Can Indian television ever get hooked to Hockey?

By Anindita Sarkar , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | November 30, 2011
What is it about hockey that fails to re-create the Chak De-like thrill, even though many believe that the game has all the ingredients to make for an interesting viewing not just on the field, but even on television?

Hockey: It is not just any sport, it is the national sport of India. In fact, the Indian men's team is the most successful hockey team in Olympic history, with eight golds, one silver, and two bronze medals. And yet, it's cricket (and now, even other games such as football) that scores all the goals on Indian television.

So, what is it about hockey that fails to recreate the Chak De-like thrill? Many believe that the game has all the ingredients to make for an interesting viewing not just on the field, but even on air. But we are yet to see a success story.

It is well understood that Chak De was a commercial (hence, well-marketed) Bollywood movie, with Shah Rukh Khan playing the lead, which ensured box office success. Nevertheless, the movie did ignite some lost love for the game which could have transformed into sticky audiences on TV, provided it could create that love for itself on television, too. However, in terms of popularity on television, the game lags far behind.

A few recent moves do show that broadcasters have started taking interest in the game. Ten Sports has entered into a long-term partnership with the International Hockey Federation (IHF) to acquire the broadcasting rights for the major FIH Championships till 2014. Neo Sports, meanwhile, has been signed up as the exclusive broadcast partner for the World Series Hockey (WSH) in the Indian sub-continent, to be held in December 2011. Similar attempts have been made earlier with the Premier Hockey League by ESPN STAR Sports.

However, the viewers' interest is yet to be built. What is it that plagues the game and prevents audience stickiness? afaqs! finds out!

Packaging is important

Viewers are no longer satisfied to watch a match with just two cameras capturing it. They want to watch the ball from all angles, to see the players' gestures, and get the feel of watching a match for real, out there at the stadium.

The reason why the IPL has been such a huge and profitable property is because it has been packaged incredibly well. The action on the field may not be of the highest quality, but the marriage of entertainment with sport has been perfect. Cheerleaders, music, F&B, Bollywood and celebrity presence, contests, and on-ground promotions have all played a large part to ensure the IPL goes beyond just the sports pages, and that is critical if a sport is to do really well. Packaging and visual presentation is the main reason why a league like the NBA (National Basketball Association) is so successful globally.

"Viewers today are used to a certain benchmark in the broadcast quality, on-air packaging, graphics, world class technology, slick editing and exciting commentary. All these combine to make a good ground and on-air match viewership experience for fans," says Sabbas Joseph, director Wizcraft International, the global event management agency that has acquired the Delhi franchise of the World Series Hockey (WSH). The team will be called Delhi Wizards.

And, hockey today lacks such detail in packaging and promotions. Industry experts state that while watching a hockey match, viewers can only see 22 players on the field but they are unable to recognise any of them. Therefore, there is no emotional connect.

Again, the inclusion of statistics (as a scroll on screen) and analytics (with commentators inputs) in the packaging and visual presentation is crucial in attracting the attention of the viewers to any sporting event.

The regular viewers of cricket and tennis, who also like to watch hockey, feel that there exists a vast level of difference in the commentary of the game.

Experts believe that if the game, like cricket, can create small capsules prior to the start of the match wherein commentators can give a background on the players, draw comparisons between the teams man-to-man, share interesting off-field stories, interest could be developed among viewers.

It's not that the game of hockey lacks action, speed or thrill. Therefore, many believe, that it has all the makings of a great television sport. If the format changes to a quarter-half game instead of a 35-minute half, it could become a lot more interesting. The four-halves of 15 minutes each could be infused with maybe three breaks, each for five minutes.

"These five minutes could in turn, be broken into two-and-a-half minutes of game analysis, with screen captures and data thrown at the viewers, while the remaining two-and-a-half minutes can be booked for advertisements, thereby helping in the monetisation of the game," says an industry observer.

Other factors

Why has hockey's popularity declined? Hockey has failed to create role models in many years now be it in form of players or commentators which is important to build upon its aspirational value.

"There have been very few big wins after the arrival of television in India and the perception is that India's performance is continuously declining. Also, despite being the national game, it does not have a pan-India following, and is played only in a few regions (most of which are away from metros). That's why awareness and interest levels are generally low," says Varun Paliwal, founder and chief executive officer, Winning Matters Consulting, a boutique management consulting and strategic advisory firm that aims to enable organisations make better decisions on their engagement with Indian sporting assets.

"Viewers get glued to a match the minute they become aware that some record is going to be broken or if they are helped in understanding the various strategies/nuances of the game," he adds.

Additionally, the number of games that India plays in a year is limited. And therefore, the volume of quality content being made available for television airing - with India playing - is thus low. Unless the national team starts doing well in international competitions, the sport will find it difficult to garner eyeballs.

"Even today, broadcasters who do support the game sell the national game on the peg of national pride. However, whenever the Indian team starts to perform, the interest in the game returns, and is reflected in viewership and discussions among viewers," concludes Rajni Menon, associate vice-president, Carat Media India.

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