With new IPL dates in place, Indian sports biz looks set to make a triumphant return

Analysts say that given this is the off-season for sports in India, the industry has some time to watch and learn from the leagues that are already back in action

e4m by Christina Moniz
Published: Jul 24, 2020 2:06 PM  | 14 min read

It doesn’t matter which domain, there’s no possible sector that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t touched. But if you’re a sports fan, there’s no doubt that you’ve probably spent the past three months eagerly awaiting that nail-biting winning run on the cricket field during an Indian Premier League (IPL) match or that high-octane football clash. In the past two months, with tournaments like Germany’s Bundesliga and the English Premier League under way, and with the West Indies’ tour of England signalling the resumption of live cricket, all may not be lost for sports fans yet. The much awaited IPL too looks set to make a big comeback with the tournament expected to begin on September 19 this year. Things are finally looking good for Indian sport enthusiasts!


According to the seventh edition of ‘Sporting Nation in the Making’, the report from GroupM India’s entertainment and sports division, ESP Properties, the business of sports in India is seeing a strong CAGR of 12.8% over the past 10 years with the sports industry growing at 17% in 2019 alone. The current pandemic has become a speed-breaker of sorts for the sector, compelling stakeholders across the sporting landscape in India to become more nimble-footed and to innovate in terms of engaging with fans and keeping the momentum going. Kartikeya Sharma, Founder, Pro Sportify, which owns properties like the Pro Wrestling League and The Great India Run, talks about the current situation facing the Indian sports business: “The sports sector is one of the worst affected as it has lost a significant amount of revenues with all activities halted. Indian and international wrestlers are eagerly waiting for the next season of the Pro Wrestling League, a platform that has helped Indian players to win medals at the Olympics. Once the Pro Wrestling League and Big Bout League start, the sporting quotient will be high. We will create an ecosystem that will allow spectators to enjoy the game in a controlled environment,” says Sharma. Apart from this, Pro Sportify will launch the Indian Arena Polo League.

Broadcast players have perhaps been the hardest hit during the past few months, with live sporting action coming to a complete halt. Star Sports has worked to fill the void for sports fans, bringing out a programming mixed bag of nostalgia that includes some iconic games and performances. Football fans also found some reason to celebrate as the Bundesliga, Germany’s football tournament, was the first major league to bounce back into action.

The English Premier League, hugely popular among Indian football fans, also kicked off on June 23, bringing much cheer to both fans and the broadcaster, Star Sports (as well as Disney+ Hotstar). The Spanish league (La Liga), the English FA (Football Association) Cup and the Italian league (Serie A) are also back, albeit in empty stadiums and in extraordinary circumstances. On the cricket front too, the West Indies tour of England is under way with one Test match already wrapped up. Cricket South Africa too held a special Solidarity Cup that saw 24 of South Africa's top cricketers in three teams, playing two halves in one match. In the US too, the NBA is set to begin by the end of July.

During the lockdown, broadcasters like Sony Pictures Network India (SPNI) in fact saw a growth in viewership on account of its WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) content in April. “Sony Pictures Sports Network had continued showing live content for WWE as well as UFC and launched WWE blockbusters @8 on Sony Ten 1 & Sony Ten 3, which was supported by a massive marketing campaign. Due to this, our viewership grew by 30% during the month of April. The South markets, particularly, showed high affinity towards the new WWE blockbuster content and experienced 40% growth. We are home to football in India and started showing live football matches every night - Serie A live from June 20, followed by FA Cup that returned on June 27,” says Neville Bastawalla, Head-Marketing & On Air Promotions, Sports Channels, Sony Pictures Networks India.

The network is also preparing for the return of both the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League in August. The network also has exclusive rights for the ongoing West Indies tour of England. Bastawalla points out that the resumption of live sports has seen the reappearance of advertisers on their channels. Brands like Amul, Apple, Skoda, ITC deodorants, Playgames 24x7, Maruti Suzuki India, Bharti Airtel, MPL and Amazon Prime are already on board, thereby indicating a definite upswing in advertiser interest.

