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Rohit Sharma vs Virat Kohli: The rise of the shy endorser

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10 mins read

How the on-field changing of the guard can impact the endorsement realm.

Even if one cuts out the noise about the friction between India’s limited-over skipper Rohit Sharma and the current Test skipper Virat Kohli, it is impossible to ignore the sharp lines that divide the two off the field.

It wasn’t too long ago when the 2019 Forbes Top 100 Indian Celebrities list was released, with Virat Kohli standing at the top of the pile with an earning of ₹252.72 crore, while Rohit Sharma stood in 11th place with ₹54.29 crore in earnings. Kohli had 4x times more sponsorships and endorsement deals than Sharma and charged 3-4x times higher as well.

Fast forward to December 2021, however, and Rohit Sharma is breathing down Virat Kohli’s neck in terms of the number of sponsorships, while the Maharashtrian boy has more than doubled his net worth in the same period.

So, what is it that has catapulted Rohit’s rise from an awkward and picky utility asset for sponsors to the shy poster boy?

Analysts around the globe are often seen talking about the highest-paid sports in the world. Statistically, cricket hardly ever appears in the top 10 conversation, but somehow, the list of cricketers among the highest-paid athletes is never-ending, which is pretty bemusing for a fan, to say the least.

For a long time, only the big dogs—Australia and England—seemed to dominate the list of richest cricketers in the world. But with scores of broadcasting revenue coming in and sponsors flocking towards the Indian shores, and add to that the rise of the Indian Premier League, Indian cricketers have become the magnet for endorsement deals for companies all around the world.

Today, five of the Top 10 richest cricketers in the world are Indians, and given the current rate, it won’t be long before we see the entire list filled with Indian cricketers.

With that in mind, let’s discuss the crux of the matter.

What implications can the changing of the guard have in the sponsorship realm? What does historical evidence tell us? How the market could become more polarised than ever before with two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum, and why is it more likely that Rohit Sharma will completely overshadow Virat Kohli in the next five years or so?

Nature of sponsors

When Virat Kohli was appointed the new Test captain of Team India, he was valued at ₹228.5 crore as per 2015 data, while Rohit Sharma was valued at ₹124.2 crore around the same time.

Since then, Virat Kohli’s net worth has jumped to ₹840 crore, while Rohit Sharma’s net worth has plateaued to just around ₹180 crore in all these years. What has led to this stark gulf in valuation?

Ideally, Rohit Sharma should have been the model for young and youthful brands that look to craft their narrative around an inspirational success story, around someone who had to fight their way to the top, unlike Kohli, who won the 2008 U-19 Cricket World Cup as captain and since making his debut for the senior team that same year has never lost his place.

By 2015, Kohli had become the new Test captain of Team India, playing his best cricket, someone who was energetic and aggressive, as opposed to MS Dhoni‘s calm and calculative demeanour.

Rohit, on the other hand, had established himself as India’s limited-overs opener and had won two IPL titles as the captain of the Mumbai Indians, but his place in the Test setup remained uncertain. Add to that his laidback and shy personality, Rohit ended up getting caught in between the layers.

By getting “caught in between the layers”, what I mean is, brands that turn to cricket to garner mass appeal tend to follow the herd. And in Indian cricket, it is usually the Indian captain who takes it all, and the rest are left to make do with the leftovers.

Moreover, the brands that do not get the captain go for someone new and cheaper. So, we have this small selection of brands that would play “in the middle” — wanting an experienced player and ready to shell out a somewhat substantial amount of money.

The Forbes Top 100 Indian Celebrities lists for 2018 and 2019 prove exactly that: while Kohli was ranked 2nd in the former list with more than ₹200 crore in earnings, Rohit Sharma was ranked 23rd with an earning of ₹31.49 crore. Hardik Pandya, on the other hand, a relatively new face in the international circuit, was ranked 27th with a calendar-year earning of ₹28.46 crore.

Similarly, in the 2019 list, Rohit Sharma jumped up to 11th with an improved calendar-year earning of ₹54.29 crore, but Rishabh Pant, after just one successful campaign, managed to jump up to 30th place with ₹29.19 crore in earnings. Both Jasprit Bumrah (₹23.25 crore) and KL Rahul (₹23.19 crore), meanwhile, made massive gains in the endorsement sphere as well.

Furthermore, according to GroupM’s entertainment, esports and sports division ESP, the size of the Indian sports industry fell from ₹9,109 crore in 2019 to ₹5,894 crore in 2020. However, the only sector to have a green arrow next to its figures was the endorsement sector, which rose from ₹537 crore in 2019 to ₹560 crore in 2020.

