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Leagues and big events light up 2014 for sportscasters
2014 was a defining year for sports in general and sports broadcasters in particular for a variety of reasons. The non-cricket franchise leagues kicked off in the right earnest. Indian viewers were treated to more live content than ever before. For the first time there was lot more variety in content whether it was international events or the local leagues. Celebrities from cricket and Bollywood looked at sports business seriously by becoming team owners in different leagues. Buoyed by the success of Hindi commentary, sports broadcasters further experimented with regional languages to grow sports content consumption.
Year of new leagues
2014 saw the launch of five new leagues with the big one being the Indian Super League (ISL), a joint initiative of IMG Reliance (IMGR) and Star India. Besides ISL, kabaddi and tennis saw the launch of two new leagues each.
“It was probably the most eventful year for sports. Very significant investment has happened in sports for holding events or leagues in India whether it is ISL or IPTL, Pro Kabaddi League or WKL or the CTL. There have been so many events held in India. If you fall back to two or three years, besides IPL there was nothing. Earlier, the only opportunity to watch a sporting event live was IPL or Indian cricket team. 2014 changed all that. Now you have events happening in different sports,” say Sony Six business head Prasana Krishnan.
The biggest and the most ambitious project of the year was ISL. Promoted by IMG Reliance and Star India and backed by corporates and celebrities as team owners, the ISL had all the ingredients of being a successful league. The league marked the coming of age of Indian football with local Indian players getting an opportunity to rub shoulders with experienced international players.
In kabaddi, Anand Mahindra-promoted Mashal Sports did what was unthinkable before, by launching a kabaddi league christened Pro Kabaddi League. The audacious move was supplemented by getting committed franchise owners on board. The franchise owners included a mix of Bollywood stars, corporates and entrepreneurs.
Pro Kabaddi also marked the entry of former Disney India head Ronnie Screwvala into sports business. Screwvala’s Unilazer Ventures floated a sports arm Unilazer Sports prior to buying the Mumbai franchise of Pro Kabaddi League.
For Star Sports, which put its might behind both the leagues, the strategy paid off well with the inaugural edition of both the leagues reaching more than 400 million viewers. The reach could not have been achieved had the events not been simulcast on Star’s entertainment channels that enjoy mass reach. Apart from the viewership, another positive outcome was the buzz that the leagues were able to generate on social media as well as the traditional media.
“If you look at advertiser response, it was lukewarm but it delivered better. But the response to ISL was better because it is the first Indian professional league of that scale. The success story of the new leagues is that they have packaged the sports well and a lot of effort has been focused on marketing. So the two key words that determine the success of these leagues are well packaged and well marketed,” he added.
Closely following the launch of Pro Kabaddi League came the announcement of World Kabaddi League (WKL) by Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. What differentiated WK from Pro Kabaddi was the format (circle style) and the fact that it was also being played in other countries like the US, UK and Canada.
With a long neglected sport like kabaddi having two leagues why would tennis, a sport that has produced many heroes, be left behind? Mahesh Bhupathi made the first move by launching International Tennis Premier League (IPTL). Tennis legend Vijay Amritraj too launched his own league in the form of Champions Tennis League (CTL). Unlike IPTL, which had teams from other Asian besides India, CTL had only Indian teams.
“WKL didn’t do well. It got somewhere lost in the format because it was not played in India completely. That’s exactly the case with the IPTL. CTL was played in India but it didn’t have stars while IPTL had stars while it wasn’t played in India that makes a lot difference. IPTL had great potential, but somewhere the marketing effort was not there. CTL was a ship in the dark,” Karnik explained.
However, Krishnan has a different view on WKL and CTL. “WKL clearly showed that the circle style format has its popularity in Punjab. The ratings of WKL were way higher than Pro Kabaddi League in Punjab. In the rest of India that format was not popular. So for the organisers it is important to grow their own base and spread it to other areas. They did a course correction by holding more matches in India and that’s the lesson they have learnt,” he stated.
On CTL he said, “This is the first time tennis matches have happened in so many cities in India. Among the six cities excluding Chennai none of the other cities ever had any tennis match. Tennis is still a niche sport and needs to build further.”
Rights acquisition scene
No story on sports broadcasting, though, is complete without the astounding sums paid by sportscasters to secure rights. There was heavy action on the acquisition front as several key properties came up for renewal and many new properties were up for grabs.
