The head of sports for Disney Star, Gupta, set out to answer two basic questions with IPL 2023: Why IPL and why IPL on Star Sports. Has the channel managed to convince viewers and marketers? Only time will tell...
Star Sports, the official television broadcaster of Tata Indian Premier League 2023, is for the first time since 2018 selling the merit of IPL on TV alone to both viewers and marketers alike.
In this new reality of IPL where the media rights are split between two parties, the television broadcaster of the league is reimagining the linear TV viewing experience for live sports and its chief, Sanjog Gupta, has set out to answer fundamental questions about the traditional medium and how the viewing experience can be elevated for fans.
Sanjog Gupta, Head - Sports, Disney Star, has spent the better part of his almost 13-year stint at the company leading the cricket and sports vertical. He speaks to Venkata Susmita Biswas about live sports consumption patterns, how linear TV needs to evolve, and monetisation challenges this IPL, and more.
When the media rights got split and you had to market IPL on TV, what is the problem statement that you defined for Star Sports? Was it to reverse migration to digital?
The problem statement in a nutshell was in two parts. One, why IPL? Because IPL demand showed signs of fatigue in 2022, it was important for us to convince fans and drive consideration for IPL. Second, which was unique to this year because of the change in the media rights ownership, why IPL on Star Sports?
These two questions formed the sum and substance of our campaign thought that led to the creative idea, the strategy, and the overall plan.
We did not want viewers to make a call about which medium they choose to watch IPL on. Instead, it was a behaviour that we were trying to drive.
For the first time, we are seeing a rivalry between mediums playing out during IPL. The fight is to convince the marketer about the power of one medium over another. Until this IPL, no matter which platform executive or marketer one spoke to, the narrative was always one of “and” and never “either/or”. That fundamental attitude has seen a shift. As far as live sports go, and keeping in mind that IPL has been the poster child of Disney+ Hotstar, do you believe live sports consumption is about either TV or digital or both?
It is not a zero-sum game. The focus on growing IPL should continue to remain the same for all stakeholders involved in IPL; this applies to BCCI, franchises, broadcasters, streaming partners and sponsors. If a viewer watches the sport on both platforms and watches more of it, then everyone gains and there is enough headroom for all to grow.
Our campaign ‘Game on Shor On’ was not about one medium versus another. It was about the behaviour that we believe is true for live sports more than any other content genre — community viewing. The nervousness of a last-ball four or the excitement of a set of sixes in the last over is enhanced and the moment is elevated when you have someone to cheer with or feel a sense of anxiety with or just discuss the game with.
We did not want viewers to make a call about which medium they choose to watch IPL on. Instead, it was a behaviour that we were trying to drive. Within that, the objective was to position the big screen as the ideal platform of choice for consumers who want to watch together and experience the sport the way it is meant to be experienced.
At the end of the day, it is about convenience and preference.
Number of households subscribing to Star Sports is at its highest this year — almost 90% of all pay-TV households subscribe to Star Sports.Sanjog Gupta, Disney Star
If the choice of medium is about convenience, can you compare viewership patterns that are emerging on TV and digital?
The best demonstration of that is in peak concurrency, which is one data point that is comparable across television and digital. In the first eight days of IPL, Star Sports saw a peak concurrency of 5.6 crore. The same number on the digital platform was 1.8 crore.
Interestingly, the 5.6 crore is the highest peak concurrency that an IPL game has registered in the first eight days (barring the Covid years). So, not only is TV significantly larger than digital, but it is also showing indicators of growth.
Where is the growth coming from? Further, which consumer cohorts remain loyal to traditional TV viewing for live sports?
The growth is coming from three stimuli. New households subscribing to Star Sports; this is at its highest this year — almost 90% of all pay-TV households subscribe to Star Sports.