It is also worth noting that, of the ₹560 crore spent on endorsement deals, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni contributed to 58% of the total sponsorship deals, with non-cricketing endorsement deals seeing a 43% dip.

The role of the player agent in Indian sport gained prominence in the 1990s when Mark Mascarenhas ensured that Sachin Tendulkar was pasted on our television screens forever, making him one of the highest-paid sportspersons in the world.

Before the endorsements and corporate sponsorships start pouring in, you have to carefully craft a player’s image, turning them from someone people respect to someone whose lifestyle people crave, whose shoes, watch, jacket and soft drink of choice people will line up to buy.

It is really fascinating to see that within just a couple of years the sponsorship market has somewhat diversified itself, and with huge amounts of money to play around with, a few are breaking the norms with left-field moves. Although it is safe to say that there is still a long way to go before we see a seismic shift in the endorsement paradigm.

Historical comparisons

The duo of Mark Mascarenhas and Sachin Tendulkar changed the entire sponsorship landscape in Indian cricket for good, and the seeds of their solid foundation can be seen in the meteoric rise in revenue from the sector over the last decade or so. Eight years post-retirement, Sachin is still the richest cricketer in the world. His net worth stands at ₹1,090 crore as per latest reports.

Although Sachin is an aberration with his annual endorsement income year in, year out, it has to be said that over the past two decades—barring Rahul Dravid—it has been the captain of the team who has had the bulk of the endorsement deals.

2010 saw then-Team India skipper across all formats, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, sign a three-year endorsement deal with a sports marketing agency worth approximately US$46m following his first IPL title with the Chennai Super Kings.

Along with this deal with the agency, which is a joint venture between Rhiti Sports Management, and advertising agency Mindscapes. Dhoni was believed to charge ₹6 crore an endorsement per year, making him the world’s highest-earning cricketer at the time.

Furthermore, following India’s 2011 World Cup glory, Dhoni’s demand and valuation went through the roof. He not only surpassed fellow teammate Sachin Tendulkar but also global superstars like Usain Bolt, Novak Djokovic and Wayne Rooney among many to place himself 31st on Forbes’ Top 100 Highest-Paid Athletes for 2011 list with US$26.5m in earnings, US$23m of which came from endorsement deals alone.

In 2015, after leading India to an improbable-looking semi-final berth in the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup and then guiding the Chennai Super Kings into a sixth IPL final in eight years as captain, Dhoni found himself 23rd on Forbes’ list of the Top 100 highest-paid athletes for 2015 with US$31m in earnings, US$27m of which came from endorsement deals.

Virat Kohli, at the same time, was earning US$11.3m, while being rated as the second most marketable athlete in the world behind British driver Lewis Hamilton by UK magazine SportsPro. The new Test skipper was fast on MS Dhoni’s tail.

However, by 2017, Virat Kohli had made his first entry into Forbes’ Top 100 highest-paid athletes in the world list, placed 89th with an earning of US$22m. He was also the sole representative from India.

A big part of building a player’s image these days is managing their interactions with fans on social media.

Bunty Sajdeh, founder of Cornerstone Sports & Entertainment, and the man behind Virat Kohli’s brand, admits he is not digitally savvy, but has a great social media team that manages players’ accounts, analysing data from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to determine what kinds of posts excite people.

Fans don’t want to see photos of a player on the field. They want to know more about the player off the field. So we will send a team to a player’s home when he has a couple of days off and take photos of him with his pet, or his mum or him cooking something, and then release those images at appropriate times,” he says. They always ask for the player’s approval before posting something, though, and let them word the post themselves. “Fans are smart and can tell when someone has ghost-written something,” Sajdeh explains.

So detailed is Sajdeh’s curation of his clients’ public personas, that he even invests in styling them for public functions. “If an athlete has to attend an awards function and I get him an Armani suit and a haircut from a professional stylist, it gives him confidence and changes the way he carries himself, which pays dividends in the end.”

Sajdeh was key to Kohli securing the ₹100-crore Puma deal in 2017. A landmark deal, as Kohli supposedly became the first Indian sportsman to bag such a meaty endorsement deal from a single brand. The same cannot be said about Rohit Sharma, who was a client of IMG Reliance with Nikhil Bardia.

