Can Neeraj Chopra's brand break the mould?
Cricket dominates 90 percent of viewership and ad spends in sport, but Neeraj Chopra’s unstoppable run is making heads turn
As India awaits Neeraj Chopra’s defence of his Asian Games gold at Hangzhou, there is complete appreciation of the distance he has travelled from being the rising javelin star of Jakarta 2018. His Olympic gold at Tokyo and World title mean India’s track and field athletes finally have feats beyond PT Usha’s missed bronze of Los Angeles 1984 to look up to. His charming looks, athletic build and honest-to-goodness persona have made Chopra, 25, the polestar among Indian athletes at Hangzhou.
Ahead of his medal event, Chopra’s Instagram handle announces his newest brand association with smartwatch makers Noise, who have Virat Kohli as their other brand ambassador. In between India’s medal rush at the games, Chopra shows up in TV commercials, dripping sweat while promoting the upcoming cricket World Cup for Coca Cola’s energy drink Limca Sportz.
After his golden 87.58 meters throw at Tokyo, Chopra’s Instagram following has leapfrogged to 7.1 million from 143K. His brand endorsement portfolio has seen a 10x jump with more than 16 brands from Under Armour, YouTube, Tata AIA to Gillette inking deals.
“The fundamental reality about Olympic athletes in India is their biggest jump in market value comes with an Olympic medal. With Neeraj, that happens to be a gold, that to in athletics, a truly global sport. All his global and multinational brand deals have been organic,” said Divyanshu Singh, COO at JSW Sports, Chopra’s managers. “He attracts the appeal for being part of a very rare club.”
After Tokyo, Chopra rode the wave. He would meet a range of dignitaries from the Prime Minister to Abhinav Bindra, India’s first individual Olympic gold winner; make an appearance on Kaun Banega Crorepati and prime-time comedy shows.
With his consistent run – Diamond league 2022 andand gold at World Championships – Chopra has shown he’s here to stay. The average javelin athlete competes till his mid-thirties. Going by that yardstick, he has another decade in hand to leave an even greater impact on the sport and on India.
The track and field icon currently commands an annual endorsement fee in the range of ₹4-5 crore per brand and his managers believe this will see a 30-40 percent jump closer to Paris Olympics next year.
COMPETING WITH CRICKET?
Does this make Neeraj Chopra the trendsetting Indian athlete, who will give established cricket stars a run for their money in the endorsement bazaar? History suggests, it’s a tall order. The sheer eyeballs that cricket commands give Indian cricketers a massive head start.
Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, a Grand Slam winning tennis tag-team of their time, full of ebullience and chest pumps, couldn’t do much to disturb the apple cart. Bindra created history but his maverick zeal to excel didn’t touch a chord with the masses. Bhiwani boxer Vijender Singh with his moment of Olympic glory showed promise. But after turning pro, his fame proved to be short lived.
Two-time Olympic medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar, even before he was caught on the wrong side of law, had limited mass appeal. Only PV Sindhu, twice Olympic medallist, a World badminton champion and former World No 2 took tall strides to be ranked among top-earning Indian sportspersons from endorsements.
Kroll’s celebrity brand survey 2022 placed Sindhu and Chopra in top 25 and joint 6th among Indian sportsmen, with estimated earnings of $26.5 million. They were behind Hardik Pandya, Rohit Sharma, Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and Kohli, who topped the list with earnings of $176.9 million.
“Comparisons with cricket will be wrong. Let’s be honest, so many people don’t even know about Neeraj’s event. It’s not the hockey of the pre-70’s or the cricket of today. To be able to stand out in the middle of the cricket of today itself is great,” said veteran ad-man Piyush Pandey.
Indian cricket’s sustained popularity – they dominate 90 percent of total sports ad spends and viewership - allows today’s cricketers to become overnight stars. In sharp contrast, many of Chopra’s medal events outside of Olympics, Asian and Commonwealth games take place in Europe during non-friendly viewing hours in India.
“There’s no doubt that visibility is very important for marketability,” Singh agreed. “We plan to bring some athletics to India so that the Indian masses get more education about it. In Neeraj’s case, he’s trying to be a hero, driving on the magnanimity of his achievements. Many Indians are waking up at night, and those who don’t, the social media buzz that follows, from a topical and relevance perspective, it ticks all the boxes.”
A licensing and merchandising strategy is in the works for Chopra. And a documentary is scheduled to be released prior to the Paris Olympics. A few equity-led conversations with B2C brands are in progress. A Haryana based OTT platform could soon celebrate the Haryanvi boy who became a global hero.
With Sindhu’s career having hit a rough patch and Chopra riding the wave, he’s emerged as the No 1 non-cricket sporting face in the country.
“If I was a guide to his manager, I would tell him, 'read his life story, then choose a brand'. Place him and choose scripts that match his personality,” said Pandey. “He’s got magic in him. He must do things that add to that magic.”