Anirban Roy ChoudhuryPublished: 12 Jun 2019, 12:00 AM

"Regional language helps connect with newer fans": Gautam Thakar

The World Cup is here and the CEO of Star Sports is hoping to capture a fresh set of audiences. A chat on the need to regionalise this 'content'.

Today, expanding beyond the core set of loyalists has become imperative for any product, brand, platform or televised property. In the media business, it's called growth. In India, cricket became a religion, thanks to millions of viewers who snatched the TV remote and bullied their family members each time a match was broadcast. But it's 2019; the name of the game has changed. TV is not the only home for sports content, and nothing - not even cricket - can survive without going beyond its core pool of loyal audiences. Getting viewership only from traditional cricket fans is simply not enough to justify the sky high ad rates that broadcasters demand from advertisers for airtime between the overs. For Indian cricket content, it's the era of expansion, alright.

Presently, monetising and expanding the reach of big ticket cricketing properties is the responsibility of Gautam Thakar, CEO of Star Sports, broadcaster of the recently concluded Indian Premier League (IPL) and the ongoing International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricket World Cup. One of the ways to meet this goal is through hyper-regionalisation: Star Sports' telecast of the IPL had separate English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bangla feeds - on dedicated TV channels - for each match, with additional Malayalam and Marathi feeds for the weekend. For the World Cup, too, the broadcaster will have channels dedicated to regional feeds to provide vernacular options to viewers. These regional language feeds are not simply dubbed or translated, but are unique feeds based on real-time commentary in those languages, tailormade with regional nuances and references.

Thakar was appointed as CEO of Star Sports early last year. He moved in from Washington DC-based investment firm Revolution Ventures. A former Procter & Gamble hand, Thakar has, in the past, also held positions like senior director, international marketing at eBay, CEO of, vice president and general manager of eBay Advertising, and president and CEO of Living Social (a local marketplace to buy and sell products in a given locality; the company later got acquired by rival brand Groupon). Last year, the Walt Disney-owned Star India acquired the global media rights for the IPL for a period of five years for '16,347.50 crore - which means '3,269.50 crore per year. Assuming the number of matches stays constant, that works out to a cost of '54.49 crore per match for Star. Last year Star India submitted a '6,138.1-crore bid to win the broadcast rights for the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) for a period of five years, ending 2023. As part of this deal, Star India has the audiovisual rights to broadcast and stream matches organised by the BCCI in India. The broadcaster also has the rights to broadcast ICC tournaments till 2023.

Star India, as per industry experts, managed to rake in around '2,200 crore of advertising revenue (TV+digital) during the IPL this year. As per an Economic Times report (May 7, 2019), the broadcaster is eyeing to get '1,000 crore from advertising during the ICC Men's World Cup broadcast. The broadcaster has increased its ad rates, but has also managed to expand the inventory by rolling out new non-live programmes around the game. In an interview with afaqs! Reporter, Thakar spoke about his regionalisation efforts for Star's cricket properties, the returns on this effort - in numbers, the importance of expanding the reach of cricket, and the need for 'content' around the game.

Edited Excerpts

The viewership numbers of the IPL 2019 are impressive - to what do you attribute this?

The 2019 edition of the IPL was the biggest ever on the Star Sports network. Personalised feeds, new, dedicated language sports channels, curated content suited for every member of the family, robust live and non-live programming, and a first ever VIVO IPL campaign (Game Banayega Name), featuring at least one player from each team, helped get this kind of viewership.

This time, we increased our regional coverage through the broadcast of the tournament on our dedicated Telugu, Kannada and Bangla sports channels, and added 'Super Funday' feed every Sunday to reach out to women and kids through a different broadcast lens.

Tell us more about the people who watched the tournament - did you manage to get viewership from non-cricket lovers as well?

This year, the tournament saw 27 per cent growth in the age group of 2-14 years, 14 per cent for female 15+ audiences and 11 per cent for male 15+ audiences. This signals terrific growth in the reach of the tournament as compared to last year.

The tournament was watched across the country this year; the reach saw a 14 per cent rise and 10 per cent growth in consumption in the HSM (Hindi Speaking Markets) and South Markets respectively, as compared to IPL 2018.

Pre-IPL, you launched dedicated regional sports channels and talked a lot about the 'regionalisation' of the broadcast of cricket. What prompted this effort?

The demand for regional language broadcasting has always been strong. We were the first private sports broadcaster to introduce Hindi commentary and programming back in 2013. In 2018, regionalisation of the IPL helped bring fans closer to the game as it gave them a sense of belongingness and an option to watch the IPL in their preferred language. Last year, about 80 per cent of IPL consumption in Tamil Nadu was in Tamil, even though there was no dedicated channel for the language at the time.