However, two things happened in 2019 that swung the tide in Rohit’s favour: Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri bottled another opportunity to win that elusive ICC trophy post Dhoni’s captaincy, and Rohit went on to have the season of his life. The Mumbai Indians’ captain was India’s standout performer during the 2019 Cricket World Cup with 648 runs and five Hundreds, equalling Sachin Tendulkar’s record from 2003. He also established himself as India’s Test opener—scoring at an average of 92.6 for the calendar year—and went on to lift his fourth IPL title as MI captain.

Within the next six months, Rohit Sharma had signed up for ten new brands for that fiscal year at about 55% higher rates than earlier. At that rate, the then-32-year-old Mumbaikar was expected to earn ₹73-75 crore from the 22 brands he endorsed, experts estimated.

Two years on, Rohit Sharma has become India’s most dependable batter and the lynchpin of the side, while Virat Kohli has been misfiring across all three formats. The Team India Test captain is yet to register a three-digit score in over two years. Rohit, on the other hand, in that same timeframe, has managed thirteen 100+ scores in Tests and ODIs, while scoring eleven 50+ scores in T20Is as well.

Thus, looking at the patterns from the post-Dravid era to the present, Rohit Sharma is on track for some meaty endorsement deals, given he remains the limited-over skipper across the two formats.

Rohit has the higher ceiling

As a kid growing up during the late 2000s and early 2010s, it always fascinated me why the commentators and, most importantly, MS Dhoni held Rohit Sharma in such high regards, even after him failing to live up to expectations for more than five years. The main reason Dhoni and others would give was that Rohit was arguably the most gifted batter India had ever produced.

And yes, this is something where people should give credit to Dhoni. There were times when players like Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin were completely off their game, but Dhoni would stick with them, nurture them to the point where they would all go on to fulfil their potential, becoming World Class players in their respective roles.

This is one such unique case of Rohit Sharma. It took him a while to hit his peak, but now that he has, there is not a single player in the international circuit who is on par with the Hitman. Temperament, composure and shot selection were the three question marks in his edgy game, but when he eradicated those blots, his batting went to another level, and the fruits are now visible for all to see.

However, in the manic rush for cricketing icons, from Chinese handset companies to white goods makers and e-commerce companies, it looked like Sharma had missed the bus. Not that he hasn’t endorsed brands in the past; Rohit has endorsed some well-known brands, including tyre brand CEAT, sports apparel and footwear brand Adidas and luxury watchmaker Hublot among many.

While his pickiness in terms of what he endorses and his laid-back personality have been the biggest stumbling blocks in him commanding more endorsement deals and bigger fees, another factor that hinders Rohit’s cause is that he is of a similar mould compared to the likes of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman — two legends of the game, who like him never managed to get those juicy endorsement deals that could match their on-pitch greatness.

Moreover, while Rohit Sharma is not an expressive and pumped-up character like Kohli, one thing he needs to do is take a few leaves out of MS Dhoni’s books.

With Rohit Sharma becoming Team India’s ODI and T20I captain, and given cricket’s “winner takes all” syndrome—demonstrated by the singular lack of imagination on the part of the brands, where they go looking for a cricketing star without doing any research—Rohit will have scores of sponsorship and endorsement deals coming his way, especially with the 2022 ICC Men’s T20 Cricket World Cup and the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup coming up.

As far as a player’s perspective is concerned, they need to understand that they are playing a short-term game here. Take MS Dhoni for example. The man has so much going for him that he can build himself into a legacy brand, but he is representing every product or service that comes his way. He probably thinks he has a limited window to cash in on, and the same goes for any player playing at their peak.

Another thing that will benefit Rohit is his tactical nous as a skipper. He has led the Mumbai Indians to five IPL titles — the most by any captain in the history of the league. He is of a similar mould to MS Dhoni when it comes to captaincy: he keeps his emotions to himself, believes in continuity and backs his methods.

Moreover, the current crop of Indian cricketers are ready to dominate the world stage, something which Kohli failed to do in his five-year stint as captain. They need a leader who is adept at both the tactical side of the game and man-management, something that was found wanting in Kohli.

What people fail to realise is that Dhoni did not become the highest-earning cricketer when he was the best batter in the world from 2008-2010, rather when he led his respective sides to championships and world titles. This is where Rohit and his marketing agency will have to focus.

Virat Kohli has the business mindset, with many of his ventures already in place to help him keep on building his fortunes at a staggering rate even if sponsorships and endorsement deals dry up. It will probably take Rohit Sharma at least a couple of World Cups to match Kohli financially over the course of their respective playing careers. However, the Mumbaikar has all the ingredients to mount such a challenge, and now it’s just a waiting game before it all unravels in front of our eyes.

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