Marketing opportunities in emerging sports leagues of India

How to sports leagues in India offer new marketing opportunities?
In India, the concept of sports has shifted dramatically over the last decade. The advent of numerous sports leagues has transformed India into a multi-sporting nation. Thanks to the success of IPL, many sports leagues like the Indian Super League (ISL), Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), Premier Badminton League (PBL), Pro Wrestling League (PWL), and Pro […]

In India, the concept of sports has shifted dramatically over the last decade. The advent of numerous sports leagues has transformed India into a multi-sporting nation. Thanks to the success of IPL, many sports leagues like the Indian Super League (ISL), Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), Premier Badminton League (PBL), Pro Wrestling League (PWL), and Pro Volleyball League (PVL) have also emerged. 

Sport is no longer just a pastime but rather a business just like any other. Today, sports serve two functions: first, as a forum for marketers to create marketing opportunities, and second, to truly create value for sports fans. These two goals complement each other and help both the business and industry as well as sports fans.

Sports leagues are a product tailored for an ever-changing market, with fans as customers and experts as opinion-makers. As these leagues are becoming mega-events promoted on a large scale, with millions of dollars at stake, there is a layer of business involved in the operation of the leagues.

Following a strong start, the new sports economy must accelerate, take a bigger leap, and scale up quickly. Vigorous fan engagement services, professional coaching, training facilities, merchandising, and an off-season engagement strategy are some of the uncharted avenues for brands to jump into. Any sport’s popularity begins and ends with “fan acceptability.” As a result, if a specific focus area must be identified, it will undoubtedly be fan acceptability for marketers. Fans affect the sport’s ability and its league to raise additional revenue from gate collections, publicity rights, and merchandise sales and sponsorships. 

With the newer leagues gaining traction, let us look at the opportunities that stare right at the brands to capture the market.

High potential for growth

The ICC Cricket World Cup and league-based events such as the IPL, PKL, and ISL drove a 30% increase in Indian sports viewership (TV). Sports consumption in India is increasing, with leagues and international sports gaining traction across multiple platforms (TV, in-stadium, and the internet). A significant chunk of this growth is driven by the emerging sports leagues showing that more and more people are getting hooked to these year-on-year. Brands can seize this opportunity by being present where their audience is. 

For instance, the Indian Super League (ISL) had an incredible total TV audience of 429 million in its inaugural season in 2014; viewership rose by 26% year on year. ISL not only drew audiences to TV but also to the stadium. The total attendance in ISL’s first season was 24,357, which was only slightly less than the world’s most significant football leagues (Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League).

The first season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) in 2014 drew 435 million viewers, and viewership grew 20% year on year in the second season and 35% year on year in the third season. The Pro Wrestling League (PWL) had an average of 31 million viewers a day during its first season in 2015.

Sports leagues help with reaching new micro-geographies

The emerging leagues have been successful at capturing newer and previously unexplored territories. This has created a perfect scenario for sports marketers who want to venture into uncharted territory and appeal to a nearly untapped market. Merchandising is a way that brands can use to monetise their fans’ increasing loyalty in these new geographies. 

Let us take the example of ISL. Apart from well-known footballing hotspots like Kolkata and Goa, the ISL has enlisted non-traditional footballing locations like Guwahati, Kerala, Pune, and Delhi. 

Unique opportunity to reach a female audience

Even though sports viewing is considered a male dominant arena, Indian Sports leagues have a high proportion of female viewership. In the first season of ISL, women and children accounted for nearly 57% of the estimated 429 million viewers. To further elucidate, 39% of PKL viewers are females. The Hockey India League has a 35% female viewership. 

Several advertisers and sponsors have already begun to capitalize on these patterns. For example, Zivame, an online lingerie shop, collaborated with U Mumba, a Pro-Kabaddi team, to support a cause emphasizing the importance of preserving women’s dignity. Other female-oriented brands are expected to follow suit.

Teams and sports organizations are also aware of this reality and attempt to gain female viewership and fandom. Women’s cricket and football competitions are being held concurrently; for example, the ICC Twenty20 Cricket World Cup was held concurrently for both men’s and women’s teams. Several teams are also preparing to create women’s sports academies. Based on market enthusiasm, this pattern of women following and participating in sports is likely to continue.

Access to diverse broadcasting platforms

With the growth of numerous sports leagues, the sports broadcasting landscape in India has changed drastically. Broadcasters are constantly looking to diversify their portfolios beyond cricket with sports such as golf, tennis, badminton, boxing, and kabaddi. 

