PV Sindhu is a big name in Indian sports. She is the first ever Indian woman to win an Olympic silver medal, the current world No 5 in the badminton women’s singles rankings, just 22 years of age and someone who is yet to peak in her playing career. Sindhu is the new poster girl of badminton in India, displacing Saina Nehwal, who in spite of being world No 1 less than 18 months ago, has since slipped down the pecking order following a knee injury.
Sindhu has also become a big brand after her Olympic silver win last August. An Economic Times report published on Monday said that she is second only to Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli when it comes to earnings from brand endorsements. Sindhu charges brands anywhere between Rs 1 crore and Rs 1.25 crore for a single day of endorsement-related activities, according to Baseline Ventures, the sports management firm that represents her. That valuation is second only to Kohli, who charges Rs 2 crore per day, according to the report.
Kohli is one of the best batsmen in the world at the moment. He is swatting records like flies and, in cricket crazy India, he has assumed a position in the public eye that was previously reserved for legends of the sport such as Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni. For Sindhu, who does not play cricket, to be second-best to Kohli in market value, is a huge deal.
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But is that really the case? It sounds brilliant on paper – here’s a 22-year-old woman playing a sport apart from cricket, and is now rubbing shoulders with Virat Kohli when it comes to market value. What a story!
Industry experts, however, have a different story to tell. Scroll.in spoke to at least half a dozen professionals in sports marketing, brands and management, who either completely refuted the figures that were quoted in the ET report, or expressed their doubts over it. The opinions on the reported figures ranged from “slightly unrealistic”, to “absolutely nowhere near what she should command”, to just “trash”.
“I personally don’t think [the figures are] right,” said Deepthi Bopaiah, executive director at GoSports Foundation, a non-profit organisation that supports athletes such as gymnast Dipa Karmakar and para-athlete Deepa Malik. “I don’t know if Sindhu is paid that much, but I don’t think she is. I think it’s a long-term deal for which she is charging that much and not for a single appearance.”
While Bopaiah was unsure about the figure, she did say that whatever the case, it was nice to see someone other than a cricketer get the limelight.
“That number [of Rs 1.25 crore] is a stretch,” said Nitin Khanna, founding partner of Sportoid, a sports management firm which, according to its website, has managed leading cricketers. “It is more than a few cricketers in the Indian team [command],” he said. “That’s why it is difficult to believe.”
To better understand these figures, let’s first figure out how these endorsement deals work. Athletes usually get paid by a brand to commit themselves to that company for a certain amount of time in a year. It could be for half a day, one day, two days, four days, and so on, in a year. In that time, the athlete is at the brand’s disposal and could be asked to take part in a number of activities, such as shooting advertisements, or appearing at promotional and meet-and-greet events, where a celebrity interacts with the public.
The value of endorsement deals depend on how you structure it, said Neerav Tomar, managing director of IOS Sports and Entertainment, a sports management company that represents the likes of Nehwal, cricketer Suresh Raina, and boxers Mary Kom and Vijender Singh. Tomar did not want to comment on Sindhu’s endorsement fee, but revealed how much his own athletes command. “Mary Kom and Vijender Singh are both in a bracket of about Rs 75 lakh to Rs 1 crore for two days on an annual basis,” he said. “Suresh Raina is in the bracket of Rs 1 crore to Rs 1.25 crore for two days per annum. Saina Nehwal is in the bracket of Rs 1.5 crore. These are realistic figures.”
What about the other Indian medallist at the Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik? A communications professional who works closely with Malik, but did not wish to be identified, expressed surprise at the figure commanded by Sindhu. “Sakshi and Sindhu both did very well, but I don’t think Sindhu did drastically better than Sakshi to get that kind of money,” he said. I think [Baseline is] lying and also making other athletes feel very undervalued and that’s very sad. How do you tell Sakshi Malik that I don’t think anyone is getting a crore a day? Is the silver medal really worth a crore a day?”
Creating a buzz
But why would a sports management firm lie about its client’s valuation? Quite simply, to try and set a high price for its client in the market. “A lot of agencies inflate rates to create a buzz [around the athlete],” said a sports talent management consultant who did not wish to be identified. “They are doing that so that her market value for the next brand or deal they get is automatically higher. Marketing professionals and sports agents do this often.”
The inflation strategy is also used by companies and agents to filter the right brands for their clients. It helps them determine which brands can afford their client and which can’t. “If I am representing PV Sindhu, I don’t want every brand to be with her,” the consultant said. “I would probably want the top five potential high-end brands who think that Sindhu is the property they should invest in for the next 10 years. A top-end brand would definitely want to be involved [regardless of the price].”
