Moneyball: Money chases running
The moolah that marathon is now attracting could give many other established sports a huge complex

Recently, Sachin Tendulkar had a serious competition during a press conference. As brand ambassador for IDBI Federal Life Insurance marathons, he was the cynosure of all eyes while he talked about the need for fitness and a healthy India. But soon he was joined on stage by 21 others, achievers in their own right, but normal folks from different walks of life who had discovered running for various reasons, but ended up embracing it to emerge as champions.

The gathering included a couple – Sangita and Sunil Shetty – who were participating in a 48-hour ultra-marathon to run into the Guinness Book of World Records as the first husband-wife duo to do it. Nobody can even sleep continuously for 48 hours, quipped an astounded Sachin, all praise and admiration for the pair, and the others like Shibani, the first kidney transplant survivor to complete a 21k half-marathon.

While the revolution of distance running that has spread within India has been discussed frequently, the money that this sport – or lifestyle, as one can term it – is now attracting, could give many other established sports a huge complex. If the launch of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008 can be treated as the landmark year for ushering in a new era of sports leagues and sportainment, the first edition of Standard Chartered Mumbai International Marathon (SCMM) in 2004 set the trend for the running revolution.

Inspired by the London marathon and organised by Procam International, the Mumbai run has evolved into one of the leading marathons in the world. And when a top industrialist – none other than Anil Ambani – started competing in the early years, it provided the impetus for a lot of others from the professional world to treat running with respect.

The last decade has witnessed marathons, half-marathons, 10K, 5K runs sprout in nearly all Tier I and II cities. At last count, there were over 700 running events across the country with some major ones in the metros. While many depend on registration fee for survival, the growing interest of big corporates in associating with the marathons has seen big money come into the sport.

The benchmark was set by Standard Chartered which, after 14 years, has discontinued its title sponsorship deal for the 2018 edition. But the organisers aren’t sweating much as the Tata Group has taken over the baton from Stanchart in a multi-crore 10-year sponsorship deal. Big marathons are not alien to this conglomerate, as the software giant Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) is the title sponsor for the New York City Marathon, the largest in the world, and the Amsterdam Marathon. In India, TCS also sponsors the 10K run in Bangalore. TCS’ competitors, Wipro and Infosys, are also associated with marathons, while Airtel from the telecom sector has an event running in Delhi for 12 years now and another one in Hyderabad.

Considering that the sponsorship cost of each of these events running into crores, it is easy to ascertain that distance running can easily be amongst the top five sports-related activities money-wise. With the major shoes and apparel brands like Nike, Adidias, Asics, and others all concentrating on creating special lines, the high interest levels of individual participation in this sport ensures that even companies associated with health and nutrition are also ready to rake in the benefits.

With each participant willing to open up their wallets for various services and products, the total spend by each enthusiast is making brands salivate at the thought of getting even a small slice of the pie. While the marathon would be over in few hours one Sunday morning, the fact that the runners train for at least six months and many continue to include it as an integral part of their lifestyle for the entire year, there is a ready target audience with sufficient purchasing power waiting to consume relevant products.

For companies and brands involved in sports, but not in manufacturing or selling running-related products, this audience is relevant for associating with them at an individual level and also showing deep affiliation with the city. Thus the sponsorship rubs off on not just the participants in a marathon, but even the other denizens who might be cheering from the sidelines, but are proud participants in raising the profile of their city, town or even neighbourhood. The positive impact on the profile of the company and its employees is another factor that is prompting the brands to not hesitate while sponsoring a distance running event. Many companies, like TCS and IDBI Federal have used their association with marathons to create an atmosphere of healthy living within their offices and it is no surprise to see a large number of participants for these events from their ranks.

The direct connect with the city is another big factor that works in the favour of the sponsor. When IDBI Federal started using sports as a marketing vehicle, apart from cricket, distance running is what they focused on. Not satisfied with one or two cities, they are up and running in four. Kochi, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai all have events sponsored by the life insurance company. 

By engaging Sachin as the face for their marathons, they have upped the scale, again bringing to focus how distance running is giving other sports a run for their money. The Master Blaster does not come cheap, and the fact that the company is at one level putting in good money to underwrite the event, but also pumping in more to have an iconic brand ambassador endorse and leverage their properties shows the seriousness with which it is treating the sport.  What better way to begin a run than have Sachin – donning the sponsor’s branded jersey – wave to you at the start line!

(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage. He analyses the key issues relevant to the business of sports)

CP Thomas