Right, give us a sense of what this regionalisation brought to the table...

The response has been great; regional feeds were watched by 194 million viewers for a total of 75 billion minutes. The IPL 2019 saw the largest congregation of commentators across eight languages. Besides Hindi and English, the tournament was telecast in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Bengali, with additional Marathi and Malayalam feeds every Sunday. We had a roster of 148 commentators, experts, and presenters.

We were always confident about the potential of the regional feeds. We knew it would help reach a wider set of audience across several regional pockets in the country. The regional language feeds for our properties have helped us connect with newer sets of fans, especially those who were not very comfortable with watching sports in English and Hindi.

Our regional feeds are tailormade for different languages; they are customised basis the teams playing on a given day. For example, the Telugu feed - versus, says, the Bangla feed for the same Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) game - will offer more fan reactions, more KKR-based stats and more intriguing facts displayed during the game. Regional channels are helping bring more fans closer to the game - overall consumption is growing.

With the recently concluded IPL and the ongoing World Cup, there's no denying 2019 is the year of live cricket. How will you ensure non-cricket properties don't get lost in the process? Will it come down to marketing them right?

We encourage a multi-sport culture. This is evident with our production, programming and broadcast efforts for the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) and the Indian Super League (ISL).

We aim to deliver live sporting action to fans across multiple sporting events held in India and globally, through 16 sports channels. Yes, the ICC World Cup will be here soon, but we're simultaneously bringing live coverage of all others events, like Formula 1 and French Open.

This time, you have many female presenters for the World Cup...

Star Sports took the bold step of having women front the coverage of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. This is probably the first time that happened. Mayanti Langer, Isa Guha, Seema Jaswal, Sanjana Ganesan, Bhavana Balakrishnan, Vindhya Vishaka Medapati and Priyadarshini Chatterjee will bring the World Cup to millions of TV and digital screens across India. They will anchor our pre, mid and post-match shows like 'Game Plan' and 'Match Point'... and drive reportage from England, which includes the now-established brand - Follow the Blues. We will have 100+ commentators on board for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.

We've now got cricket-based shows like 'Roar of The Lion' (Hotstar) and 'Cricket Fever' (Netflix) on VOD platforms. Do you see an opportunity for nonlive cricket content on television? Is that an interest area for you?

Programming is one of the most important aspects of our broadcast. For every major tournament produced and broadcast by the Star Sports network, 'surround programming' has played a vital role. For example, ahead of the IPL 2019, Star Sports launched a special docuseries 'Dream On' that focused on the young players to watch out for during the season. It was shot across multiple cities in India, including in the home cities of the players featured in the series.

So, what non-live content have you planned around the World Cup?

We've planned non-live content that's suited for the Indian TV audience. It includes a line-up of live and non-live programming, ahead of, during and post the tournament. Keeping appointment viewing for the tournament in mind, we've planned dedicated daily time bandbased content comprising proprietary shows. With a larger number of India matches, the single round robin format and captain Kohli at the helm of Team India, I think it's going to be a grand tournament for all the stakeholders.

(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs!Reporter on June 1, 2019)

A Note From the Editor

'"Aur yeh aakhri over hai, gaindbaaz McGrath daudtey hue aa rahey hai, aur yeh Bharathiya ballebaaz ne balla ghumaya... shatak ki aor kadam bhadhatey hue, Sachin ne balla ghumayaa... aur.. yeh chowkaa!"

We've all heard what Hindi cricket commentary sounds like. The process of editing this cover story brought back memories of this kind of commentary from the '90s. Why? Because for this World Cup, official broadcaster Star has dedicated televised feed of the tournament in seven languages - English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, and for few matches, Malayalam. And these won't be translated or dubbed copies of the hitherto default English commentary; rather, there will be separate, real-time feeds in these languages, with local references, nuances and insights. In all, over 100 commentators will be tasked with taking the game to different parts of India. This is all part of expanding the reach of the game across the country.

And language is only one half of the story; some of the tournament related content, like pre, mid and post match discussions, will be anchored by female presenters. Again, this brings to mind another memory - the first time Mandira Bedi helped bridge the gap between cricket and female audiences.

This issue, we've got Gautam Thakar, CEO, Star Sports on the cover. A former eBay and P&G hand, he moved from the USA to India last year, to helm Star's sportscasting vertical.

Gautam spoke to us about the importance of 'regionalising' cricket and the need to expand the reach of the game beyond the core pool of hardcore, loyal fans. He also discussed the value-add that non-live, peripheral content brings to the popularity of the core property. Remember, 'Fourth Umpire', a show for pre and post match analysis on Doordarshan? Today, this sort of 'extra' content around the game has exploded. Gautam has a phrase for it; he calls this non-live, analysis based content 'surround programming'.

We're listening.