A big shift has taken place in the last 20 years in the profile of cricket followers. It has moved from being a sport for the urban elite to one that has a mass following across the country. India is a single sport country where cricket is a religion, where passion for the game is deep and where the country shuts down when the national team is playing. And yet, this is only half the truth. According to Sanjay Gupta, COO, STAR India, even for a big match, consumers view only 15 per cent of the match on an average. Out of more than 1000 hours that an Indian viewer spent watching television last year, only 20 hours were on cricket. Consumption of domestic cricket is even worse. So what are the issues plaguing the sports genre in India?
Issues affecting sports broadcasting in India
Gupta believes that in India less than one per cent of the population has actually watched any sport in a stadium. And, yet, sports broadcasters have not made any effort to make their programming more relevant to the new audience. Also, in a country where less than 10 per cent of the population understands English and a much smaller number are native speakers, sports broadcasters programme only in English.
Elaborating further, Gupta stated, “Around the world, sports graphics is used to bring the game closer to the viewer and helps the viewer understand the game. Yet, in cricket, graphics is more a nuanced tool meant to tickle the sensibilities of the few deep masters of the game, not the 99 per cent of the country that has never even been to a stadium. The same story extends to television commentary too. Rather than being the anchors of the game, the cricket commentator is invariably an expert talking to his peers.”
Gupta believes that along with the broadcasters, cable and satellite platforms have added to the problems. Around the world, sports has been a huge driver of revenue and profit for pay television operators, whereas in India every operator complains about the low ARPUs they get from the business. And yet, instead of using compelling sports content to get more money from consumers and reduce churn, the cable and satellite operators make it difficult for their subscribers to discover and develop a habit of consuming sports.
The distribution of sports channels are treated less like the mass product and more as premium add-on products for a small, rich, niche audience. Also, these platforms turn off the channel when a marquee event is not on. While this may have made sense in the old, bandwidth-limited analog world where you could only put 20 to 30 channels, it makes no sense that even DTH operators are employing the same tactic when they have 300 channels to offer.
Gupta said, “Even worse is the behaviour of a few platforms that have created their own channels that switch to the most marquee sports events of multiple broadcasters. While they hide under the pretence that they are addressing a consumer need, what they are really doing is illegal piracy. But what is distressing is that they do not understand the long-term damage they are doing to the business. Instead of multiplying choices and triggering demand, they are creating a structure that will ensure that viewers only watch a few cricket events.”
For the regulator and the government, the overwhelming objective must be to further consumer interest. If India has to break its poor status in international sports and use sports to create a virtuous cycle for the larger society, then the regulator has a powerful role to play but has in turn imposed a cap on prices. According to Gupta, a price cap is never good for the long-term health of a business but it is especially absurd in the context of sports, where the market we operate in is truly global and where the acquisition costs for rights reflects a global market. Shockingly, Star Sports can charge no more than the country’s weakest sports channel with practically any sports on it.
“To make matters worse, the government has mandated that the most expensive sports events are events of national importance that need to be made available to the public broadcaster – who in turn not only retransmits an unencrypted signal to all its subscribers for free, but also makes it available to private platforms to carry the content under a statutorily mandated ‘must carry’ law,” added Gupta.
The entire eco system has therefore unwittingly conspired to ensure that sports broadcast is unprofitable, sports consumption is limited and sports followership is minimal.
STAR India’s big sports push
The unhealthy equilibrium which is hurting the country, the consumer and the media industry needs to be changed. And as the country’s media leader, and as a company that has faced such hurdles before and still managed to build an outstanding franchise, the Network believes that they can shape this change.
Gupta shared, “Though it will require a lot of effort to break the status quo, we will have to ensure that we create compelling sports content, across multiple sports, across multiple languages, with an economic structure that will add value for all. But we are patient as we always have been in India. And our history, our parentage and the coherence of our approach gives us confidence that we will build India’s first successful and profitable sports franchise.”
Sanjay Gupta was expressing his views on the dynamics of sports broadcast in the country at the on-going Asia Pacific Pay-TV Operators Summit in Bali, Indonesia.