The biggest of them was the International Cricket Council (ICC) which was retained by incumbent Star India for almost double the amount of what it had paid last time. Star is estimated to have paid $1.7–1.9 billion for ICC rights for the period 2015–2022 which is up from $1.1 billion it had paid for the previous cycle of rights which culminates with the ICC 2015 Cricket World Cup.
While it was a familiar script as far as other contenders were concerned (MSM and Ten Sports), the biggest surprise was the presence of Neo Sports with Al Jazeera’s backing. Besides, the presence of competition, the jump in the rights fee has also been attributed to the presence of three India events in the calendar.
Star India began its acquisition spree with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rights for a period of eight years. Together with Hockey India League (HIL), Star Sports will become the de facto home of hockey in India. The intent of building the sport is backed by a Rs 15 billion war chest. Later, it went ahead and snatched away Asia Cup rights from Nimbus Communications leaving the company’s sports broadcasting arm in lurch for it had to once again abandon its cricket play. Earlier, it had lost the New Zealand cricket rights.
Putting its weight behind local leagues, Star took a major punt with Anand Mahindra-promoted Mashal Sports’ Pro Kabaddi League. It further added another franchise-based league to its roster by acquiring rights to Mahesh Bhupathi-promoted IPTL. In motorsports, the sportscaster extended the F1 deal along with its sister concern Fox Sports.
Following its on-ground sponsorship deal, the sportscaster moved closer to the Indian Premier League (IPL) by collaborating with Times Internet for streaming matches on starsports.com. The move is a pointer to the sign of things to come as and when the IPL opens up for bidding.
Multi Screen Media (MSM) was equally aggressive in acquiring new properties. The TV network, that owns and operates Sony Six, began the year by snatching Australia Open rights from Star Sports. The broadcaster followed it up by acquiring the rights to the India-New Zealand series. Staying true to its positioning of being a sports entertainment channel, the channel acquired rights of properties like National Football League (NFL), Red Bull Air Race World Championship and Six Nations Rugby. The channel added local flavour to its offering with Vijay Amritraj’s CTL and WKL.
It was a steady ride for Zeel-owned Ten Sports as it managed to protect its tent-pole properties like UEFA Champions League and WWE, albeit with a significant increase in value. In order to become the destination for football fans, the sportscaster added new properties like Germany’s DFB Cup, Australia’s A-League, Capital One Cup and Sky Bet Football League. The sportscaster also extended its association with Commonwealth Games (CWG) for 2018 event. It also officially signed its broadcast rights deal with Sri Lanka Cricket. It acquired rights to Pakistan’s home series with Australia and New Zealand for $5.4 million. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has been selling TV rights on a series-to-series basis due to an internal crisis.
“Cost of content which are in demand is still high because it still is a competitive market,” noted Krishnan, pointing out to the huge premium paid by Star and Ten for renewing ICC and WWE rights.
Celebs and corporate honchos join sports leagues
While celebrity association with sports was limited largely to cricket, the year 2014 saw a turning point with celebrities from Bollywood and cricket investing in new leagues like ISL, Pro Kabaddi League, WKL, IPTL, and CTL.
The ISL became the centre of all attraction as cricketers, corporate czars and Bollywood stars teamed up to own franchises in the league. From cricketing legends like Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly to Bollywood stars like Salman Khan and Ranbir Kapoor to corporate honchos Venugopal Dhoot and Sameer Manchanda, the ISL was a big draw for the rich and famous.
Sun TV Network, which has an IPL team, had backed out of the ISL. Following Sun’s exit, the Bengaluru franchise was picked up by JSW Sports.
If ISL had a plethora of celebs backing it, the Pro Kabaddi League had only one celebrity owner in Abhishek Bachchan. However, the owner of Jaipur Pink Panthers ensured that there was no dearth of glamour in the league as he roped in his friends from the film fraternity to cheer for his team. Lending glamour to the WKL were actors Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha and rapper Honey Singh.
The IPTL, which had only four teams, saw mobile handset manufacturer Micromax buying the Mumbai franchise. Batting legend and former India cricket captain Sunil Gavaskar became the co-owner of the Singapore franchise. Amritraj’s CTL had Air Asia India CEO Mittu Chandilya as owner of Bengaluru franchise. Bollywood stars Farhan Akhtar and Ajay Devgn became co-owners of Mumbai and Delhi franchise respectively.
