Exclusive: I have personally looked into a long-term contract where the brand can utilize the player well and vice-versa – Abhishek Sharma, Founder and CEO, Athletes Today

Mr Abhishek spoke about the esteemed Gurpreet-Puma association, providing investment propositions to athletes and his day-to-day work at Athletes Today.

With tons of brands aiming to bank upon sportspersons for enhancing their presence, there needs a bridge to fill the gap between the two and that’s where entities like Athletes Today come in.

Athletes Today, founded in 2016, is a sports management company that excels in sports marketing, sponsorship, entertainment and athlete representation. The company based in Mumbai also focuses on providing opportunities to homegrown athletes.

Abhishek Shrama with the Kerala Blasters player Saurav Mandal

Wanting to comprehend the fundamentals of sports management in India, SportsMint Media got in touch with Mr Abhishek Sharma, Founder and CEO, Athletes Today. In this interaction, Mr Abhishek spoke at length about various different topics ranging from the esteemed Gurpreet-Puma association, providing investment propositions to athletes to unveiling his day-to-day work at Athletes Today.

1. Do athletes from different sports attract a different set of brands?

Well, this could be broken down into two categories. What we usually do is create a core category for all players. For example, be it a cricketer, football player or hockey player, the core categories for them will be sports apparel, nutrition, hydration partners or recovery partners and things like that. So I think this core category remains the same for all those sportspersons and then it can get diversified. And the second category can be classified depending on the type of sport you’re playing, for example, the cycling players that I represent require a different gear of watches.

Now that watch category can be the same but the watch could be very different for a cricketer who’s trying to endorse a different brand. Concluding, the core category remains the same but the rest of it can always be customised as per this sport and as per the player also.

2. Is signing a cricketer next in line for Athletes Today?

We have worked with multiple cricketers who are non-exclusive with us and also with IPL franchises. But women’s cricket is something that we’re really looking forward to.

3. What is your opinion on athletes being represented by two different sports management entities?

The industry is actually very small and due to this, everybody knows everybody. Suppose my friend is a cricket manager and he works with 10 cricketers and he knows that I am a football and a hockey agent and I’m talking to a brand, that might be interested in getting a cricketer, so it becomes easier for me to push my friend’s players and see if we can get something and vice versa for them. If suppose his players or brands are maybe interested in football or hockey, so, he knows I’m the guy to call to, for any of that.

4. Could you please shed some light on the recent partnership between Puma India and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu?

So, in 2019, when we went to Puma, the Indian football team had gone for AFC in Thailand. Gurpreet’s performance was outstanding in that particular competition, he had a fantastic season with the BFC, as well. And Puma really wanted to get a foothold in the Indian football market. So it made sense that the right tie-up came along, at that point also, most of the bigger players were with Nike. We were also the first one to reach out to Puma and build this relationship with them. We pitched them that let’s figure out a career partnership with Gurpreet as he is probably one of the biggest names in the country in this particular sport. And Puma already had some talented players but you know, there is a difference between that iconic player and the rest of the players. Gurpreet was that iconic one for them.

Abhishek Sharma with Gurpreet Singh Sandhu

Once we signed Gurpreet, Puma was very happy and six months down the line, the brand also went on to sign Mr Sunil Chhetri, as well. Well, it’s good to see Puma focusing on Indian football a lot and to see its growth and potential. Once the contract was finalised, I think it was already clear that the relationship between Gurpreet, Puma and myself was very good. So we just wanted to extend it, as goalkeepers have a longer trajectory to be in football. Gurpreet was the captain of BFC last season as well. So it just made sense for Puma and for us, to take this partnership ahead and Gurpreet is one of those people who is very committed and loyal. We had offers from other brands, as well, but Gurpreet wanted to continue with Puma. And the same way Puma also wanted to prolong the association.

5. How different is the process for a sports management firm to work with an established athlete and a non-established athlete?

There are several different ways to look at it. The reason I referred to Gurpreet as iconic is because he has accomplished a lot in his career. Talking from the point of view of a sports management company, working with an athlete who we think is going to be iconic in the future is more important than working with an iconic player. Back in the day, around 2016, Gurpreet had already made a name for himself but still he had a lot left to achieve then.

So I think it’s very important for management agencies to realize that we might have a talent pool of 20 players in which we are sure that five to eight of them will be really special and will make them up. The rest of them who don’t reach that level doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough but players are different and their personalities are different. It’s how they are with each other and how they’re looking at the sport. So, all of these things come into a factor.

6. Do Athletes Today assists its athletes with investment propositions also?

Well, it’s not something that is at the top end of the list of our services, but there are a lot of players who are on big salaries maybe in football or in hockey, so we do give them advice to invest their money. We connect them with the right type of financial consultants, who are our partners. Due to this, they can build some sort of sustainability in their career, they can start focusing on investing money which could be helpful in their post-retirement. This also helps us understand if we can build an IP or brand around a player.

7. How instrumental is the role of technology in sports marketing in the near future?

There are two ways of looking at it, the evolving technology is definitely changing the landscape of the sports industry, but I think we also have to keep the traditional fundamentals of marketing in place. So it has to be a marriage between the traditional and the modern matrix of using technology. So, like the basic fundamentals of marketing in sports, could be very traditional with the hybrid version of using sports tech as an added tool to see what is working out really well. For example, four to five years back, there weren’t enough statistics available on players, in terms of scouting or several different things.

And on the market side, the technology is hyped due to influencer marketing and social media. Due to such advancement, now players can also earn active revenue by promoting a brand for a certain period. It took a little time for me to adjust to this because I am not a fan of doing a one-month engagement and getting some partnership, but I have to accept, that’s how though future is. I have personally looked into a longer-term contract or a sponsorship where the brand can utilize the player well and vice-versa. There can be enough marketing and campaign. So I’m still very core to those concepts. But I have also accepted the modern ways of doing things, and that is important.

8. How has the sports marketing industry evolved post-COVID?

COVID is where social media and all of these things came into place. There were lots of team activities, for example, to motivate employees from bigger companies they would ask athletes to come on Zoom calls and motivate them, which would be a surprise. For example, a 500-team company or a thousand-team company has 100 people coming in and joining on a Zoom call with a player encouraging them to work.

9. Does the recently announced Union Budget Sports Allocation encourage sports entrepreneurs like yourself?

I hope the sports ministry opens a division for entrepreneurship maybe they can have their own incubations cell, which can help younger entrepreneurs to join in. For people like me, a lot of entrepreneurs who started before, we have had to figure our own way out and I’m never taken that as a problem rather has taken it as a challenge because we always knew that we are good enough to make it. And hence, we’ve done this in the last six years we’ve been successful in, whatever we’ve done.

The budget announced by the Sports Ministry, I think they were focused on developing talent infrastructure, using game mechanics, and using the right professionals, who are in place that is where is going to change for people like me who can scout talent in a better platform, who can have more information about the talent who can get an idea about what are the events that the sports ministry plans on doing in a calendar year. So I think that if the government uses the budget to improve all of this, it will just help people like me, maybe in the future.

10. What is your day-to-day at Athletes Today?

We are a normal functioning company, we have people who are actively scouting players who are connected with a network of coaches. We do this to know what type of talent that we can work with. And then we have a division for sales in business development, that is always looking for active collaborations with brands for the players that we have. It’s the summer now and there will be a transfer market, that’ll go on in football for international, and Indian players. The Asian games are also coming up and there are also a lot of brand activations happening for hockey players. There are a lot of brand activations building up for the Olympics, as well. So this is our regular day-to-day work. We have a team of seven people, some of them focus on sales and some of them focus on partnerships, and some of them focus on scouting.

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