Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Dettol, other FMCG brands that never used to be in cricket are new advertisers": Rohit Gupta, SPNI

A look at how Sony Pictures Networks India is gearing up for the upcoming India-Australia cricket series down under, the reaction from the advertisers, and the rates the tournament's official broadcaster is raking in.

Six months back, stepping out of the house was not allowed in most parts of the world, and more so in India. The world's largest democracy was under blanket lockdown. Every outdoor activity came to a halt due to the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic.

Now, the Indian cricket team, led by Virat Kohli, has flown to Australia for a tour down under, something nobody could have imagined a while ago. But it is happening. It is the first time that the Men in Blue will play a cricket match since the abandoned India-South Africa series back in early March.

Rohit Gupta, president, Sony Pictures Networks India, says, "India versus Australia is the new India versus Pakistan." The battle for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has now become more intense as one team dares to defeat the other in its own backyard.

The matches will kickstart on November 27 with one day internationals (ODIs). Beginning at 9:15 a.m. (India time), the 50-over matches will end way before (TV) prime time begins in India.

In a market that is in the midst of a slowdown, and which has just witnessed a heavy investment of advertising money in the just concluded Indian Premier League (IPL), was selling this series a challenging task? "Not at all," says Rajesh Kaul, chief revenue officer, distribution and head – sports business, Sony Pictures Networks India. 

In an interaction with afaqs!, Gupta and Kaul talk about how Sony Pictures Networks India, the tournament's official broadcaster, is gearing up for the upcoming series, the reaction from the advertisers and the rates they are raking in.

Edited excerpts (Rohit Gupta)

It is the first time India is playing a bilateral series against another country in a long time, how are the advertisers reacting to it?

Far better than what we had expected! We were thinking that post-IPL, things would be dull in the market, but it has been outstanding. We already have 15-16 sponsors on board, Twenty20s (T20s) have fully sold out, and 80-85 per cent of the ODIs have also sold out.

Rohit Gupta
Rohit Gupta

What according to you is driving the attention?

India versus Australia has now become what India versus Pakistan used to be. Here are the top two teams playing against each other. It is the best cricket. From a television perspective, viewing games in Australia is really exciting. Luckily, we won't have empty stands. There will be some crowds cheering and it will look good on TV.

Approximately, at what rates are you selling the slots?

We have sold the T20s at about Rs 7 lakh, the ODIs at around Rs 6 lakh and the Test matches for somewhere between Rs 1.2 lakh and Rs 1.5 lakh.

Every time we talked about the series down under, the fact that none of the matches will be played during prime time emerged as a challenge...

Not any more... The television viewership is already very high. Even though the matches are in the afternoon, the rates we are getting are prime time rates.

Do you see a new set of advertisers coming and buying slots in sports?

Dettol and other FMCG brands who never used to be in cricket as such are the new advertisers. It is good that FMCG brands have now started looking at cricket in a big way. I hope the trend continues.

Is it the post-COVID impact? What do you think gets them (the FMCG advertisers) to sports now?

They now realise how important impact gross rating points (GRPs) are. It is a good sign for the future because GRPs are important... FMCG brands advertised during the day and (evening) prime time. It is a good trend that we saw during the IPL, and now, it's continuing in the India versus Australia series.

At the end of the day, more than 50 per cent of the ad dollars rest with the FMCG brands. Earlier, only 30-35 fixed set of brands used to buy cricket. Now, things have changed dramatically.

Edited excerpts (Rajesh Kaul)

As a broadcaster, what are your biggest challenges as you gear up for the tour down under?

Anticipation! The fans are just waiting to see India go back to the field. We need to ensure that they get a great viewing experience. We need to ensure that we put our best foot forward. We are doing a couple of things, one is marketing.

Despite knowing that the fans are waiting for the series to begin, we are going all out to promote it. We are using our network channels, and also promoting it on rival channels, print publications and social media. More than that, we are working on the way we are presenting it.

Rajesh Kaul
Rajesh Kaul

What new things can we expect in the presentation?

Apart from the world feed (from Australia), we will have our own English feed too. We will set up our own panel so that people get their own taste and find it more relatable. We will use our own studio where we will have Virender Sehwag and, for the very first time, Glen McGrath as experts.

Zaheer Khan, Sanjay Manjrekar and Harsha Bhogle will also be there as experts. We are mixing the best from both the worlds. Apart from the two English feeds, we will have Hindi, Tamil and Telugu feeds as well.

Do you think people are waiting for the series to begin? Or, do you feel there is a need to nudge and tell them that the series is here and it's time to get back to the habit of watching team India play cricket?

To be honest, I don't think there is a need for a nudge at all. While we are going all out with our marketing efforts, I don't think there is a need to hard sell. I will tell you why.

Immediately after the lockdowns were lifted in various parts of the world, there were a couple of series. One between England and West Indies, Pakistan's tour of England, followed by Australia's tour of England. Though we did not promote them at all, we saw a 200 per cent rise in the viewership. It means that people were just waiting for some live action. Now, with India playing, the people are just waiting...

Because of the disruption in original content, and especially sports, many households reportedly cancelled their subscriptions. Do you think this series will help you get those back? What's your view since you also head the distribution business for the network?

Yes, we saw a bit of cancellations, and this was happening in the months of March, April and May. Luckily for us, since June, whether it is live cricket or football, we have been on, and we saw the numbers improving gradually.

In fact, today, the numbers are far better (than pre-COVID times) in terms of distribution. In the last couple of months only, we have seen a huge surge in the distribution numbers.

This is the first time that the rebranded SonyLIV will stream India matches. Do you expect more subscribers to stream matches online? Are you clubbing digital with TV, and selling them together?

This is the first time that the rebranded SonyLIV will stream India matches. Do you expect more subscribers to stream matches online? Are you clubbing digital with TV, and selling them together?

The numbers will continue to grow on digital, and we have high hopes from the upcoming series as well. I think we will have better numbers on SonyLIV, but not at the cost of TV. India is a large country and digital growth will not eat into TV, at least in the near future. 

No, we are not clubbing! We are selling SonyLIV and TV separately.