IT promises to change the face of sport in India. The US-based $3.28 billion Reebok International Ltd, which was launched in India this month, will not only compete with major players in the fitness industry, it will also take on liquor and cigarette companies in the sports sponsorship arena.
To prove that it means business, the sports and fitness footwear, apparel and equipment giant has signed up some of the biggest names in Indian sport. While Reebok's India headquarters in Bijwasan village on the Delhi-Gurgaon highway is still having nails hammered in and phone lines installed, the mood is upbeat with Managing Director Muktesh Pant promising that much more was in store.
The 'Planet Reebok' philosophy of health and fitness has already targeted the traditional bastions of sports sponsorship in the country, namely the cigarette and liquor industry. Pant points to a worldwide trend away from these sources of sponsorship income. "I believe it is important that liquor and cigarette companies, whose products are often not used by the sportsmen themselves, should not be forced on them. I know for a fact that cricketers hate wearing these logos. But they have no choice as they are not consulted when the deals are struck between the board and the companies concerned."
Sponsorship should come from products connected with the game, Pant feels. "There should be a strong voice of conscience in this matter and players should refuse to wear their logos. Can you imagine how ridiculous it looks for the Indian cricket captain to wear a cigarette logo on the front of his shirt and a statutory health warning against these products on the back?"
Reebok has expressed willingness to fill the breach if various sports bodies in the country take a firm stand on the issue. "We do not have to stress the ill-effects of these products. That has already been medically proved. The only reason they use sports as a vehicle is because they are banned from advertising on TV." Reebok has already snared six top cricketers to endorse and use its products. Skipper Mohammed Azharuddin, Anil Kumble, Nayan Mongia, Javagal Srinath, Navjot Singh Siddhu and Venkatesh Prasad are on the Reebok bandwagon. In addition, the entire Bombay Ranji Trophy team has been signed up. "You can see all of them sporting our logos in the newspaper photos after their triumph in the Irani Trophy," Pant says proudly.
It is only the players in the national team, however, who will use Reebok equipment. Since they are not allowed to manufacture these goods in India, Reebok has imported bats, gloves and pads from Australia. The other catch is Sachin Tendulkar. The Indian vice-captain has been offered Rs 1 crore as bait, but is still holding out.
Another Indian vice-captain, star footballer Bhaichung Bhutia who plays for East Bengal in the Calcutta league, has signed a Rs 1.5-lakh a year deal, to go up by 10 to 15 per cent in subsequent years. Bhutia has had his boots specially made by Reebok in Italy; a number of pairs are on display in Pant's office. His size: a tiny five and a half.
Signed footwear and clothing will be on display in Reebok's stores across the country. Reebok is also looking at Leander Paes, though he is currently with Lotto.
But with Puma, Adidas and Lotto having failed to make much headway in the Indian market, what is the Reebok strategy? Says Pant, who was earlier a vice-president at Pepsi: "We believe the two major reasons they were unsuccessful were their poorly manufactured goods and their lack of marketing. Our goods are of international quality since all the components are imported and they are only assembled here. We have already exported over 300,000 pairs of shoes to the US. As for marketing, we believe in starting from the grassroots."
As part of this strategy, Reebok is organising Reebok City sport tournaments in Bombay and New Delhi. The tournaments will be organised in conjunction with 21st Century Media. Interlocking courts for basketball and portable astro-turf pitches for cricket will be used.
A certain amount of hype has accompanied the launch, with Azharuddin and Kumble dropping Reebok merchandise from a hot-air balloon and the leg-spinner bowling to his skipper in the middle of Delhi's Connaught Place. But then perhaps Indian sport could do with just this type of hype to boost its sagging image and Reebok could well be the trendsetter.