The resumption of live sporting action in other parts of the world is definitely an encouraging sign for the Indian sports fraternity, notes Sundar Raman, CEO Sports, Reliance Industries (former IPL COO). “Adversity often brings out the best in people and like any other crisis, we must use this time to explore new ways to keep the growth and momentum going. One of the big learnings from this time has been the need to use non-season time more effectively, to keep fan engagement and interest sustained even when the leagues are not happening. We have seen social media platforms benefit from engagement between players and fans during the lockdown. Leagues like the ISL and IPL must explore ways to leverage and monetise this during the off-season time. Broadcasters too should look at exploring the OTT space to create more engagement and drive fan interest during non-season times,” notes Raman.

Given that this is the off-season for sports in India, the industry has some time to watch and learn from the leagues that are already back in action. Explaining how India can best utilise this off-season time to watch and learn, Vinit Karnik, Business Head, ESP Properties, GroupM says, “We will have three months to learn from the developed markets/leagues in terms of what measures they are taking, securing the players, testing and social distancing protocol, etc., as well as technology advancements that will be implemented considering these live sports will happen behind closed doors. It will be interesting to see the fan engagement and experience being played out.”

The need to create engaging content that involves both players and fans has never been more important than in these challenging times. Social media and digital now play a big role in keeping fans and sports personalities connected. Satish Menon, CEO of Kings XI Punjab, explains, “We actually engage with most of our players. We take our key players and create fan interactions. We have an average of 3-4 posts a day going out virtually.” While he adds that this cannot match the excitement of live content, it has helped in keeping spirits high of late.

While advertisers usually leverage big sporting events to connect with consumers, they can also use this off-season time to build greater visibility for themselves by creating relevant content with sports stars. Karthik Raman, Chief Marketing Officer & Head – Products, IDBI Federal Life Insurance says, “At IDBI Federal, we believe that health is the best insurance a person can have. We have recently joined hands with NEB Sports and renowned sportspersons Pullela Gopichand, Ashwini Nachappa and Malathi Holla for a unique run called ‘Run to the Moon’ to raise funds for coaches and sports staff who have been badly affected during the lockdown. The run on July 21, 2020 marks the 51st anniversary of man’s landing on the moon in 1969. We have received a tremendous response with over 10,000 runners signing up to be a part of this run,” he says. He adds that the relationship between brands and sports will remain largely unaffected by the current situation, because sports continues to have that magic, which keeps fans engaged.

Analysing the current scenario for sports in India, Mohit Burman, Co-owner, Kings XI Punjab, says, “Through digitisation and other technologies, people sitting at home can be made to experience the game as if they are watching live from the stadium. In fact, South Africa’s virtual Comrades Marathon saw an epic participation from across the world, and 128 from India alone. As far as on-ground events go, the BCCI will definitely restart tournaments like the IPL when there is an opportunity.”

Unlike the situation with IPL, the Indian Super League (ISL) was fortunate to wrap up its season before the lockdown with minimal disruptions. For teams across the league, the time has come to now re-look at sponsor deliverables and brand partnerships, especially since spectators will not be allowed in stadiums for some time.

Rubina Dhillon, Head - Marketing & Sponsorships, FC Goa explains how the club has had to go back to the drawing board and analyse the value it has generated for sponsor partners. “It is important to understand that a sports sponsorship is made up of several parts such as broadcast, fan engagement, activations, etc. The biggest challenge is going to be the traditional, on-ground activations from a sponsor’s perspective. As a result, we will have to be more creative and move beyond typical partnerships. Budgets that brands may have allocated towards these activations and on-ground fan engagement will need to be repurposed towards other mediums. As a club, we have been exploring and successfully delivering digital properties to sponsors,” Dhillon notes.

For a tournament like IPL that sees huge advertiser interest, there may be re-negotiations that will take into account factors like the time of year. The tournament takes place during India’s peak summer season, but is now set to coincide with the festive season this year. “Factors like no crowd in stadiums, the season of the year, etc., will need to be factored into advertiser negotiations going forward. If the tournament is not being played in India, that too will have some impact in terms of contract agreements,” observes Santosh N, Managing Partner D&P Advisory LLP and external advisor, Duff & Phelps.

He is confident that despite the current economic situation, advertisers will come on board when the IPL takes off this year, simply because the eyeballs will be more than ever before. “With people not being able to travel on holiday, movie theatres shut and with most people remaining within the confines of their home, we will see robust viewership numbers when the IPL happens this year. Advertisers will also line up,” maintains Santosh N.

