Anirban Roy Choudhury
Interviews

"With 'Believe In Blue' we want to galvanise fans-support towards the Indian team": Sanjog Gupta

Head of Sports, Star and Disney India explains why it is important to have a continuing narrative that strings multiple bilateral tournaments together

In India, Cricket is more than a sport. Outsiders call it obsession, Indians celebrate the game as their religion, worship the stars as their Gods. One of the ambassadors of the modern game, Sachin Tendulkar is a Bharat Ratna - the highest civilian award in the Republic of India. Eleven players walk into the ground loaded with expectations and if it is a World Cup, the expectations multiply manifold. This time, it got to the nerves of the current lot of players who have set the benchmarks high by performing like robots in recent times. International Cricket Council's T-20 World Cup proved that they are humans, vulnerable...

India lost to Pakistan in the very first match. Followed up with another defeat to New Zealand. India versus Pakistan match is always an occasion. It is like the Barcelona Football Club playing Real Madrid. El Classico.

Virat Kohli's announcement that he will give up captaincy after the World Cup, BCCI announcing Mahendra Singh Dhoni will mentor the team added to the hype. According to ICC, fans collectively consumed 1,590 crore minutes on the Star India Network, surpassing the previous high of the India vs West Indies semi-final match from the 2016 edition of the ICC event held in India. But it turned out to be one-sided. Pakistan won the match by ten wickets, Indian cricket fans never suffered a defeat like this before, and as for fans of Pakistan Cricket, it was 'Mauka Mauka'.

It was way back in 2007 when team India was knocked out early of a World Cup. India playing under Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappel was defeated by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in West Indies in the 2007, which historians call one of the lowest points for Indian cricket. Soon followed the first-ever T-20 World Cup in South Africa which Mahendra Singh Dhoni's young boys won to mark the beginning of a new era in Indian Cricket.

This time, there was no such driving force to bring fans back as India was about to host New Zealand for a bilateral series. Top stars of the game in both teams were rested, fans were dejected, back to back cricket - first with IPL and then World Cup brought in a sense of fatigue among viewers, and so, Star Sports, the official broadcaster of the BCCI organised games, rolled out a campaign 'Believe In Blue' with a call for fans to back the team.

As per reports quoting data shared by Star and Disney India, the first T-20 match between India and New Zealand garnered 4.9 million TVT (Television Viewership in Thousands) among M15+ AB Urban. The reach, according to reports stood at 73 million viewers in 2+ U+R category on an absolute basis. So, did 'Believe In Blue' work?

Sanjog Gupta, Head of Sports, Star and Disney India says the aim of the campaign was not to deliver high viewership in just one bilateral series. He calls 'Believe In Blue' a journey that will continue at least till the ICC ODI World Cup, scheduled to be played in 2023. Star Sports created one such long-lasting narrative, 'Mauka Mauka' in 2015, that many felt had an abrupt conclusion as no one knows what happened to crackers. Gupta disagrees...

In an interview with afaqs! Sanjog Gupta, speaks about his vision with 'Believe In Blue', why it is important to have a narrative that strings multiple bilateral tournaments together and above all, when cricket is so popular in India, why he needs to devote so much energy in creating a campaign to invite fans.

Edited Excerpts:

Considering that it was a long T20 cricket season and the recent setbacks in ICC T20, did 'Believe In Blue' have more at stake than other campaigns leading to cricket tournaments?

This is the beginning of the home season and so, you are setting the agenda for what the next few months of India's bilateral cricket are going to be. Just as the openers are in a batting lineup, this is a critical campaign. For us, it is more than a campaign. It is a call to action for fans of team India to rally behind this team that has delivered so much joy and cause for celebration over the years. Setbacks are a part and parcel of any journey. The way that we thought about 'Believe In Blue' is that it will be a journey instead of a campaign.

Sanjog Gupta
Sanjog Gupta

Can you explain what you mean when you say "journey instead of a campaign"?

This is a journey of faith in our men in blue that they will bounce back from the disappointment of the T-20 World Cup and emerge stronger. 'Believe In Blue' is an attempt at building a continuing narrative across the calendar of events that we have. India is playing a lot of bilateral cricket over the next few months before the IPL and will continue till the T-20 World Cup which is going to be in October-November 2022. We wanted to have a continuing narrative that strings together each of these series as a means of keeping fans engaged and taking them on a journey with us to ensure that they are cheering for team India at every juncture.

Viewers who are watching cricket, their propensity to consume another sport is much higher than the entertainment viewer who is not watching any sport including cricket
Sanjog Gupta

As per reports, the match between India and New Zealand had 4.9 million TVTs among M15+ AB Urban. It reached 73 million viewers in the 2+ U+R category on an absolute basis. How much of it do you think was because of the campaign you rolled out?

It is difficult to isolate the impact of the campaign on viewership. There is no scientific way for us to say what the viewership number would have been if the campaign was not launched. What I can say is 'Believe In Blue' played a part in reorienting the fans-sentiment. It brought upfront the feeling that the 'Men In Blue' need the fans now more than ever and the best way of backing them is to cheer for them as they play, either from the stands or by sitting in front of the screens. The narrative helped fans set aside the feeling of disappointment that had grown during the course of the T20 World Cup with India's early exit.

