on someone big like Kohli, they can also take a moral high-ground by saying they are investing in younger, less popular athletes not just to get mileage out of their eventual achievements but also to help them get to their goals, experts said. “It’s great PR for your brand but it will be interesting to see if Gatorade are looking at this as a long-term partnership or just to get cut-through value,” said a marketing and advertising professional who did not wish to be named since he wasn’t authorised to speak with the media.
Signing a young athlete like Chopra is also good marketing ploy for brands such as Gatorade since it is a more cost-effective investment for them. While the value of the deal was not revealed by Gatorade or JSW Sports, experts said the company would have signed him for a fraction of the fee that they paid someone like Kohli or Sindhu.
According to industry estimates, an athlete such as Chopra would be commanding a maximum of Rs 15 lakh per year as an endorsement fee. “It’s a good creative and cost-effective way for brands like Gatorade to start getting into sports,” said Mullick. “A sport like track-and-field fits the bill a lot better with a sports drink than what cricket does.”
Mullick added that he does not expect Gatorade to shoot television commercials with Chopra like they did with Sindhu. “I think they will use him quite well with on-ground activations such as meet-and-greets, and product placements.”
The Field reached out to PepsiCo India with a questionnaire on the specifics of the deal, including what the company plans to do with Chopra in terms of marketing and advertising, and whether the Kohli episode had forced them to change their strategy in terms of which brand they would be signing athletes under.
PepsiCo India replied that they were “looking for credible sources of authority” whom consumers can trust in categories such as health and nutrition. The statement added that the brand will build on “the sources of authority model” with PV Sindhu and Neeraj Chopra for sports science with Gatorade.
Break the barrier?
Will this deal break the barrier in terms of young, non-cricket athletes getting endorsements in India? “I’m still not very convinced if it’s really going to open the bucket for a big windfall of endorsements outside cricketers,” said Mullick. “You will see one-off deals like this but otherwise it’s very difficult,” he added.
Mustafa Ghouse, CEO of JSW Sports – the organisation which manages Neeraj Chopra – admitted that it is challenging to make brands see value in investing outside cricket, but said that the perception is slowly changing. “Some brands are aware of other sports but obviously there is a limitation in terms of the visibility and popularity of those sports,” Ghouse, who manages athletes from sports such as wrestling, boxing and track-and-field, said. “There are challenges that we need to work around when those discussions happen. But by and large, I feel the awareness levels are increasing and you’re seeing brands being a lot more receptive to other sports.”