FIFA U-17 World Cup: Brands bet on crowds more than the game

International FIFA associate Adidas (in picture), along with national presenting sponsor Hero MotoCorp, has targeted its ads at young urban adults.
After years of watching FIFA’s rising popularity in the country from the sidelines, brands are testing the waters with the ongoing FIFA Under-17 World Cup. While advertising has been low-key, a mix of international and national brands associated with the tournament such as Adidas, Hyundai, Bank of Baroda, Coca-Cola are trying to craft a narrative around the pride of a host nation, the rising power of football fandom in India and the courage of its fledgling talent on the field. The objective: Craft an identity for the brand around the sport.

Football in India has for long had a dichotomous existence; while fans for the game have grown manifold, making the sport the most watched game after cricket, Indian talent on the field is a long way away from global standards. Brands associating with the game are aware of the reality and are playing it safe by aligning themselves more closely with story of the viewers rather than that of the players.

Rakesh Bhatia, general manager, head (marketing and WMS), Bank of Baroda, says that they decided to associate with the tournament because it gave them direct access to the young. While it may not be anything like the Indian Premier League or even Pro Kabaddi or Indian Super League, the U-17 has a sizeable amount of followers. 

Besides, it is not just the tournament that the brands are hoping to ride on. There is a growing interest in football among young urban male and female audiences (as data from BARC indicate) and brands believe that high decibel global events offer an opportunity to build a long-term association with the sport and its fans. 

Soon after the tournament was announced, Pawan Munjal, chairman, managing director and CEO, Hero MotoCorp had said, “Football is a rapidly growing sport in India, particularly among schoolkids. Our association with the FIFA U-17 World Cup will go a long way to further popularising football across India, and I look forward to seeing the future international stars in action.” Hero is also the on-air ‘presenting’ sponsor for the tournament along with LIC, the on-air ‘powered by’ sponsor. 

For brands such as Adidas, the tournament offers up a chance to knit a story around perseverance and sports. For others it is about national pride and about associating with the challenger status of the host nation that is the underdog in the tournament. “Soccer is the world’s No. 1 sport and the second most popular sport in India. The U-17 is backed by the government and we, therefore, see public sector units extending their support. For others, it is the global reach that the sport offers and a brand’s aspiration to reach global audience,” says Vineet Sodhani, CEO, Spatial Access, a media audit agency. 

The tournament has the support of FIFA’s global commercial partners like Adidas, Coca-Cola, Wanda, GAZPROM, Hyundai, Qatar Airways and Visa and the Local Organising Committee (LOC) has managed to rope in six partners in the form of national supporters. Javier Ceppi, LOC FIFA tournament director, FIFA U-17 World Cup India, speaking at the time of the launch, had said that the national supporters have come on board as they see a combination of commercial benefits with a sense of national pride, (and are) supporting something that is historical for the country.

Bhatia adds, “We chose FIFA because PM Modi had given the tournament a mission to contact 11 million kids across the country, engaging their parents as well. We plan to get at least 10 per cent of students to open accounts with us through various engagement activities.”  

Football has been clocking up big viewership numbers for a few years now. It is particularly popular among men but also has a large female viewership. Brands, on-ground and on-air, can hope to reach a wider audience with football than maybe five years back, say experts. Also while the U-17 tournament may not break any viewership records in India yet, it will be telecast in multiple countries helping brands get visibility on the global stage. 

Promise and potential hold out hope for brands, even if the winning ability is low. And this is also the reason, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPN) which holds the rights to all FIFA events, says it is pulling out the stops on promotions. “We knew it (the tournament) isn’t a big revenue driver for us. It’s about the profile of the network as the home of football in India. We have the rights to FIFA events and this time, it’s happening in India, so yes, we’re putting all efforts behind it, but it is not a big draw for advertisers, and it was expected. There are other options around festive time,” says Rohit Gupta, president, network sales and international business, SPN.

The ad rates for the tournament are much lower than competing leagues such as IPL, the average rate for a 10-second spot is expected to be around Rs 1 lakh. But “rate comparisons are not straightforward as some associations are on-air only and some have both the on-air and on-ground components. On-air response has been tepid partly owing to the festive timing and partly due to low buzz. The closure rates are better than other soccer properties in the country,” Sodhani feels. 

Given that the network was conservative in its demands for ad rates, it has managed to get rates pretty close what it quoted, say many. For SPN, the tournament is a way to establish its positioning as the home of Indian football, especially since Star India holds the rights to the Indian Super League and to that end, the network hopes the U-17 would have served its purpose.