Will the advertisers spend a decent amount on web publishers? The publishers think so.
Team India has not played a cricket match for the longest time. And, there were hardly any fantasy games available for the 140 million Indians who pay to pick a team and win rewards on the likes of Dream11, HalaPlay, and others.
The lack of matches since early March, when the India versus South Africa series was cancelled, has resulted in a significant decline in the traffic of sports web publishers. People tune in to ESPNcricinfo, Sportskeeda, Cricbuzz and others to know the score, follow the commentary, and get in-depth analysis of the match and the performance of their favourite stars. This helps them to pick their fantasy team.
"We saw a huge drop in traffic during the month of April. Revenues and audience traction fell by 70 per cent," says Porush Jain, founder and CEO of Sportskeeda, which has been acquired by gaming startup Nazara Technologies.
"With the postponement of IPL 2020 and then the cancellation of World Cup T20, the advertisers moved their focus away from cricket completely," said Pankaj Chhaparwal, founder and CEO of Cricbuzz, which is owned by Times Internet. IPL stands for Indian Premier League, the multi-billion dollar tournament which is about to begin in the UAE shortly.
"We believe that in 2020, we will get more traffic on ESPNcricinfo, as compared to the 2019 edition of IPL," says Gaurav Thakur, director of marketing and business development at ESPN India.
But how? The general perception is that people, who can't watch a match because they are either travelling in a train or on a noisy road with low bandwidths, visit 'dotcoms' to get a sense of what is happening. That's a behaviour followed only "during the three hours when the match is going on," says Thakur. "There are people who use (come to) ESPNcricinfo while watching the match, as a second screen," he adds.
"People come to ESPNcricinfo to know what is happening with the team, the expert's opinion, and the statistics… Fans get a sense of what to expect from the match. Once it (the match) is over, there is another increase in traffic as people want to know the analysis," opines Thakur.
According to Chhaparwal, there are many reasons that make this year's IPL different. "The absence of other entertainment options for viewers/users in India," is one of them. "Publishers can actively leverage this trend with engaging IPL-related content that would appeal to advertisers."
Publishers depend on direct sales for ad revenue during IPL and other marquee tournaments. The direct sales have hit a new low owing to the COVID-induced lockdowns and subsequent disruption.
"Consumers' priorities changed during the lockdown period. Suddenly, a lot of businesses became less relevant. Hence, it is obvious for the advertisers to cut down on their budgets," says Jain.
At the same time, he shares that the demand for e-learning, medicine, etc., increased manifold. "Things are coming back to normal, or the 'new normal'. I am sure that all businesses will come back to normal slowly, and ad spends will also increase."
While the publishers are gearing up for IPL, the recently concluded England versus West Indies series, and the ongoing matches between England and Pakistan have helped get some traffic back. Thakur shares that ESPNcricinfo has seen a "100 per cent surge" as compared to July this year. "We are inching closer to the traffic we used to see during the pre-COVID period."
For Cricbuzz, like everyone else, consumption saw a sharp drop in late March and April, however, Chhaparwal says that they have seen a rebound since mid-June. "As of August, consumption has been restored to regular levels..."
"Cricbuzz leveraged the lockdown period to further develop its video capabilities. It produced (and ran) three original shows - 'Spicy Pitch', 'Cricbuzz in Conversation' and 'Strategic Timeout'. The shows kept the users engaged and saw strong consumption, with over 120 million views," adds Chhaparwal.
On how Sportskeeda used the on-field hiatus, Jain said, "We know that for cricket lovers, it is very difficult to stay away from the sport. So, we put a little more focus on videos... We launched 'SKLive', a daily interview series, and our first original series with Kapil Dev, Sourav Ganguly, and Yuvraj Singh called 'Free Hit'."
IPL is another period when there is marketing blitzkrieg by publications to land new customers and establish their superiority. ESPNcricinfo has already rolled out its commercials and Cricbuzz is expected to follow suit.
"We are treating this IPL as a special one to ensure we regain any lost momentum and get right back on our growth trajectory. Our marketing investments during the IPL will, thus, be higher as compared to previous editions," says Chhaparwal.
While leading sports publishers are confident that there will be a resurgence in terms of traffic, what about revenue? Will it match, or exceed, last year's collection. "It is difficult to say at this stage," says Thakur, adding that a lot will depend on how market dynamics play out…
Fantasy games are expected to benefit as the nation goes cricket-crazy once again. Dream11 has already written a cheque north of Rs 200 crore to bag IPL's title sponsorship this year. According to a KPMG report, online fantasy sports (OFS) users grew from two million in 2016 to 90 million in 2019. OFS platforms increased from less than 10 operators in 2016 to over 140 in 2019.
It's a "huge" category for sports publishers, says Jain. "We are trying to create the best fantasy content to help users pick better teams. I am hopeful that advertisers will spend a decent amount on web publishers like us...," he concludes.