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Sushil's brand new appeal

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What is it about the Champ and Co that has advertisers queuing up?

After a proud Sushil Kumar bagged a silver medal at the Olympics this year, a fan posed the most evident question to him on his Twitter page: what was it that helped him earn a silver medal but lose a gold? The Indian world champion wrestler humbly replied: "Silver match I played well, and in gold match Japani player played well (sic)". There is no mention of the stomach bug that he caught right after the semifinals, and certainly no excuses on how it failed his strength.

Whether the athlete's humility would earn him accolades inside the arena is doubtful, but the brand world is sparing no time in cashing in on a quality they say is rare in the brazen sports fraternity. Offers have already begun pouring in post the London medal win from across sectors with Kumar's endorsement charges increasing in parallel. The wrestler who started off with a modest Rs 30 lakh as his fee per endorsement post-Beijing, is now raking in anywhere between Rs 75 lakh and one crore. After Mountain Dew, Eicher tractors and National Egg Co-ordination Committee, more brands are queuing up.

Percept Sports & Entertainment, which manages his endorsements, said it is confident of closing in on at least two deals for Sushil with an automobile company and a deodorant brand. Another fitness training centre, which is about to come up nationally, has been waiting to sign him up as its brand ambassador. "Even rival auto companies are asking for Sushil, " says Joji George, CEO of Percept.

Advertisers are, however, shrugging off all the attention with little sign of surprise. The silver medal has certainly bolstered Sushil's brand image, but underlining the Olympic wins as his sole claim to fame would be a gross understatement, media experts say. It is Sushil's honest nature and tenacity that make him popular among brands.

"Sushil Kumar was an icon even before he earned the medal at the Olympics this year. Although this win has now transformed him into a legend, " says George. So far-reaching is his popularity that advertisers do not hesitate to associate monikers like "the Tendulkar of wrestling" with him.

"With Sushil, brands find the emotional connect. There has not been one out of the several brands that he endorses that has dropped him since the 2008 Olympics. He will walk the extra mile to ensure that he gives his best to the brand he endorses, " George adds. In an age where arrogance and a high-fetched attitude defines the brand value for most celebrities, Sushil's humble bent comes across as a boon.

If brands are riding high on Sushil's medal wins and amiable nature, advertisers are not overlooking others like Yogeshwar Dutt, Mary Kom and Gagan Narang either, so far out of the endorsement spotlight, for clutter-breaking campaigns. With most top Bollywood stars and cricketers burdened with four to five brands, signing up Olympians would be a pleasant change even for consumers, experts say.

Mary Kom's endorsement management agency IOS Sports and Entertainment is busy lining up special appearances and brand associations for the boxer. The agency closed in on a deal with a cement company last week that will fetch Mary Kom Rs 35 lakh per year.

She is looking at furthering her association with the combat sport with Shilpa Shetty's husband Raj Kundra in talks with her to be a part of his reality show Super Fight League Challengers (SFL). For Yogeshwar Dutt too a couple of endorsement deals are in the offing.

Ace shuttler Saina Nehwal is already an established face among brands and for shooter Gagan Narang, the Olympics has changed his image overnight with his endorsement charges to shoot up from the current Rs 10-20 lakh to Rs 25-50 lakh. "Visibility of sports outside cricket has increased with a growing interest in sports like shooting and wrestling. Before the Olympics, hardly anyone knew these players, " says Neerav Tomar, MD & CEO of the company.

These athletes may have finally found a place in the spotlight but advertisers say it may require more than just consistent performance to keep the interest going. Three years and eleven months may be too long to sustain brand engagements, they say. "If it were all about a medal, Abhinav Bindra should have been flooded with endorsements after he won a gold medal at the Olympics 2008, but sadly that was not the case. These players need to constantly remain in public view to be able to demand greater attention, " says Bunty Sajdeh, CEO, Cornerstone Sport & Entertainment.

Public appeal is another factor that delights brands most. After India won the World Cup last year, it was Virat Kohli and not Sachin Tendulkar or MS Dhoni who bagged maximum endorsements, Sajdeh says. Clearly, performance and position is not all that brands are looking for.

"It can never be compared with cricket as cricket matches are a lot more frequent. It will be their individual personality rather than just the victory that will make them recognised, " says brand expert Harish Bijoor. For now, however, the London medals have clearly given these athletes a muchneeded boost, and like he did at the opening ceremony it is Sushil Kumar who is leading the pack.

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