The very fact that consumers have been starved of live sports in the past few months is forcing consumers to re-look at their subscriptions for sports channels during this time. This might just be the year for mobile gaming, something advertisers should take note of. Mohit Joshi, MD - India, Havas Media Group observes, “Sponsors and partners should venture into innovative content formats to make the most out of viewer interest during this time. They should come up with content/partnership options which help viewers engage with their favourite athletes, teams, etc., and in the process be seen winning viewers’ trust and loyalty. Mobile gaming during COVID times has seen 30% to 35% increase in monthly active users and time spent has gone up from 30 to 45 minutes. Hence, gaming and virtual sports are excellent options for active consumer engagement.” Players in the domain are also capitalising on the current demand for online and fantasy sports.

The gaming sector has launched the #PlayApartTogether initiative to inform and encourage the vast network of users to follow social safety norms. Speaking about the favourable response the lockdown has seen for the e-sports industry, Sidharth Kedia, Group CEO, NODWIN Gaming says, “In all the tournaments that we flagged off after the lockdown, we saw a 300-400% increase in participation from all over India. NODWIN’s flagship e-sports tournament, the ESL India Premiership, alone saw 1800% rise in participation. Viewership, on the other hand, has increased three times of what we used to get pre-COVID with 150-200% increase in watch time.”

For brands like Bridgestone, sports is an integral component of marketing and communication strategy. The current pandemic might change the way sports are played or broadcast, but Deepak Gulati, CMO Bridgestone India is clear that the brand’s commitment to sports will remain undeterred. “For marketers, the in-stadium audience is just a fraction of the eyeballs that a brand wants to target. The larger reach has always been through the telecast of the event. Research shows that currently there has been a dip in sports channels viewership, but this is because there is no fresh or live content. India is a sports-loving country, and once COVID-19 restrictions on sporting events are over, the viewership will bounce back. Empty stadium or not, once this long drought is over, the viewership will be even higher, and that is an opportunity for marketers,” Gulati states.

Teams and players are also mentally conditioning themselves to play behind closed doors and without the familiarity of crowd support. Speaking about the learnings from this challenging situation, Mustafa Ghouse, CEO, JSW Sports notes, “It's important that we are sensitive to our surroundings and take every precaution to stay safe and healthy. That’s something we tend to take for granted, especially athletes. Most of us as sportspersons tend to think of ourselves as bulletproof, but as an organisation and as teams, our biggest priority is ensuring the safety and fitness of our players. Even as things begin to open up slowly, our clear focus and priority will be on ensuring that the safety and hygiene protocol is followed and that risk is minimised. While we cannot compare ourselves to countries like England and Germany, we can take this time to observe and learn best practices that can be implemented here.” JSW Sports, incidentally, has a presence in three Indian sports leagues – IPL (with Delhi Capitals), ISL (Bengaluru FC) and PKL (Haryana Steelers).

Speculation may be rife about the future of Indian sports with a fair number of naysayers, but the mood across the board is one of positivity. Advertisers like Apollo Tyres have pledged to continue their associations with sports properties despite the challenging economic climate.

One important quality of sports is its immense power to lift human spirits and bring people together in ways that few other things can. Procam International is the company that introduced the Tata Mumbai Marathon and the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, as well as the editions recently started in Bengaluru and Kolkata. Anil Singh, MD Procam International, perhaps sums up the current industry sentiment best when he says that despite the ongoing hiccups, the sports industry’s comeback will be stronger and bigger than ever before. “We’ve got all the properties that the cities, the federations and athletes need; therefore we have to come back into that fabric of positivity. I am quite convinced that we will come back stronger and brands will be way more sensitive to how people are and how they spend their monies and what they need to do. There cannot be a bigger celebration of society than to see the Tata Mumbai Marathon or perhaps the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, or any of the other properties, come back,” he states. Singh also recalls the time of the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, which led to a huge display of solidarity across the city at the time of the Tata Mumbai Marathon in January, 2009. “We saw close to 7,000 people stand together and sing the national anthem outside the Trident. Once we overcome this pandemic, we will see a bigger story and greater turnout at the next marathon. Brands will also be more focused and everything at the end of the day will definitely be amplified for the better,” observes Singh. He is confident that Indian sports just need to ride out this time towards creating a brighter, bigger future.

(With inputs from Sonam Saini and Ruhail Amin)

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