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Exclusive: Hosting the FIFA U-17 WC was massive for Indian football- Satish Sharma

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The President of Apollo Tyres for Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa spoke on a range of issues involving the company's sponsorship interests in the game.

Football, unlike any other sport, has been a medium to reach out to masses all over the world. When it comes to sponsors, they always like to associate with the best to promote the best. Apollo Tyres, one of the leading tyre manufacturers in India, know the importance of such partnerships and have been very successful in this aspect of marketing.

Khel Now caught up with Satish Sharma, President, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa (APMEA), Apollo Tyres Ltd and got to know more about the company’s blueprints, viewpoints and targets for the future in the sport.

Success comes at a cost, no matter what. While Apollo Tyres promote the mantra of 'Performance, There Are No Short Cuts', no wonder than that it's a matter of huge satisfaction for them that a number of the clubs or teams that they are either sponsoring or partnering with in different capacities in India or elsewhere have been quite successful recently. “Yes, we are delighted that the two clubs that we have supported in India have both gone on to win their respective leagues - Minerva Punjab FC won the I-League, and Chennaiyin FC won the Indian Super League (ISL),” Sharma asserted. 

Minerva Punjab will represent India in the AFC Champions League playoffs next season while Chennaiyin will play in the AFC Cup.

Indian champions Minerva Punjab are one of the Indian sides to be sponsored by Apollo Tyres

“It is not only about the wins, but the manner in which they have played through the tournaments and the fight that they have shown makes us very proud to have partnered with them,” he added.

It’s been quite some time now since Apollo Tyres went global, establishing their identity in the European market as well. To strengthen their foothold in India and overseas even more, the company looks for an apt association, as Sharma explained. “The first and the foremost thing that we look for is that the association should be a suitable fit for the target audience and resonate with the values that Apollo Tyres stands for.”

“As a brand, Apollo Tyres enables individuals to achieve their own potential, when it comes to driving, and in every area of life, as reflected in the company’s tagline, 'go the distance.' The association with a team, or a league, should help increase the visibility of the brand and also create a unique position for it in the minds of the consumers,” he added.

Indian football is a rapidly changing sphere. One area that has seen perhaps the biggest difference in recent years is the encouragement for more corporate investment in the sport and in aspects such as infrastructure development. On being asked about how he assesses the environment as of now, Sharma said, “I firmly believe that the FIFA U-17 World Cup was a massive shot in the arm for Indian football across all levels. Hosting such a high-profile international tournament meant a lot of visibility, and consequently drew fantastic support from not only the corporate sector but the Government as well.”

Apollo also sponsors ISL champions Chennaiyin FC

“Secondly, the existing infrastructure got a huge fillip with world-class football pitches, stadiums and facilities. The progress of the ISL and I-League, with some of the big global names coming to play in the country, also indicates that things are looking up for Indian football.”

At a time when cricket enjoys the largest share of attention in India, it is encouraging to see football creeping up slowly but steadily. However, there is a lot more work to do, feels Sharma. “One of the obvious challenges is the overwhelming support and fan following that cricket enjoys in India. This is not a complaint. But, the fact of the matter is that football will always be in the shadows of cricket in India, at least for the foreseeable future, as far as sponsorships and visibility are concerned. However, it is indeed heartening to see that slowly football is also catching the attention of the audiences, due to which there is an increased interest from corporates as well.”

Speaking about the proposed merger of the I-League and the ISL Sharma opined that whatever is finalized must benefit Indian football in the long run. “This is something that the Federation (AIFF) and the organisers have to mutually decide in the best interests of the game. As sponsors, we would be happy with whatever decision is taken by the concerned authorities. as a fan, at a personal level, I hope that the best decision in the interest of Indian football is taken.”


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However, Sharma was quick to point out that Apollo Tyres are committed to the development of football in India. “We firmly believe in the potential of Indian football and will remain committed to supporting the sport and enabling it to grow in India. Accordingly, our association with Chennaiyin and Minerva Punjab was not for one season, but for a couple of years with each of team.”

India, China and the US are arguably the three biggest developing football markets in the world. But, Sharma feels that Indian football has a lot of catching up to do to reach the level of the latter two countries. “The football markets of China and the US are a lot more developed than India and we have a long way to go to come up to their level," he asserted. "There is lot of gap in the budgets and the player salaries that the teams can afford, along with the kind of hype and visibility that they manage to generate.”

He further added, “In India, we need a lot more corporates to come forward and pitch in so that we can attract the best talent for our leagues, which will help in getting the fans to the stadiums and popularizing the sport.”

Manchester United recently held their signature fan-engagement event #ILOVEUNITED in Mumbai which attracted a large number of fans as they came flocking to the business capital of the country. When asked about his views on how important these events are in the overall outreach of such clubs and for them as sponsors, Sharma replied, “It is indeed fascinating the kind of support and fan following that the EPL clubs in general, and Manchester United in particular, have managed to garner in India."

Events such as these are all about getting the club closer to the fans, engaging with them and making them feel that they are part of the club. Hence, they are of paramount importance."

The Apollo Tyres President talked exclusively about the company's aim regarding developing Indian football

He also said that it’s a huge privilege to be able to sponsor a team like Manchester United. “As sponsors, we couldn’t be happier with the interest that Manchester United show towards India and their fans out here. In fact, when we inaugurated India’s first ‘Go The Distance’ football pitch, which was created using recycled rubber in Mumbai, Bryan Robson, the longest-serving former captain of Manchester United and Club Ambassador, came down to inaugurate the pitch.”

As more and more money flows towards the EPL, Sharma expressed his views on whether it would be a concern that in time it could become impossible for even some of the bigger clubs in the other leagues to compete for talent with English clubs, thereby affecting the quality of competitions. “It is all economics at the end of the day. At this moment, brands and corporates are seeing value in the EPL and hence are putting in money there,” he said.

Sharma also added that, “Personally, I don’t think that the quality of competition will be affected because the other big leagues such as the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, etc.  have a lot of talent to offer as well, and from what we have seen in the continental tournaments, the competition is top-notch.”

It is indeed very satisfying to know that Apollo Tyres’ association with some of the major European football clubs has enhanced their brand visibility; allowing Indian products on the global market. Sharma explained how the company aims to fulfil its ambitions and widen their reach through football. “In Europe, Apollo Tyres is associated with teams across the Premier League (Manchester United and Crystal Palace) and the Bundesliga (Borussia Monchengladbach)."

He continued, "The association with European clubs clearly demonstrates Apollo’s global ambitions for its business and the brand. Very few sports platforms deliver a global profile and awareness like football, and the impact of this relationship will be significant in helping make Apollo an internationally recognizable brand. For example, in the current season, Apollo Tyres has notched up its visibility by making the brand visible in over 50% of all EPL matches.”

Apolo have brought the best freestylers in world football to India to perform in the ISL

Elaborating on the company's India strategy he added, “As far as India is concerned, we wanted to stay away from cricket, which is cluttered with too many brands putting in their money, and have a different strategy. We chose football, which is less popular, but growing as a sport in India and has young enthusiastic fans associated with it."

Before winding up, we asked Sharma what was the thinking behind choosing football as a primary sport for sponsorship purposes, to which he replied, “For our marketing initiatives around sports, we have chosen football as very few sports deliver a global profile and awareness like football."

"Our association with the sport has definitely helped the brand to be more visible among the young generation and differentiate ourselves from others. The company has developed commercials based on football, which align with the characteristics of Apollo’s tyres, which are performance, control and agility.”

Published: Mon Apr 09, 2018 01:30 PM IST

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