Sports on movie channels and regional feeds
The trend started by MSM of airing cricket on its Hindi movie channel Max has gained currency with Star India executing it with precision for ISL and Pro Kabaddi League.
MSM itself took this strategy a step ahead by airing the 2014 FIFA World Cup on its Bengali movie channel Sony Aath. The Bengali feed was a first for the tournament in India as the FIFA World Cup has never been telecast in a regional language. The move made sense since West Bengal and Kolkata contributed a large chunk of the ratings for 2010 FIFA World Cup.
“We will start seeing the results of language feeds in 2015 because it is still at an experimental stage. Not all language feed experiments have been successful. In our case, Bengali feed for FIFA World Cup was a non-brainer. Language feed is one area where everyone is going to put serious effort,” said Krishnan.
Star India had televised Pro Kabaddi League on Star Sports 2 and Hindi movie channel Star Gold. The strategy behind televising the newbie league on Star Gold was not only to get good reach but also to get more people to sample the league.
For ISL, Star further broadened the horizon by televising it on eight of its channels. The league was televised on Star Sports 2 (English), Star Sports 3 (Hindi), Star Sports HD 2 (English), Star Gold (Hindi), Star Utsav (Hindi), Asianet Movies (Malayalam), Jalsha Movies (Bengali) and Suvarna Plus (Kannada) to take it to as many as audiences as possible and in their local language.
According to Karnik, language feed as a concept was long overdue in a multi-lingual country like India. “Unlike the West where you have one language, we are a multi-lingual country. Regional-language communication really helps in increasing reach. What we saw with Pro Kabaddi was that 95 per cent of its rating came from Star Gold. ISL also saw traction on regional feeds,” he averred.
Bundling of channels for distribution
The split of MediaPro in the wake of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) regulation for content aggregators led to the bundling of sports and entertainment channels. After setting up their own affiliate sales teams, Star and Zee started distributing sports channels along with entertainment unlike the earlier norm of doing it separately.
Another consequence of TRAI’s content aggregators’ regulation was the pull out of Neo Sports from the TheOneAlliance bouquet. It’s another matter that the TheOneAlliance itself splitting latter with Discovery taking distribution for all platforms in-house. Incidentally, Neo was already distributing its channels for direct-to-home (DTH) platform. The two phases of digitisation gave Neo the confidence to distribute channels on its own for cable as well.
The year also saw a fierce battle between Star Sports and multi-system operator (MSO) Hathway Cable & Datacom which led to the latter putting former’s channels on RIO. With distribution getting unified, Star India, the parent company of Star Sports, also joined in to build pressure on the MSO.
Year of big events and local leagues
The year gone by was a good one as far as sports fanatics are concerned as they were treated to more live content than ever before.
Some of the key events that were aired by sportscasters during the year include the FIFA World Cup, ICC Twenty20 World Cup, Asia Cup, Pro Kabaddi League, ISL, IPTL, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, FIH Hockey World Cup, WKL, CTL, and India Open (Badminton). There were five series involving Team India one at home and four on foreign soil.
“There was no change in cricket’s position whether it was advertiser interest or viewership. India cricket saw an organic ad growth of 10–15 per cent. The good part is we got a new fan base for alternate sports. Nobody would have imagined that a Pro Kabaddi League will get that of traction. It was a pleasant surprise,” Karnik stated.
Shake-up in ICC
The ICC saw a major restructuring exercise with suspended BCCI president N Srinivasan ascending to the top by becoming the chairman of the ICC Board. The restructuring of the ICC handed more power to three full members India, Australia and England.
The ICC restructuring is expected to add an estimated $600 million to the BCCI’s coffers in the eight-year cycle from 2015 to 2023. The cricket board is eyeing gross revenue of $2.75 billion to $3 billion during the eight-year period beginning 2015.
Star gets permission to uplink sports channels from India
After waiting for more than a year, Star India finally received the permission to uplink its sports channels from India. The move will complete the process of integration of erstwhile ESPN Star Sports’ India operations with Star India. Earlier, the channels were being uplinked from Singapore and Hong Kong.
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