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NEELAKANTAN: Failed Marketing of Indian Hockey (3/18/2008)
--M.S. Neelakantan
The state of Indian hockey insofar as its untapped market potential is, in many ways, similar to the paradoxical malaise that affected Kerala tourism in the ‘80’s’; “Tourists don’t go to Kerala because there are no hotels & resorts. Nobody wants to build hotels & resorts in Kerala as no tourist will come to Kerala”. It was the vision and mission of three -- The then tourism Minister, Dr. Venu, Tourism Secretary and Amitabh Kant, Tourism Commissioner -- that today’s Kerala has become ‘God’s own Country’ and got listed in the National Geographic magazine -- as ‘one of the 10 destinations, a tourist on this planet should visit’.

India has not won an Olympic gold medal post 1980. Is it because ‘the players are not ‘rewarded’ or if so, don't they have the hunger to win’?

But then, how do the cricketers get rewarded and put up good performance as good, if not better, than our hockey team. And why every youngster’s role model is a ‘Sachin’ or a ‘Sreesanth’ and not a ‘Prabhjot' or a ‘Dilip Tirkey’. This is due to the fact that despite winning World Cup once in cricket and hockey, the BCCI stole a march over the rest in marketing, the Indian Hockey Federation included, not planned though but by default:

Product Positioning: The BCCI was quick to spot the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs’. The IHF officials sat back to live off on dole handed over by the Govt, FIH & IOA. Doordarshan, which telecast the first colour sports programme featuring hockey -- and not cricket -- during the Delhi Asiad (1982)was not used by the IHF to position hockey, our national sport unlike the BCCI. Almost 100 million viewers hooked on to the world’s biggest terrestrial TV network, coupled with Air India Radio almost having the same number of listeners. Despite having the ‘First Mover’ advantage, the IHF was as complacent as the hare in the legendary ‘hare & tortoise’ tale. The napping IHF was overtaken by the faster and more professional BCCI.

Branding: Effective with the above BCCI officials allowed the cricketing stars to bask in the limelight as they were content in sitting back to allow the big bucks flow into their treasury via sponsorships, telecast rights & various other means. On the other hand, the mandarins at IHF put their interests above the players. A classic marketing case study is that of Dhanraj Pillay. Disallowing Dhanraj to be branded as the Indian hockey star was a hara-kiri, as he was good enough to give Sachin a run for his money. That would have been the tipping point for the others in the team to also get endorsements & branded as product ambassadors, thereby leading to iconic status & adulation whilst the IHF could get sponsors on their own terms & conditions. One man’s ( read as Gill’s) megalomania killed this prospect.

Lack of Innovation: Cricket, courtesy to Kerry Packer became popular thanks to the razzmatazz, the critical ingredient of the limited overs style. Hockey refused to change its colonial hangover. The IHF could have innovated by ‘cutting the leather to fit the leg’. The popular ‘seven’s format of football played in the Malabar region of Kerala, with handsome monetary returns for the players could be replicated with a hockey version of ‘seven’s played in a roller skating rink. Fast & exciting, this game of two 7.30 minutes game would have moved the crowds from the cricket stadium to the hockey field. Youngsters would have moved from cricket to hockey & none would have been the wiser.

Identifying & Developing Potential Pockets: While cricket is a national passion, there are some pockets in India where hockey players are ‘born to the game’. The romanticist visual of 11 turbaned Sikhs representing India is sepia- tinted. The cradle of Indian hockey is no longer confined to Punjab alone. The regions of Jharkhand, Chatthisgarh, Haryana, Andhar Pradesh and Karnataka are the present day nurseries. Encouraging the youngsters with local level tournaments will more than motivate the budding professional. With the likes of Ignace Tirkey & Dilip Tirkey as role models, hockey is the platform to personal and professional progress in life.

God-Gifted Brand Ambassador: The success of the Indian men’s team in the Asia Cup happened just after awakening of interest in the national sport with the grand success of ‘Chak De!India’ movie. Has the IHF officials (KPS Gill & Jothikumaran), leaving their egos aside albeit, momentarily made efforts to enlist and entice Shahrukh Khan and his team to promote hockey through orthodox (like media coverage & promotional campaigns) and unorthodox means?. No. Not at all.

Target Audience and Using Right Platforms: The Premier Hockey League is a brilliant idea but did not achieve its objective. The bottom-line of reaching the target audience has been thoroughly diluted by using a satellite pay channel whose audience numbers can be counted on one’s fingers. For this audience, the German Bundesliga or the English Premier League is far more appetizing than a poor man’s sport-hockey. DD, as repeated earlier in tandem with AIR reaching into every corner of India, would have been the ideal vehicle -- provided both AIR and DD makes a right package, say, promos etc.

The IHF have a good product on their hands but have failed to realize their returns on the same with the typical bureaucratic approach to marketing the national sport. Its time they took some lessons from the successful Kerala Tourism model.

Despite all the resources put in to save the national animal & the national sport, it’s a pity, they still remain endangered.

Note: The Chennai based author, M.S. Neelakantan, is a strategist on branding & allied matters. He also freelances on lifestyle, cuisine & alternative healing, and also web and air sports commentator

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