Is 'Believe In Blue' a narrative only around limited-overs cricket, as in Test matches, the players wear all whites?

The way that we like to engage with fans is with narratives that cut across all formats. Having said that, 'Believe In Blue', at least, the way we want to express, was more about India's limited-overs journey than Test Cricket. India's performance in Test Cricket continues to remain strong. With 'Believe In Blue' we want to galvanise fans-support towards the Indian team when it plays white-ball cricket. There is a journey ahead of us with India playing the T-20 World Cup in 2022 and then the One Day International World Cup in 2023. 'Believe In Blue' sets us off on that journey.

How do you plan to grow 'Believe In Blue' over the next few months?

We will make 'Believe In Blue' an integral part of our coverage. That applies to the programming we do. We have a show called 'Follow The Blues' which is all about the Indian Cricket Team and its journey. Also, make it a part of our live coverage with how we treat each loss and each win which is a part of the larger narrative. The idea is to have multiple touchpoints for 'Believe In Blue' both while the series and live coverage is on and also when there are gaps between series.

Star Sports delivered some iconic campaigns like 'Mauka Mauka', 'Nayi Soch' which was even taken to the ground. Isn't it a big challenge when you are planning a new long-term campaign because it will always get compared with the previous ones?

It is a challenge as well as an opportunity. It allows you to engage with fans with new messaging, engage with fans that you have not engaged with before and potentially deepen the engagement with fans who are already connected with the game and the network. If you look at 'Mauka Mauka' the genesis of the campaign in 2015 came from a cricket context that India has never lost against Pakistan in a World Cup. It was a cricket narrative that provided the germ of an idea that 'Mauka Mauka' became. The expression was from the point of view of a Pakistani fan.

Can you give examples of other contexts?

The second context is a consumer context - an insight or a consumer truth that we believe will enable the campaign with a certain cohort of consumers and bring them in. For example, the 'Sabse Bada Moh' campaign which translates to 'The Biggest Desire'. The consumer insight here was that there are many casual fans out there who will miss a lot of cricket all throughout the year but will make sure that they don't miss this one game - the India versus Pakistan match.

The third is the social context and the most recent example is the 'Ek Saath Wali Baat' which was our campaign for the IPL. We were all living in confinement, physically distanced, were dealing with the tragic loss that all of us experienced directly or indirectly during the pandemic. 'Ek Saath Wali Baat' was an expression of how cricket has the ability to bring us together socially even when are physically distanced. All of our campaigns are designed to deliver on one or more of these contexts.

As we speak about previous campaigns, did you end the Mauka Mauka campaign the way you had planned, or did you cut it short after taking the social context into account? There was some backlash...

The context for 'Mauka Mauka' has always been that India has never lost to Pakistan in the World Cup. The campaign was designed to deliver expression that there was a desire amongst Pakistani fans to at least get on the board. As soon as the Cricket context ended, effectively it meant the ending of that campaign. So, it was not driven by the backlash or sentiment but the cricket narrative which was that India had never lost to Pakistan in World Cups. The campaign had to end as it is practically impossible for India to keep winning against Pakistan in World Cups forever. It happened in 2021 in the T-20 World Cup and that was the reason 'Mauka Mauka' campaign came to a logical conclusion.

Cricket is considered a religion in India and so, do you even need the campaign to pull viewers to sample a T-20 match. What makes you devote so much energy is creating a campaign?

It is a question that has been asked so many times and the answer lies in two parts. One is what is the ambition that we have with cricket - what do we want the sport to be? And the second part is - what do we believe is the right way of engaging with fans. If the ambition is to continue growing cricket and inviting new fans to come and engage with the game or a property or a series, then there has to be a compelling invitation for that fan to feel compelled to come and watch. This may be a consumer cohort that is currently not engaging with cricket as deeply as we want to, or it could be a cohort that we want to expand.

For example, there might be a cohort that watches a certain number of minutes and matches and we want to grow it further to ensure they are watching more matches and minutes. So, we will go out there to create as many compelling invites for this cohort to engage more often and more deeply with matches, series and seasons.

The second part of your answer...

The second objective is to recruit new fans as they come into the fold of television viewership. The total number of television viewers is growing year on year, which means there are always viewers you are trying to attract to the sport and to the channel. To that end, you will also identify cohorts that are watching television but not cricket - could be the young kids, certain segments of the female audience, the male audience who are not watching a particular format of cricket... In the case of IPL, we have made focussed attempts at attracting 10-12-year-olds to watch cricket by creating a parallel viewing experience which was called 'Super Funday'. The reason why we create campaigns is in a bid to retain the fans and to recruit new fans to grow the overall size of the viewership.

Do they then stay and sample the other sports properties that you have airing on the Sports Network, like cricket fans staying to watch F1?

The insight is that a significant proportion of fans who watch ISL, PKL are actually also fans who watch a lot of cricket. So, a fairly large segment of the Kabaddi and Football viewing population are actually viewers who watch a lot of cricket. The cricket fans are adopting a second or a third sport and that is a fairly significant chunk. We would like to migrate a lot of fans from one sport to the other, a viewer who is watching cricket, their propensity to consume another sport is much higher than the entertainment viewer who is not watching any sport including cricket.

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