Spartan Sports boss Kunal Sharma on Michael Clarke and his plans for world domination.
This article originally appeared in Sports Biz Insider – an Australian Trade Magazine.
Kunal Sharma, 37, pulled off a considerable coup for Spartan Sports in January, when he signed Australian cricket captain Michael Clarke to use his bat brand.
Clarke signed his first bat deal with Slazenger as a 13-year-old, and the man instrumental in that deal, former Test player Ian Davis, now consults to Spartan Sports and was a crucial contact.
Clarke had gone out of contract with Slazenger – they claimed not to be able to “meet his commercial demands” – and scored his ground breaking 329 against India with a “cleanskin” in the first week of 2012 at the SCG.
Sharma and Davis spoke to Clarke following the SCG innings for half an hour and got a handshake deal. The contract was signed the day before the next Test, in Adelaide, and Clarke used a Spartan bat bearing his name and the “329″ to score a double hundred. He went on to be named the Allan Border Medallist for the best player of the year.
Spartan Sports was formed in 1954 in India and the Australian operation is based in Warilla, 90 minutes south of Sydney. Sharma moved to Wollongong to study in 1995, met his wife and stayed, setting up the Australian arm of Spartan.
In this interview Sharma tells how the million dollar-plus deal was done, his impressions of Clarke and his plans for Spartan Sports to become the number one brand in world cricket.
What has been the immediate impact of signing Clarke to play with your bats?
“Since we’ve got him on board it’s brought a new energy into the company, and since then Michael has been playing the best cricket of his career as well. It’s been awesome for us. There is no doubt about it: before, we were just another brand in the market but since we’ve got Michael on board the reception has been fantastic. I’m talking to retailers and from their point of view they see us a very strong brand now, there’s no doubt about it.”
How did you make this deal happen?
“We knew that his bat deal was coming up soon and we had been talking to Michael’s management before. That was his previous management though and we did some initial talks and they never got back to us. We were out there trying to a deal but then we heard a rumour in the market that he had signed with another bat company and so we left it alone.
“It was not until we went to watch the game in Sydney and we he was playing with a blank bat that we picked it up again. Even before he scored the 300 I thought ‘geez, what’s going on here’. From there onwards we found out he had new management, we met them and we came to an agreement. We just felt we had to get him signed on – he’s one of the best batsmen in the world – and so we did the deal right there and he played in Adelaide with our bat. Ian Davis gave him his first contract at Slazenger when he was 13 so he’d always known him and supported him. Michael has a high regard for Ian Davis and, there you go mate, we got him on board!
There seemed to be some industry surprise that it wasn’t a more established cricket brand …
“Spartan is an Indian based company and my family have been making sporting products since the 1950s. Michael knew about us and he had seen our bats through Mitchell Johnson, who we also sponsor. We have Chris Gayle using our bats as well so what they can do wasn’t unknown to Michael. His way of doing things is that he wanted to work with a company that made the product themselves instead of just buying in product. We make all our bats in India and we have the best bats going around in the market now.”
It’s an open secret in cricket that a lot of international standard players have their bats made by small bat craftsmen and then just apply the relevant stickers. This won’t be the case with Spartan?
“I can guarantee you he is using our bats, absolutely no doubt. Look, if we didn’t have the ability to provide our own player with a bat to use I wouldn’t be in this business, I’d be asking ‘what I’m doing…’ We do make bats for some other players as well, what they do with them we have no idea… But in Adelaide you saw he scored a double hundred and you couldn’t hope for a better start with Michael using Spartan.”
What is he like to do business with?
“I know a lot of celebrities in cricket and I’ve never met a more gentle human being than him. He’s an absolute cracker of a guy. He invited me and my wife and two of my family as his guests to the Allan Border Medal night because he’s appreciative of what we’re doing for him as a brand, and we feel it vice a versa: we would do anything for him. It was great to see him win the medal – we were there until very late and got home very early in the morning, enjoying the success of Michael!”
You have one of the country’s most recognisable faces using your products, what are your plans to make the most of this?
“I’m a very passionate cricketer myself, I’ve always loved the game. We’ve been manufacturing equipment for many years and, as you say, we have not been thought of in the top tier bat company in the world before but my idea has been that once we get into the mainstream of cricket we will change a lot of the ideas about the manufacturing and appearance of cricket equipment.
“We are coming out with a lot of innovation for 2012 – graphics that attract young people, innovations in bats, pads and gloves. The retailers are telling us that what we are planning is the best range of cricket equipment they’ve ever seen in Australia. The decals, the shape of the bats, the handles, the innovation we’re providing will be fantastic. It’s quite early to tell you how much business we’re getting because Michael’s on board but we believe we are now in the top three and we’re being told our innovation is far beyond what any other cricket manufacturer is doing at the moment.”
A lot of billboards have just gone up around the country showing Clarke advertising BP fuel. In those he is swinging a Slazenger bat. This driving you mad?
“Not at all! It was something that was done prior to us getting on board and the campaign had gone ahead. A lot of people have been asking what’s going on but there’s nothing we can do about it for this year.”