Media gurus have time and again said that people watch shows, not channels. The thought is probably the most appropriate in the case of sports channels. Going by the performance of various channels in the sports genre in 2007, there rarely appears to be any channel loyalty. A sports channel is as good as its last cricket property performance. The only one to buck the cricket trend is Ten Sports -- a clear leader on any non-cricket day. However, for that channel, too, all points are coming from WWE -- which is more of entertainment than sports.
The ratings graphs show a tough fight in the genre in the first month. The reasons: India-South Africa Test series which gave Star Sports some very high numbers; then both the Hero Honda Cup between India and Sri Lanka, and the Pepsi Cup between India and West Indies gave newly launched Neo Sports a leadership position in the genre. ESPN had its share with the Commonwealth Tri-Series that gave the channel its weeks of highs in the first two months. The battle, with all these properties, was a tough one between these sports channels; channels like Zee Sports, DD Sports and Neo Sports Plus lay low.
In the following period, almost all channels were playing around the same region, ESPN and Star Sports performing a little better than the other channels, but the clear leader with some distance is Ten Sports.
Manish Porwal, Executive Director, Starcom (South and West), said, “Any sports channel in India is as good as the last cricket match it has shown but this is the case in terms of exposure.” Porwal observed that the ratings that a brand can get from a sports channel can be achieved from any other genre and at much cheaper cost -- the cost per rating points of sports per se is high.
“For years now, however, we are still stuck to sports and the key reason for that is engagement -- it is increasingly seen that sports are to men what serials have been to women,” stated Porwal. “There are limitations on measuring engagement but some parameters like the time spent, the number of people coming in, staying and coming back can indicate the engagement degree of a property and the results here show sports as a genre is very engaging.”
Media professionals believe that the engagement for other sports like soccer, tennis and Formula 1 is increasing. Some indicators of this is seen in the effort from channels to secure and show such properties and the increase in numbers that these properties have seen in the last few years. One bad episode for cricket can bring down the weight in the game for a while and one good episode for another sport can bring up that sport for some time, like Sania Mirza and tennis and PHL and hockey picking up in local markets like Punjab.
Prasanth Kumar, National Director – CTG, GroupM, said, “You can grow other sports but that takes time and investment, and the non-cricket sports awareness in the country has only come about now, otherwise it has really always been very cricket.”
Both experts believe that at present, the current numbers of any channel are reflective of how mass they can get. Argued Porwal, “Ten Sports is getting numbers from something that is not even in their genre -- WWE is entertainment, not sports. We are seeing this mish-mash of genre, across genre -- you want to see what you want to see on your channel, then watching it on everyone’s channel. If you are a sports person, you want to see entertainment on your channel.”
Kumar seconded that but was quick to add that there is nothing wrong with that. He said, “WWE is sports entertainment and apart from that, all Ten Sports programmes are sports oriented programmes. Their efforts like bringing movies on a channel is really to bring in some novelty. Besides, when you don’t have cricket, you have to bank on intelligent packaging. The channel tried to capture the sports spirit and give it to the audience, and it has worked.”
Kumar also drew attention to the fact that distribution is important for a sports channel and sometimes the right distribution can get low-key events some good ratings. One point of difference here is that ratings matter in sports channels.
Porwal voiced the school of thought that ratings were not important. He said, “I don’t believe in sports channels numbers -- cricket is too overbearing and without cricket there are no numbers. You can’t look at an overall number for sports channel and make an assumption because there is no allegiance for sports channels.”
Kumar, on the other hand, said, “Ratings are an indicator of the perception of the channel. When the ratings are high, more people are watching, and hence talking about the channel.”
Ratings may make the difference but the formula that seems to be working -- when a channel cannot be cricket dependent -- is to induce some entertainment or sports entertainment on the channel.