Representatives of India’s teenage opener Prithvi Shaw have issued cease-and-desist orders and filed a lawsuit of Rs one crore against two brands and a hospital group for unlawfully using the batsman’s image and name to promote themselves.
Shaw became the youngest Indian to score a century on Test debut last week. Amid the celebratory messages, Freecharge and Swiggy put out his name along with their company logos. The e-commerce website posted an image with the batsman’s likeness and name along with the caption ‘Super charged Shaw’, while the food delivery platform congratulated the batsman with a message: ‘Firsts we will remember forever. First bite of Rasmalai. First Prithvi Shaw innings.’
In response, Shaw’s representatives have taken legal recourse alleging ambush marketing against the two brands, as well as a speciality hospital group that took out an advertisement in one of the top dailies.
“Would they use the name of any other sporting or Bollywood icon? They knew what they were doing, that’s why they deleted the tweets. You are using someone’s calibre and achievements to get on the bandwagon and promote your business, which is unethical,” says Tuhin Mishra, co-founder and managing director of management firm Baseline Ventures. “We are not stopping anybody from congratulating him on an individual level. There are companies that have reached out to us and asked us, ‘can we send out a congratulatory message, or is there a price attached to it?’ which is a perfect manner of making sure. But as a corporate, you can’t use him to drive your business.” Protecting their brand has been an age-old practice for global athletes. It’s about ensuring nobody can make money off you without you making money off yourself. The celebration poses of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah are trademarked, and so are the innocuous quips that go viral, such as ‘I love me some me’ and ‘Getcha popcorn ready’. LeBron James and Jeremy Lin have rights to ‘Just a kid from Akron’ and ‘Linsanity’ respectively. And copyright is also why Bruce Buffer won’t use elder brother Michael’s iconic ‘Let’s get ready to rumble’ catchphrase to announce UFC fights.
While it’s just his name for now, Shaw’s advertising acumen could leave brands making the Shaw-stopping puns at their own peril. Athletes also secure rights to their nicknames. For example, New York Yankees great Alex Rodriguez trademarking his nickname A-Rod in 1996 meant Andy Roddick could never use the moniker commercially. Basketball legend Michael Jordan owns his name in Chinese characters as well. In 2016, after a four-year lawsuit, Jordan won the case against Qiaodan (pronounced cheow-dahn) Sports Company, a brand built around the Mandarin transliteration of his name.
“Nothing is more important than protecting your own name, and today’s decision shows the importance of that principle,” Jordan said after the verdict.
Much like their professional counterparts, promising high school and college athletes in the United States have lined up to snag trademarks to their names and slogans to secure their future. While the movement has been limited to a small group of extraordinary athletes, it could easily reach India, which has seen a number of breakthrough performances in recent years. Shaw’s is clearly a case of a young athlete knowing his worth and jumping into the advertising world well prepared.
The Mumbai lad was picked up Baseline Ventures — who also represent shuttlers PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Formula 2 driver Arjun Maini and Ravindra Jadeja — in November last year at the suggestion of fellow signee and India cricketer Smriti Mandhana. Shaw furthered his value by leading India to its fourth Under-19 World Cup title and nabbing a Rs 1.2cr contract with Delhi Daredevils. But some have expressed discomfort at an 18-year-and a-Test-old cricketer filing lawsuits.
“We have had people reach out to us, saying ‘how can you do this? Prithvi is so young.’ But age has nothing to do with it. Firstly, he is a talented, proven athlete, not a kid. You shouldn’t be 25 or 30 or 40 to start protecting yourself. Everybody has a shelf life. Taking care of yourself as a brand begins at day one. If we don’t take action today, people as well as potential brands could assume Prithvi must be representing all these brands,” says Mishra. Dairy cooperative Amul, too, posted a characteristically quirky poster congratulating Shaw and calling itself ‘Prithvi ka favourite makhan’, while a leading contraceptive brand tweeted a silhouette of the cricketer, along with the caption: ‘It’s always special when it’s the first time’.”
“That is still the same thing, but they did it in a smart manner. In the case of Amul, they do it in a tongue-in-cheek manner and have been doing it for too long. But they don’t do it straight up unethically,” says Mishra. “At the end of the day, the action we have taken is not about money, but to create awareness for other athletes. This is to ensure that no brand goes ‘Prithvi toh abhi baccha hai, koi dekhega nahi, let’s use his hype’.”