For instance, Star India and Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) are fiercely vying for sports assets. SPN announced the purchase of Ten Sports from ZEE17 in August 2016 to diversify its portfolio.

Apart from traditional mediums, digital sports consumption is rapidly increasing, prompting broadcasters to develop and deploy online content distribution systems.

As a result, any brand associated with these new leagues gets visibility on large broadcasters. This provides a massive opportunity for brands to build equity in consumer’s minds. It also enables them to become a top-of-the-mind recall brand.

Brand integration with sports leagues come with lower costs

The emerging sports leagues like football, kabaddi, wrestling, and so on are still in their nascent stage. Putting marketing dollars into emerging sports is traditionally thought to be riskier by brands because “the business case hasn’t necessarily been proven.” Hence, it is a blue ocean for brands. They can even get the first-mover advantage. 

Since the premiums of these emerging leagues have not caught up with cricket, the marketing cost for brands is significantly lower. This is an excellent opportunity for startups and niche brands to expand their audience base at a lower price. As the momentum builds and the number of success stories grows, it seems that now is the best time for brands in all industries to be bold and involved.

Engagement through social media

The majority of the team’s efforts in these emerging leagues are focused on building a loyal fan base, which can effectively help monetize the brand. A large fan base means higher ticket and merchandise sales which will be nothing but beneficial for a brand involved with the teams. Furthermore, it is the enthusiastic fans who hold the sport and the teams alive and thus form a significant factor for success (along with on-field performance). 

It is thrilling to see the level of engagement within fans for the teams of these emerging leagues. Such engagement is hard to cultivate—another opportunity for the brands to acquire customers by supporting their idolized team.

For example, Delhi Dynamos, an ISL team, has a group of its most devoted fans called Dynamos Ultras, a voluntary fan club for the team, generating additional community support. Apart from being on the field for the match, fans circulated pamphlets, made posters and maps, and chanted for the team and its players to display their support. The community is very involved on social media, posting football team news and snippets with other fans. Any brand that sponsors Delhi Dynamos gets an instant entry into this loyal fan group’s marketing agenda, and that too with no marketing cost!

Landing a social message

It is not unseen for brands to couple their marketing with cues of social upliftment to gain goodwill. Some of these emerging leagues provide excellent avenues for brands to land a social message while marketing and showing the audience that they care. This is because many of these leagues are actively associated with social upliftment initiatives. The moment a brand supports one of these leagues, it becomes automatically associated with these social initiatives.

For example, ISL aims to recognize talented boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 14. The league has mandated that all teams invest INR 2 crore per year in grassroots football growth. ISL also collaborates with the Reliance Foundation (Young Champs program), which offers full-time residential scholarships to promising footballers aged 11–14.

Similarly, Ranchi Rays, a HIL franchise, has announced its intention to provide infrastructure and a forum for local talent. The Dabang Mumbai team has also organized a preparatory camp for club coaches and young boys and girls from Maharashtra, Goa, and Gujarat who want to pursue a career in hockey.

Dabang Delhi, the PKL franchise in Delhi, organizes camps in rural Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to find talented players. The Bengaluru Bulls franchise intends to promote kabaddi and cultivate talent at the grassroots level by launching a kabaddi academy and a school activation program.

Government support will help most sports leagues grow

The emerging sports are receiving a lot of attention from the government of India through initiatives like ‘Khelo India’. Khelo India is a national program for sports development. It aims to enhance India’s sports culture at the grassroots level through organized talent recognition, formal sporting competitions, and infrastructure development. 

This Government of India initiative was launched in 2016–17 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term, supported by Sports Ministers Vijay Goel and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Judging by this trend, the growth in emerging sports is likely to propel. As the market for these leagues matures with government support, investment in emerging leagues will become less and less risky. 

Conclusion

Sport is an incredible platform for brands to showcase themselves. Beginning with the success of the IPL, many new sports leagues have now ushered their way into the Indian sports ecosystem. Although many of them are far from maturity, they do provide lucrative marketing opportunities. Some of these opportunities include reaching wider audiences, lower costs, government support, the chance to associate with social causes, and so on. 

Brands are slowly recognizing the merit of these new opportunities. With the changing landscape, it is becoming inevitable for brands to step forward and make their presence felt in the emerging sports leagues. 

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