Who after Tendulkar and Dhoni?
It is no surprise that MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar are the two Indian sportsmen - and the highest-ranked cricketers - to feature in Forbes magazine's list of the top 100 highest-paid athletes for the period June 2011 to June 2012, having made $26.5 million and $18.6 million respectively. India is cricket's biggest market and Tendulkar was India's first national sporting brand, while Dhoni has arguably been better than any Indian sportsperson at spinning on-field success into endorsements.
When a brand looks for a sporting celebrity to associate with, the first criterion is naturally sporting success. You can't be a celebrity without fame, and (in most cases) you can't be famous without consistently performing at the highest level of your sport. Both Dhoni and Tendulkar are at the very top of their field. After that it comes down to how relevant the player's image is to a particular brand. "That's when the personality kicks in," Samir Kale, the founder and president of SportzPR, a sports communications firm, told ESPNcricinfo. "There has to be a personality fit with the brand."
Personality has been Dhoni's trump card. He is cool under pressure, seemingly fearless, yet easy-going and relatable to his small-town, middle-class background. He has also presided over a winning team (save for the last 12 months), for which he has often played a pivotal role, especially in the limited-overs formats, and that has made him even more of a coveted celebrity than Tendulkar.
"Sachin Tendulkar came into Indian cricket when India didn't win so often," Kawal Shoor, planning head at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, said. "So his greatness came from the individual records he has accumulated. Whereas if you were to look at Dhoni, the three or four big milestones against his name are not centuries or runs; it is about getting India wins."
The timing of Dhoni's rise as a cricketer also coincided with the India growth story. It came at a time when the country's economic engine hummed along at a pace exceeded only by China. In effect, Dhoni became a metaphor for a changing India, where small-town boys could dream of becoming world beaters. Dhoni's contribution to the team's success cemented his appeal across demographics, allowing brands of all kinds to court him.
Look beyond Dhoni and Tendulkar at the next generation of players, however, and it raises the question of who might step into their commercial shoes in the years to come. The answer is not straightforward, say brand and advertising experts. This is partly because the next generation has not yet established itself, but more importantly the nature of the advertising industry is changing too, which will make it much more difficult for one player to corner the market as Tendulkar and Dhoni have done.
"People are not going to follow one person," Ramanujam Sridhar, the head of brand consulting firm Brand-Comm, said. "There is a void to find a person of that stature. So rather than one big punt on a Dhoni or a Tendulkar, I think you are going to get a slew of cricketers rather than one cricketer or one sportsman taking the lot."
The possible exception is Virat Kohli, perhaps the only one of the heirs apparent who has come to close to cementing a place in the Indian side. Kohli also seems to be the only one with an outspoken personality. His modern, somewhat devil-may-care attitude was showcased in a series of flirtatious ads for Fastrack bags, products aimed at teenagers and young adults, with the tagline "Move On". In one of the ads, Kohli and a girl (played by a Bollywood actress) are in an elevator alone. When they start to get cosy, he points out the video camera in the corner. She promptly empties her Fastrack bag and uses it to cover up the camera.
Kohli's advantage is that in his own way he represents the next stage in India's transformation. Where once a clean-cut image in the mould of a Tendulkar was a necessity, India's youth now are a lot more confident and fearless than previous generations. "To that extent, somebody having attitude or being in your face is perfectly acceptable, and in fact there is a perverse sense of aspiration to be like that," Sridhar, said. "This is why Kohli could do well as a model."
However, Kohli could well have to navigate a landscape different from the one Dhoni has made his own. The majority of Indian brands have so far typically focused purely on raising awareness and chased a mass audience. Signing any celebrity fulfilled that purpose, irrespective of the brand's identity. But as marketers start to develop clear ideas about how they want to use cricketers to target the segment of the population they want to reach, they will start looking for brand ambassadors who fit their brand's unique profile.
"Until now, most brands have spoken to mainstream India and hence they have looked for mainstream heroes," Shoor said. "You will see a lot of so-called fringe players - people who have appeal for a limited set of audiences."
That would bring someone like a Gautam Gambhir into play. Shoor thinks Gambhir, who is serious and intense on the field, would make an ideal spokesperson for the army. Making it even more of a match is that Gambhir had considered enlisting before cricket claimed him, and that his hero growing up was the Indian revolutionary Bhagat Singh. (The army, however, recently made Dhoni its brand ambassador.)
Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron, should they establish themselves as India regulars, are two others who could eventually draw commercial attention because "pace bowlers evoke a very different kind of feeling", according to Shoor. Yadav, the son of a coal miner, has the kind of rags-to-riches story that appeals to everyone as well. Of course, the two need to produce memorable match-winning performances first.
Shoor also expects athletes from other sports to begin to challenge cricket for advertising rupees as the sporting landscape changes. Cricket is by far the dominant sport in India and any significant shift is still years away, but the signs are clear. Companies are investing in football academies, while success in individual sports, such as Saina Nehwal in badminton or the boxer Vijender Singh, will inspire others to follow in their footsteps. "It will take time, but India will become a multi-sport nation."
A current ad for Pepsi plays on that potential shift. Ranbir Kapoor, a Bollywood star, tries to convince a teenage boy doing tricks with a football to switch to playing cricket. In the end the boy convinces Kapoor to give football a shot. The tagline: Change the Game.
Another of the brand's ads features football stars Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Fernando Torres alongside Dhoni, Harbhajan Singh, Kohli and Suresh Raina in a three-on-three game of cricket.
Sridhar believes that thanks to the IPL, mass brands might turn to international players in greater numbers for endorsements. Foreign players have been used in the past - Seagram in India chose to use some of the all-conquering Australians after the 2003 World Cup, and watch-maker Timex used Brett Lee as their brand ambassador in 2008 to great effect - but the advent of the IPL has allowed Indian fans to become more familiar with more international players. Also, most of them cost less than Indian cricketers do.
IPL franchises have already begun capitalising on their foreign stars by creating advertising campaigns around them. Last season Kolkata Knight Riders unveiled an ad for the Matrix forex card featuring Shah Rukh Khan, Yusuf Pathan, Jacques Kallis and Lee - two foreign cricketers versus one Indian.
At another level, the creation of the IPL and similar leagues in other sports could also throw up their share of sporting heroes, players that could have local appeal rather than national appeal. "There is no reason why you couldn't create local heroes for local brands," Kale, the founder of SportzPR, said.
Ultimately, though, if a sportsperson, cricketer or otherwise, has the aura, the success and universal appeal, then the sport he or she plays is not all that relevant. Boxer Floyd Mayweather topped Forbes' list of earners, with fellow boxing star Manny Pacquiao in second place, far ahead of stars in more popular sports, such as Argentina and Barcelona's Lionel Messi. "Personalities are bigger than the sports they play," Shoor said. "It underlies the fact that it is the individual's charisma that helps him rise above the sport he plays."
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo