'India is witnessing a sporting revolution' : IMG Reliance COO Ashu Jindal

Last year in a bid to increase its presence in the sports world, Reliance formed a JV with IMG. The aim of the JV, called IMG Reliance, is to among other things create and operate major sports and entertainment assets in the country.

The JV has done deals with different organisations including the Basketball Federation of India (BFI).

It is also taking the Aircel Chennai Open tennis event to the next level.‘s Ashwin Pinto caught up with IMG Reliance COO Ashu Jindal to find out more on the JV‘s plans.


What is the vision for the JV in terms of the impact you see it having on the sports landscape?

India is a sport-loving nation and we are keen on developing and promoting different sports in the country.

In the recent past, the Indian market has witnessed the rise of some of the world‘s strongest sports brands. As India‘s sports landscape grows, we are looking at bringing several successful sports properties to India in addition to creating newer ones tailored to fit the country‘s specific requirements. We will continue to build on the strong foundation and brand equity that India enjoys.

Which are the sports that IMG Reliance is focussing on developing and what are the various strategies being followed?

IMG Reliance will create and operate a variety of sports assets in the country.

As you might know, we have signed a 30-year partnership with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to develop basketball. The BFI has granted IMG Reliance commercial rights, including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights.

We have also signed a 15-year partnership with the All India Football Federation (AIFF). We aim to restructure, overhaul, improve, popularise and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level.

What challenges does the economic slowdown pose for you?

India is currently witnessing a sporting revolution of sorts. Even though the sector might still not have exclusive industry status, the country‘s most powerful business houses seem to have understood the benefits of investing in Indian sports.

The success of the Indian Premier League and more recently the inaugural Indian Formula 1 Grand Prix illustrate the fact that the sports sector will continue to mature. Growth in the media and entertainment industry is expected to be at 14 per cent until 2015, and the entertainment and recreation arenas, including sport will be the greatest beneficiaries.

Organising world class sporting events is IMG Reliance‘s core competency and I am certain that the businesses we operate in will continue to enjoy success in the presence or absence of a slowdown.

On the tennis front, how has IMG Reliance grown the Aircel Chennai Open?

As an organisation, we‘ve done our best to combine our domain expertise with unrivalled experience in promoting, commercialising, operating and distributing large-scale events.

The support of the government of Tamil Nadu, Tamil Nadu Tennis Association and the All India Tennis Association since the tournament‘s inception has been invaluable. In many ways, the Aircel Chennai Open has been successful thanks to a combination of our global and local strengths. We are proud to have been associated with it since its inception and hosted the likes of Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker, Carlos Moya, Richard Krajicek, Patrick Rafter, Yvgeny Kafelnikov, Byron Black and India‘s own Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi.

The fact that the number of spectators attending the tournament in the first round has gone up each year is evidence of the event‘s growing popularity. Chennai‘s tennis fans have given the tournament their unstinting support. Hardly surprising that the world‘s best players love going there because the fans they play in front of are knowledgeable and immensely committed to the game.

Increasingly corporations are moving towards the concept of ‘triple bottom line‘ which is comprised of people, planet and profit

You have seen some tennis events including a WTA one in India close. What are the challenges involved in keeping a tournament financially viable?

Being the largest independent promoter of events and representative of tennis players does not help unless the country you operate in loves the game. Without a doubt, we‘ve done our best to see tennis growing into one of the most popular sports in the city and state.

With the people supporting our efforts, we have a dedicated and experienced team of individuals, both globally and nationally, who work on events like the Aircel Chennai Open.

We are confident that any event planned professionally and executed well will continue to attract sponsorship and advertising. In addition, the Indian markets and populace are now opening up to accept and enjoy non-cricket sports, a fact that is making the growth of events like the Aircel Chennai Open easier.

Has it been harder this year to find sponsors given the economic slowdown?

India has been growing at a robust rate of over eight per cent over the past five years and is expected to grow at over seven per cent for the next decade.

All signs point to a market that is ready and eagerly waiting for additional sports to enter the mainstream, thus making the process of finding sponsors easier. Positive developments such as these, apart from the rising stock of Indian sportspersons and emergence of Indian team owners and organisers on the world sporting scene, have led several exciting new sports events being organised in India.

For Aircel Chennai Open 2012 too, we are very pleased to have Nature Valley, Parle Hide and Seek, Ricoh among others as first-time sponsors in addition to many of the others continuing their sponsorships. It is but safe to presume that the scope for marketing can only grow wider.

How is the Aircel event perceived by viewers in India and abroad vis-a-vis other ATP events?

The Aircel Chennai Open is the longest running tennis event in the country thanks to its popularity among both viewers and tennis stars that look forward to being a part of it year after year.