Another case in point would be Virat Kohli’s reported record-breaking Rs 110-crore eight-year deal with Puma. Industry experts said it’s unlikely the cricketer will get the entire amount. “It could be Rs 110 crore with different riders, which include license fees, merchandising revenue, bonuses if he becomes world No 1, scores 10,000 runs, etc,” said an industry expert. “Many times, the deal is structured in such a manner that the potential will be Rs 110 crore. But you need 20 different things to happen for that potential to be reached. Everyone is party to it because it essentially inflates the total value.”
One of the reasons why this inflation strategy works is because the sports marketing industry in India is still niche and has no structure to it. “Someone who is experienced [in the industry] is quoting whatever they feel like,” the expert said. “They don’t have measurable instruments or measurable marketing activities that can help derive a player’s value. Or a trajectory of growth – if you invest in this player, this is the growth trajectory you will get. It’s a huge gamble.”
No one to question
Do the people who gamble get away with it? It can’t be so easy, right? Surely, the brands would know what’s going on? Not quite. “Sports marketing is generally a very disorganised market,” said another industry expert. “No one questions anyone. Everyone is looking for these stories of very high values – how the [Indian] market is at par with international figures and how Indian athletes have arrived and such. It feeds into the larger narrative and not too many people are asking any questions about the authenticity of the information.”
No one questions anyone. Not even the media. The media is ready to publish a story that sounds great without verifying it, experts said. “It’s just people using the press for marketing, that’s all. Everyone is doing it. Startups are doing it for valuation. They tell the media that some company is interested in buying them. If someone is willing to publish it without looking at the paperwork, why wouldn’t they feed the story? Many of the companies have deals with journalists and news publications. Sometimes the news publications are shareholders in these companies. You can read between the line as to what the interests and the conflicts are.”
It’s unbelievable to imagine that something that is ethically so wrong seems to be going on in broad daylight. But then again, if it’s a private company indulging in this inflation, who is going to refute it? “The only way it can happen is if it’s a public company, which has to list all its material contracts and this [inflation] amounts to a misstatement or something,” said an expert. “But in a private company, if you’re selling me something for Rs 10 and you’re telling the world you’ve sold it for Rs 50, who is the harmed party?”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the hustling. The best player agents are the best hustlers. “If [an agent] is saying [the athlete’s value is] Rs 1 crore, he can actually crack down on a brand, put them under pressure and say that you have to pay Rs 1 crore for the athlete,” the expert added. “It’s nothing more than a hustling game between agents.”
Legally, companies or agents who inflate their clients’ market value are in the clear. The laws aren’t very defined and the whole industry is so disorganised that no one has bothered to look into it. “Legally, it will always be argued that there is nobody harmed, so if there’s no harm, there is no foul,” said Nandan Kamath, principal lawyer at LawNK, a sports and intellectual property law firm.
But this inflation could potentially cause a disruption in the industry.
“If it is true that there is deliberate misstatement of figures, it ought to be a concern because it affects the integrity of the industry. Other athletes are also watching and may end up having expectations not grounded in reality and that puts pressure on the system,” Kamath said, which brings us back to the conundrum that Malik’s team would have in explaining Sindhu’s endorsement fee to her.
“Also, the sports industry is subject to external competition in the endorsement space and inflation may just mean some brands opt out of sport and use Bollywood or other options instead,” Kamath added.
Inflation of market value could also have its ramifications on the athletes themselves. “It leads to misallocation and possibly under-allocation,” Kamath said. “In many cases, it actually may not be doing any favour to the athlete or the industry.” The perception of value is potentially putting the athletes out of reach of genuine parties. “That is why Sindhu has only three or four brands,” said a sports talent manager, who requested anonymity. “There are no TVCs (television commercials), no campaigns running. It affects the athlete overall. You have to be realistic in setting the athlete’s value.”
However, Baseline Ventures, the firm that represents Sindhu, told Scroll.in that the shuttler is already endorsing 10 brands. “There are three deals that are yet to be announced out of the 10,” said Tuhin Mishra, managing director and co-founder of Baseline. “I cannot talk about that because it is not in the official domain. Until the brands announce it themselves, it would not be ethical on my part to be talking about it.” According to reports in the media, Sindhu currently endorses Bank of Baroda, Myntra, Moov, and Ojasvita.
When told that industry experts were refusing to buy Sindhu’s endorsement fee that he had quoted, Mishra was dismissive of their comments. “People can say whatever they want,” he said. “We do not want to get into that kind of discussion. A lot of people, without having basic knowledge about how these things operate, start commenting on it, which is fine.”
In fact, Mishra told Scroll.in that the values quoted in the ET report were outdated. “I am just on my way to meet with a client, and the values being discussed are much higher than what have been quoted. What value was quoted [in the ET report] was an earlier quote, it is outdated.”
Is he telling the truth? Are the others quoted in this story telling the truth? It’s his word against theirs and, unfortunately, there’s no way anyone can do a fact check.