BRAND WAGON

A packed TROPHY cabinet is not always necessary for the creation of a top sports brand, writes N. U. ABILASH

Not 40 years, but aeons, separate dynamic BCCI Vice President Lalit Modi and former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly. On the uncompromising views held by the Scotsman — considered along with Manchester United legend Matt Busby as the first of the great football managers — is built an industry of quotations and one-liners. "Those who sell sport, like those selling sex, should be tried for trashing human nature," goes a classic one, about directors of football clubs, from the Shankly production line. Lalit Modi, who recently stated that Team India is the most sponsored sporting brand in the world and whose mission is to turn Team India into the most marketed global sports brand, would boringly disagree.

Modi, of course, was referring to BCCI's two recent multi-million dollar deals concluded with Air Sahara (as team sponsor) and Nike (kit sponsor and owner of merchandising rights for the India shirt) and looking forward to striking a few more of those such as the television, media, hospitality and airlines rights. It might not have mattered that India's last win in the sport's premier tournament, the World Cup, was in 1983 and that the team has no major Test series wins outside the subcontinent after 1986 though they have humbled even the mighty Australians at home during this period. Shankly, of course, was driven by different definitions: "If you are first in sport, you are first. If you are second, you are nothing."

Modi is no freak in this age of sporting brands. He is in the company of Real Madrid President Florentino Perez, who defended thus his `Galacticos' policy of recruiting superstars at the expense of assembling a proper old-fashioned football team: "It is the only possible economic and sporting model for the club. We have higher revenue than expenses and it's an achievement. This model allows us to be independent. We have the best players and the best image in the world."

Perez was speaking when the world knew that the team of superstars had ended a second successive season without silverware. This is a count very likely to increase at the end of this season — quite "an achievement" indeed for a team comprising Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Raul Gonzalez and Robinho, not forgetting that Luis Figo and Michael Owen were also part of the set-up not so long ago. Perez cannot be blamed if he had brushed aside Shankly's thoughts as the rants of a long-dead man — his club overtook Manchester United as the richest sporting club in the world in 2004-05, thanks largely to the exponential leap in merchandising in South East Asia because of the presence of a superstar right-sided midfielder (Beckham), signed by the club in 2003 when another superstar (Figo) already manned the position.

A SPORTS BRAND is created when the sporting identity and image of the team are extended to commercial activities such as merchandising, product endorsements and ownership of television channels and other business such as shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, casinos and pubs. A packed trophy cabinet of important silverware is, in most cases, the genesis of the brand.

Strong local and national belonging and a unique style of team play centred on remarkable individuals are the two other major factors that create a sporting brand. Remember the Nike ad starring the Brazil team prior to the 1998 World Cup? The team assemble to take their flight to France. They are wearing their football kit and decide to kick around in the airport departure lounge. An engrossing exhibition of their fast, fluid, passing game to the rhythm of Samba beats in the background is pictured.

THE MESSAGE is strikingly clear. Just as it was when La Liga giants Barcelona, the symbol of Catalan pride, steered clear of shirt sponsorship because of the club's reluctance to defile the sacrosanct team shirt. The Catalan club has Nike as its kit sponsor, whose logo is on the top right corner of the shirt, the front of which has been kept free of commercial advertising, a trend that will end next season when Ronaldinho and Co. will have the name of an uncommon shirt sponsor, Beijing 2008, emblazoned across the front of their shirts.

IN RARE CASES, and one can imagine Modi being relieved at this piece of information, a successful brand can be created in spite of a poor trophy cabinet. The Boston Red Sox Major League Baseball team built a brand around its 86-year-old quest for a World Series title, which finally ended in 2004.

The grey cells of Red Sox's marketing team, comprising former employees of the world's leading non-sporting brands such as Disney, Coke, Pepsi and McDonald's in a typical American interface between sport and razzmatazz, conjured up the idea and it clicked. The marketing men of rivals New York Yankees — winners of a record 26 World Series titles and the team that made Red Sox regret long-time by buying the legendary Babe Ruth from the Boston team in 1919 — arguably had a much easier job.

UNIMAGINABLE as it may appear, the trend crossed the Atlantic to Shankly's own country. It climaxed in early 2004, when Manchester United hired a former Disney executive as its commercial director. Malcolm Glazer was only a shareholder of the club then. Manchester United's decision came a few years after Florentino Perez revealed that the idea of the `Galacticos' model was born when the club's managers studied Disney's marketing strategy for the film Lion King — not ticket sales, but spin-offs and merchandise, was the main source of revenue.

Given the commercial pulling power of Sachin Tendulkar and the huge global contingent of Indian cricket fans, not too many odds are likely to be against Indian cricket soon going the Mickey and Donald way.