SPNI looks to massify its niche sports properties through smart marketing

MUMBAI: Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) is looking to massify its niche sports portfolio. While it has mass properties like Cricket, WWE, and the FIFA World Cup the network aims to grow the audience for UFC, UEFA Champions League, NBA, and other football properties besides non-India and Test cricket. Having built a sizable base for these properties, the network believes that the time is ripe to take them to the next level.

The NBA is expected to get a big boost from the pre-season games that will take place in the city early next month. The focus rests on smart marketing initiatives like getting in celebrities who are passionate about sport, having more focussed programming initiatives and sometimes starting a push well in advance. An example of this is the Olympics where SPNI released an anthem for the event a year ahead of the 2020 Tokyo edition.

SPNI marketing head sports cluster Neville Bastawalla feels that with the right focus some properties like UFC can reach the current level of WWE within two to three years. A 100% viewership growth is possible for its properties but a tipping point needs to happen. He noted the importance of building relevance for the audience.

SPNI looks to massify its niche sports properties through smart marketing“We have embarked upon our journey to massify and grow the sports genre. WWE, of course, is one of the leading pillars. Our aim is to change the behavior and culture of people towards other sports. FIFA was a big movement for us in getting 177 million viewership. How do we get that same movement going for UEFA Champions League which is the biggest club championship and for Serie A? Where do you see Ronaldo and Messi fighting against each other? Only in the UEFA Champions League and in the World Cup but that is only once in four years. The Uefa Champions League is every week and we need to create awareness about it,” Bastawalla expounded.

He said that SPNI took a lot of learnings out of the FIFA World Cup which had both the class and mass going for it. Football, he noted, is big for SPNI and it has everything of importance outside the EPL.

“Sony created a bang with the ‘Meri Doosri Country’ campaign. Post that, we embarked on a journey of influencing culture and changing behavior. If FIFA got 177 million viewers, the aim is to get a percentage of that to watch the UEFA Champions League every Tuesday and Wednesday night. Why won’t people come when they really enjoyed one month of football in Russia? Also, Serie A is a legendary league.”

He feels that there is massive growth potential for football to explode. He further stated that non-football purists do not know about club football that is why there is a need to build the UEFA Champions League. He added that during the final stages viewership for the event dramatically grows and so the Farhan Akhtar campaign focussed on that.

He also noted that building relatability is key. He gave the example of someone who watches Hindi movies. For that person, it helps to get a big fan of the UEFA Champions League to talk about it. That is how Farhan Akhtar came into the picture who he said is a youth icon. “He spoke from the heart about the UEFA Champions League.”

He noted that celebrities are passionate about these sports and Akhtar went to watch the Uefa Champions League finals in Madrid. SPNI has looked to capitalise on it and used Akhtar for its campaign. Bastawalla said, “He is a genuine fan and is helping to make it big in India. While football’s key markets are Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, and the North-East, the FIFA World Cup was seen across the country. The opportunity is to grow the UEFA Champions League viewership in the big cities, the metros.”

Bastawalla feels that channels have to win the share of the heart of the viewer. He sees no reason why club football’s viewership be restricted to Goa, Kerala, West Bengal, and the Northeast.

“Last season the UEFA Champions League viewership grew by 50% and we had taken certain strategic calls to play it on Sony Ten 1 and on Sony Ten 2. The focus lies in getting the once in four years viewer to watch the best club footballing action on the Sony Sports network. The same players are there that viewers see in the World Cup.”

He said that the ‘Sona Mana Hai’ campaign tells people that if they miss out on the UEFA Champions League they are losers. It rides on the idea of the fear of missing out.

In terms of the Spanish football league La Liga, he said that Facebook wanted exclusive rights and so did not give Sony the broadcast rights after one year. The Facebook La Liga deal covers multiple territories. The India deal is not a standalone deal.

He also sees a huge opportunity for the UFC which is massive worldwide but is a niche in India. So the channel launched a Hindi feed for certain key fights and also roped in Varun Dhawan for the ad campaign and aim was to convey the fact that it is real.

“How do I create a buzz for it? These actors are not just coming in. They are big fans of these sports. Dhawan asked what he could do to push the UFC. We took him to Abu Dhabi. The message conveyed was that the UFC is as real as it gets. It cannot get more real than that –real action, real glory, and real honour. Then you talk about rivalry, Hindi massification. If a viewer samples the UFC he will love it. We are that confident of the product that we have got. It is about the viewer sampling and connecting with the product. He says that the product is for him.”

On the programming front, he said that the broadcaster has opened up a slot for UFC Monday to Friday at 7 pm with repeats at 11 pm.

He said that in the movie genre, action rates well whether it is in English or Hindi. The UFC, he noted, is all hardcore action. It is just that so far it has not been built. “Relevance has not been established. Efforts so far have not been made in an aggressive and in the right way. We are doing this now. This is how we unlock potential.”

He draws inspiration from the English entertainment genre saying that shows like ‘Masterchef Australia’, ‘Sherlock’ are spoken about today because serious efforts have been made to make them household names.

He noted that the NBA is being helped by the fact that US President Donald Trump mentioned the India games during his meeting with PM Narendra Modi.

He also said that a lot of work needs to be done on the non-India cricket and Test front and pointed out that most people have not heard of the Ashes. “It is a myth that everybody has heard about it. We launched our campaign around it in multiple languages. We wanted to add the entertainment quotient.”

One Hindi TVC mentioned the fact that the Ashes is an even bigger rivalry than India Pakistan. This, he noted, is a baby step in going in the massification zone.

He feels that the T10 League when it launches a third season in November where a match gets over in 90 minutes like a football match is what will rock. So Sony gave it a big push by bringing down England’s World Cup winning captain Eoin Morgan down for a two day promotional event along with Zaheer Khan. The aim is to take the event to another level.

“I think that the T10 format might be a way for cricket to enter the Olympics. The key is to make it genuinely entertaining. Then people will consume it. It is language agnostic. This is the first year where we are doing a proper campaign for the T10 League. We are doing a 45-day promotional campaign before the event starts. There will be an opening ceremony. Expect more announcements from us on this front. It all boils down to action and the more fast paced you make cricket the more exciting the game is.”

He is also excited about the next season of the Pro Volleyball League that is expected to take place early next year and said that there are plans to scale up this event by adding cities. in terms of the earlier mentioned Olympic them he noted that the broadcaster has chosen a very different path to promote the event. The aim is to convey the message that India is behind its athletes and so they should go for it.

“We want to make the Olympics big and so we have started the campaign one year before the event takes place. Generally, before a marque event, a campaign is launched 45-60 days in advance. What we also did was take four episodes of India specific Olympics content and it airs every Friday at 8 pm. As we progress more content will go up. We are looking at hardcore local Olympics programming from the Indian team’s perspective and the aim is to start this three to four months before the Olympics.”

Opportunities for language feeds are used but the ROI also needs to be considered. So WWE’s flagship event ‘Wrestlemania’ was also in Tamil and Telugu. “We will use (language feeds) where it will drive growth.”

He added that exhibiting in cinema halls is an important and growing avenue. For instance, a tie-up was done with PVR for the finals for the Uefa Champions League. The Super Cup between Chelsea and Liverpool was done with PVR and Inox. “If permissions are given we would look at showing Euro 2020 in cinemas. This will be a massive event.”

In terms of choosing channels to air sports, he noted that Sony Six is for cricket, Sony Ten 3 is for the Hindi feed, Sony Ten 2 is the football focussed channel and also airs UFC action, Sony Ten 1 is for the WWE. “But if multiple events happen then everything goes everywhere,” he added.

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