The second: viewers who would typically come watch later in the tournament are feeling compelled to watch early on thanks to our marketing campaign and the IPL build-up coverage that began with the player auction in December. Number three, we are also seeing new viewers. People who have been peripheral viewers have joined in the viewing experience.
The scale of IPL is such that it does not show indicators of any outliers in terms of demographics. It is pretty much a secular trend of consumption. There are three factors for this: the scale of IPL is truly inclusive of all demographics, TV viewing tends to be community viewing so it tends to pull together multiple demographics to watch together, whenever we see significant growth (25% YoY in our case) growth cannot be fuelled by one demographic alone.
It is undeniable that viewership habits are changing and digital offers exciting community viewing experiences and content options. As the media landscape evolves, how can television broadcasting, especially for live sports, keep up? Won’t that be the ultimate test for where and how people will watch live sports?
This is a profound question. Live sport is about aggregated viewing. At the same time, it is equally about serving cohorts. Meaning, while the event is one that crores of fans watch together, each cohort of fans has different needs and can be served differently. What television needs to do more of is: serve the aggregate and not lose track of cohorts.
For example, one of the growth areas for us this year has been Gujarat. One of the reasons for this is that Gujarat has a franchise of its own that the people of the state can get behind. Complementary to that is the introduction of our Gujarati feed which debuted last year. Lastly, sport is all about heroes; we realised that Hardik Pandya (captain of Gujarat Titans) and Ravindra Jadeja were becoming heroes that Gujarat would like to call its own. As our brand ambassadors, they have both espoused the agenda of cricket viewership in Gujarat.
The other aspect is to constantly redefine what television means. For example, this time we have launched Star Sports Pro (on Airtel Digital TV) and Star Sports VIP (on Tata Play). Both these services offer catch-up, live stats, key moments, and playlists (content specific to a theme or a player). TV has to focus on innovations and redefine itself. It cannot remain regimented as a linear medium.
And finally, heighten the virtues of the big screen — lean-back experience and community viewing.
IPL tends to attract huge investments very early, but that wasn’t the case this time. In a typical IPL year, demand stops growing by day 5, and day 6. Whereas this year, the demand is picking up now.Sanjog Gupta, Disney Star
Tech-led start-up brands that were built on IPL have stayed away from this IPL. How has this impacted ad revenue?
Ad spending has been facing headwinds due to macroeconomic conditions. It is not unique to sports or India. Following depressed ad spending for the last six months, March 2023 was the first month to register genuine signs of recovery.
In that context when IPL comes along, marketers have no choice but to spend on IPL. Because they are making hard choices, they review the scale of investment. And that impact has been real.
IPL tends to attract huge investments very early, but that wasn’t the case this time. In a typical IPL year, demand stops growing by day 5, and day 6. Whereas this year, the demand is picking up now.
Additionally, a certain segment of advertisers had their concerns resolved after the opening-day numbers came out. There was a sense of caution among marketers about the new reality where two platforms were quite vociferous about being the preferred platform for advertisers and how that lent itself to the brand’s messaging.
TV has to focus on innovations and redefine itself. It cannot remain regimented as a linear medium.Sanjog Gupta, Disney Star
Star Sports senior executives believe that the ad spend split between TV and digital will be 75:25. Can you tell me how different this is from last year? Is the fraction of money going to digital, as per your estimates, higher than what digital made last year?
The landscape of digital streaming has significantly evolved since IPL was first streamed on Disney+ Hotstar. In 2018-19 IPL was streamed free as an AVoD property. From 2020 to 2022 it was behind a paywall. And this year it is once again free to view on an AVoD platform.
The data that we saw when IPL was on Disney+ Hotstar (AVoD) is similar to the data that the competition is publishing right now. Concurrency of 1.8 crore on digital this year is pretty much the kind of peak concurrency for IPL 2019. While the ecosystem is still evolving and it will change shape before it settles down, the patterns still remain similar.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare this year to last year or an average year. While the proportions may look similar, the absolute quantum may look different.