Shweta Mulki

"Kabaddi is a gladiator arena sport": Ronnie Screwvala

Ronnie Screwvala, founder, UTV Group, stepped down as managing director of Disney-UTV India in 2012. Thereafter, he co-founded Swades, a philanthropic foundation with his wife Zarina, and a venture capital firm called Unilazer Ventures, which has interests across various sectors. The latter's subsidiary Unilazer Sports, owns UMumba, the team which was crowned the Pro Kabaddi League 2015 champion in August this year.

Screwvala spoke to us on the popularity of kabaddi as a sport, as well as about the television industry. Excerpts from the interview:

Edited Excerpts

How popular do you think kabaddi is as a sport?

Kabaddi is the number two most-watched sport in India, be it in terms of its reach or its viewership. Anyone who says it's not so, should get their ratings checked. And, this is without any slicing and dicing of numbers. If you were to compare the number of people playing football, and the number of people playing kabaddi, you will find the latter to be the more popular sport. But, for that, you need to drive into different parts of the country, and I can't talk with authority there. But, about its viewership, I can. And, the second season of the league is only grown from the first.

"Kabaddi is a gladiator arena sport": Ronnie Screwvala
Why did you think this would appeal to viewers?

In cricket, there's so much being done by so many people, so 'what can I do more' in the context of taking up a sport and doing something with it was the thought process. What Mashal Sports, which owns the Pro Kabaddi League, and which is co-founded by Anand Mahindra (chairman and managing director, Mahindra Group) and Charu Sharma, did was to put the sport on a pedestal. To place it on that special mat, and give it a sense of that 'indoor feel' was great.

It is its compactness that makes kabaddi a success. When you look at cricket and football, it's a very wide field, and being 'arena', that's got its own appeal. This one is also an arena sport but is more compact, and is played at close quarters, so it has a 'gladiator arena sport' feel.

How did the thought to back this sport come about in the first place?

Anand Mahindra once mentioned to my wife Zarina that his brother-in-law Charu Sharma and he were looking at this kabaddi venture, but unfortunately, there weren't too many takers. Zarina suggested that they talk to me, since according to her, I was mad enough to get into something like this. I was overseas, and she called me that night, and later, I called both Mahindra and Sharma, and said I was really keen on this venture. To take a sport like that, and make it interesting seemed like fun and a disruptive thing to do.

Does that make the visuals a bit repetitive?

The closeness of cameras, in fact, makes it very engaging. If you had the same sport lasting two hours with half-time and going on for another two hours after that, then it would be dead. Here it is played for 20 minutes in the first half of the game, followed by a five-minutes break, and then another 20 minutes for the second half. In 45 minutes, the whole game is over. It's compact, so it's personal, and this is not just at the stadium, but even for the television viewer. Look at the fields for both cricket and football, and no matter how many cameras you use, the breadth of space is quite large to cover. Here, even if you cover the whole field, where you can see all 14 players on the field, the shot need not be that long.

Mat versus mud...

The 'kabaddi mat' is not there to lend any glamour, but is there for you to have the game on red mud, as one would do traditionally, because, in five minutes one would get dirty. Once you put it on this platform, it becomes a sport where you want to see the players. In a game where you keep falling down often, and your clothes get soiled, you won't be able to even differentiate between the teams, or follow the players.

What profile of viewers have you attracted? Did you expect this kind of viewership?

Our spectrum of viewers is quite broad, and it's the only sport where the female viewership is the highest, which means there is perhaps some sex appeal in it. It's 'gladiator-like', full of action, is fast-paced and addictive, and you can't flip channels during the 20 minutes play. All of us were expecting kabaddi to become successful over a period of one-two years. We were not surprised by its success, but how quickly it became so.

The network reportedly expects the league to turn profitable only by 2018. What kind of investments went into this?

Actually, kabaddi has not been a very expensive sport, and is already breaking even for the league players. In 2016, the revenue target for the league is about 50 crore. Last season, we did about 12 crore. It's the No.2 sport and right now, it is hugely under-sold, and all of us have to correct that. It does not require any more investment. This time around, we are looking at four times the revenue as compared to last time.

What kind of advertiser categories are we looking at?

The categories already on board are sports companies, telcos, and energy drinks. We've had brands like Dr Reddy's Nise, American Tourister and Red Bull with us. Coke and Pepsi still feel cricket is 'it', and are missing the boat. The problem we have with our advertising community is that it tends to wake up three years after something has worked. They ask questions like, "Isn't this mass?" or "isn't this about rural sport", without looking at the ratings.

The socio-economic background of the players also may be the reason why advertising planners have this warped impression about kabaddi. But today, I have an aspirational brand like Oakley wanting to back my captain, who's from the police force in Haryana. You see city kids getting excited about it now, they want autographs of the players. It's got the makings of being a break-out sport because it's both mass and urbane. So, I think some of the e-commerce companies that are looking to make a difference, and phone manufacturing companies, especially, the two or three Chinese companies that have come here and want to break the mould, could be the new categories looking at this.

Don't the numbers help?

Most have been shown sliced and diced numbers, and have become immune to the thought process of actual numbers. Most of the marketing and advertising community works on the basis of 'If I don't see it, the world is not seeing it, and, if I see it, the whole world is seeing it'. For instance, niche business channels used to get advertising based on that principle. If I had started to make movies the way only I wanted to see them, we wouldn't have a movie studio.

What's the next step in pushing the game?

The next step for us is to make this game aspirational. We are also looking at a couple of ways to create a franchise - perhaps make a video game, an animation series or even a movie out of it. And, that is not me putting my media hat on, but putting my sports hat on.

Looking at the bigger picture on viewership, do you see a very visible shift from TV to digital now?

I don't see this as an 'either-or' situation for the next five years. As much as everyone said print would go away, it hasn't. And, radio has actually grown in the last five years. Whether it is e-commerce, or technology or media entertainment, India is an 'and-and' country, not an 'either-or' country. That is an opportunity for India unless we really mess it up. We have to figure out how we are going to think big, and how to do this at scale.

It's been two years since you left television. Looking back, what's caught your eye in terms of trends and game changers?

What I've seen is that there's nothing to catch your eye. Firstly, the people who are doing well are petrified to experiment, and secondly, we are bogged down by this advertiser model, where you have to be subservient to the advertising industry, and that curbs innovation whether you like it or not. I'm not saying there's no experimentation, but how much are they really doing? Yes, there may be some innovations in DTH models etc. Television has looked at a critical mass where the woman is the epicentre, and that hasn't changed. And, there are these offshoots that have started with demographics of kids and youth, but that's been around for the last five years.

Also, all the four major GECs decided that they need to flank, so a 'flanking' strategy came in, where you are doing the same thing on another channel. One can only experiment on a subscriber model. People are now paying for high quality HD channels but we are a country of 1.3 billion, and if only 4-5 million people pay for premium content, there isn't much of an opportunity there. I'm not sitting here as an outsider being critical, I know it's a tough industry to be in, and to be sustainable in. So, hats off to people for doing that in the first place.

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