The head of Star Sports talks about the 2021 calendar, the marketing challenges, among other things.
In October 2016, the Indian cricket team was playing the final one-day match of the bilateral series against New Zealand in Visakhapatnam (Vizag). When the 'Men in Blue'stepped on to the field, they had the names of their mothers on the back of their shirts, instead of their own.
The initiative was a part of Star India's 'Nayi Soch' campaign. The broadcaster was the Indian team's kit sponsor back then, and it had rolled out the campaign in association with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
The campaign was widely discussed. It also became clear that Star India, which is now known as Star and Disney India, was gunning for the viewers who don't watch cricket regularly, especially the female audiences.
Star Sports has made many changes to its programming line-up. The number of female commentators and presenters has increased manifold. The sportscaster bought the global media rights to broadcast the Indian Premier League (IPL) for five years for a mammoth Rs 16,348 crore.
The 10-year-old tournament was already a giant brand, but Sanjog Gupta, head, Star Sports, made it clear that the tournament can grow further. "If you aren't growing, you are dead," he says.
The viewership grew. 2019 was better than 2018, and 2020 was the best one till date. Star Sports has just announced its 2021 calendar, which is packed. Currently, it is broadcasting India versus England bilateral series. IPL is likely to follow. Then there is the World Test Championship, Asia Cup, ICC Men's T20 World Cup, etc.
Apart from cricket, there is English Premier League (football), F1, and French Open, US Open, and Wimbledon (tennis tournaments).
In an exclusive interview with afaqs!, Gupta speaks about the 2021 calendar, the marketing challenges, among other things.
What do you think of the 2021 calendar, and what does it mean for a network like Star?
We could not have asked for a better context for the resumption of cricket in India. The opposition (England) has already shown in the first four days how good a team it is. England is playing a full series, including a day and night test match. A lot of viewers, who otherwise would not have tuned in, will watch the day and night test match. Typically, the viewership of a day-night match is 50 per cent higher than a normal test match.
It remains to be seen if the BCCI follows it up with IPL in India. It will be an ideal beginning to the season. And then, there is the ICC T20 World Cup, Premier League, Wimbledon, etc.
Did you see a slump in the number of subscribers as live action was off for about six months due to COVID? Did people unsubscribe to Star Sports?
We are currently at about 80 per cent penetration, meaning that across India, we are in eight of the 10 pay TV households. A year like this enables us to push our subscriptions further. We have already seen some work translate into subscription.
From IPL back in September 2020 to now, we have seen a 10 per cent growth in the number of subscriptions. In Tamil Nadu, we crossed 90 per cent penetrations, and 80 per cent in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana. We only saw a marginal decline after marquee Indian sports (events) had shut down in March 2020.
However, in that period, fresh content was being created. Plus, better usage of archives and celebrating the history helped us to not lose too many subscribers. To answer the question, we are better today than we were in March (before the pandemic struck).
India, so far, remains dependent on live sports. Did the COVID-induced lockdowns show a new way as far as non-live content goes?
The ratings of a live game are 14-15x that of the highlights. Live sports help to aggregate viewership like no other content pieces including other television genres like general entertainment, movies. The ability of live sports to aggregate audiences is unparalleled... That is why the advertisers pay a premium to be a part of the live events.
Do you consider each sports property as a separate brand?
First, of course, there is the Star Sports umbrella brand. It houses all these events and there is a lot of push from our end to constantly build the Star Sports brand and push the portfolio. The second is the sports brand. Most IPL viewers are also cricket viewers, or core cricket viewers. Most of them watch IPL as well as bilateral series...
There is a large audience segment that tends to be common to each sporting event. The third layer is events. You need to build context and narratives for each event if you want to invite and reinvite viewers to watch. This is why we have marketing campaigns around each event.
What about consumer segmentation?
Consumer segmentation tends to be according to sports. West Bengal lights up when there is a football match. The viewers in Chennai and Bangalore love badminton. Those in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana love kabaddi more than any other markets.
You will have consumer segments that watch most events in a particular sport. Then there are the events themselves that bring in a certain number of core viewers. For the World Cup, there will be a set of viewers tuning in who otherwise don’t watch cricket.
Do you need marketing to tell people to come and watch IPL? What is the biggest challenge when you are working on an IPL campaign?
One way of looking at IPL is that it has been there for 15 years. It is well-established and needs no marketing. When we acquired IPL, it was 10 years old, the biggest brand in cricket and, perhaps, India's biggest media and sports property. But we still see a scope for growth.
We are constantly looking at how we can add to the positioning of IPL so that it gets new viewers across two vectors. One, the viewers who watch cricket, but have not sampled IPL, and another is the base, who have not sampled cricket or IPL.
The biggest challenge is that every year, you are trying to define a proposition for IPL to bring in more viewers and also bring back those who watched it the year before. You are trying to come up with a single communication or marketing strategy. Our ratings have grown by 40-45 per cent over the last three years.
With more female presenters and commentators it is clear that you are gunning for the female audience. Why is that target group so critical for sports broadcasters like Star?
There are three-four growth vectors and not only women. We have been big believers in taking Cricket deeper into regions that were under indexed in terms of cricket consumption. Regions like, Tamil Nadu, Telangana/AP, Karnataka and also the Hindi speaking markets. We believed one of the biggest reasons why cricket is not as big as it could be, was the access to cricket was limited. It was limited by the cultural context in which it was being presented – single language which meant a lot of viewers could not connect to it. So, the regional strategy has been a growth vector.
Another growth vector was identifying the cricket viewers who did not connect with IPL. So, we dialed up cricket and toned down entertainment in our marketing campaigns for IPL. We rolled out Select Dug Out for core cricket viewers who watch a lot of cricket but not IPL. The third vector is a new audience which we have identified as kids and women.
Did you see any growth in women and kids viewership of especially IPL?
We have reached dividends. In IPL 2020, the viewership of women and kids grew by 24 and 20 per cent respectively. Kids will grow up as fans and continue watching the game and women adds to the viewership. At the end of the day, there is a saying, “If a brand is not growing it is dying.” You want cricket to continue growing.
Say quiz and you remember Bournvita or Premier League and you remember Barclays, India VS Pakistan in ICC tournament reminds viewers of ‘Mauka Mauka’... what is next for that campaign?
"Mauka Mauka" is an iconic campaign and we did actually do a sequel for one of the ICC tournaments. That option is there for us. Being creative people, we will have to evaluate something that we have done in the past against what is most relevant and if the context is still relevant for the campaign. The ICC event is still some time away and in the next three months, we will start planning for the T20 tournament. We need to ensure that we don’t oversell the iconic campaign.