It has grown to become South Asia‘s premier ATP World Tour event and come a long way since Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won the first edition doubles title in 1996. Though there is still a lot of room for improvement, we stand firm in our resolve to develop the event into one of the world‘s leading tennis championships.

Is tennis finding more acceptance from advertisers looking at targeting affluent audiences?

As a sport, tennis is garnering more and more attention from diverse fronts, especially with increasing high-intensity competition and the participation of some of the world‘s top players.

Advertisers from India and abroad are looking at this as an opportunity to build effective marketing programs, bring their brand into India or take it abroad, and in the process engage with affluent and global sports fan bases around the world.

What are the different ways in which sponsors leverage the Aircel Chennai Open?

Tennis is one of the few global sports that India has doing very well off-late, not only has the sport grown in stature, it has given rise to a number of stars who enjoy celebrity status. Besides that, the Aircel Chennai Open which is in its 17th year has grown to become a marquee ATP event in South Asia which attracts some of the best known and emerging players from across the world.

The sport is a very interesting mix of athleticism and glamour, both of which offer a host of opportunities for partners and sponsors, this, besides the regular benefits of branding and visibility in the media. The tournament takes place every year in the first week of January. It offers brands a platform for launching new products. And owing to the timing of the tournament, the overseas players usually reach around the last week of December, just after Christmas and before new year, so brands associated with the event can use this festive period for a lot of hospitality and entertainment relates activities.

We have come up with a concept of ‘Market Square‘, this is a commercial area within the stadium premises where partners can showcase their offerings and get a captive audience who visit the stadium through the tournament. This apart, depending on the nature of sponsorship, the brands can get time from celebrity players for promotional activities.

In terms of ROI how does tennis compare to other sports?

According to recent numbers from Tam Sports, tennis is the fourth most watched non-cricket sport in India after soccer, wrestling and motorsports.

So, while on the surface this may not seem the most attractive proposition for a brand to be associated with tennis, the fact of the matter is that the other three sports do not have much participation from India and neither does much action taking place here with the only exception being the Indian Grand Prix.

As against that, tennis in India is growing by leaps and bounds, not only do we have the honour of hosting South Asia‘s only ATP event (2012 will be the 17th edition), Indian players are carving a niche for themselves in world tennis - Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna feature among the top 15 doubles players in the world and Somdev Devvarman is one of the most promising stars in the singles arena. From a brand‘s or an investor‘s perspective, a good mix of on-ground opportunities and emerging stars offer a world of opportunities to spread the word, and from that point of view, tennis does offer a bigger bang for the buck!

What does the deal with the AIFF encompass and what is it worth?

IMG Reliance separately signed a 15-year partnership with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the governing body for football (soccer) in India. IMG Reliance, in cooperation with the AIFF, will radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularize and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level.

This agreement grants IMG Reliance all commercial rights to football across all football properties controlled by AIFF including but not limited to the national teams and all current and future professional leagues. It is valued at Rs. 700 crores for a period of 15 years.

How do you see television viewership of AIFF and the Aircel Chennai open growing?

There is no denying that television has a major hand in transforming sports into a profitable business. For many years, sporting events have given advertisers around the world a phenomenal opportunity to showcase their brands to an international audience.

In India too, football and tennis are among the most popular sports, and television audiences continue to grow at a steady pace.

Are advertisers now more receptive to non cricket sports compared to five years back?

As is the case that was highlighted earlier, India is going through a phase where non-cricket sports are gaining more and more importance. Much has changed in the last five years, and sporting events are being marketed as extravaganzas like no other. In a scenario like this, advertisers are eager to use sporting platforms in India.

There is a lot of talk that companies often use sports apart from cricket for CSR rather than looking at an ROI. Do you agree with this?

The relationship between CSR and corporate reporting (ROI being one element of reporting) has evolved and come a long way from what it used to be until a few years back.

Increasingly corporations are moving towards the concept of ‘triple bottom line‘ which is comprised of ‘people, planet and profit‘, with people meaning the development the society within which a corporation functions. Given this, a lot of companies are now putting money into sports and development of sports at the grassroots level which could be considered a contribution towards the welfare of the society.

So if this were to be seen from the point-of-view of the new reporting framework, this investment would be contributing directly towards the bottom line of the organisation. However, even in the traditional view of ROI, the sports sponsorship market is evolving and with so many options for sponsorship, firms are now recognising the benefit to their brands in associating with world class, professionally managed sports events in India, in all sports.

Are you looking at cricket at all?

As an organisation, our areas of expertise are diverse and wide ranging. We are always open to developing new opportunities in different sporting disciplines and cricket is no exception. We‘ve worked with the world‘s top cricketing nations including India, where the game will always rate highly in the hearts of sports fans. We continue to look at exciting prospects in the future.

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