Benita Chacko
Media

"Sports is inherently local": Sanjog Gupta, Star and Disney India

As part of ABP News presents Languages Week powered by Colors Bangla, the Head of Sports, Star & Disney India, spoke about the power of local language in sports broadcasting.

“When you play a sport, your language of expression, connection, discussion, tends to be in the language that you are most familiar with. This is not just at the professional level, but also when you play gully cricket,” said Sanjog Gupta, Head of Sports, Star and Disney India, in an interview with Sreekant Khandekar, co-founder of afaqs!, as part of ABP News presents Languages Week powered by Colors Bangla 2021.

The ABP News presents Languages Week powered by Colors Bangla 2021 will be held daily from August 23-27, 4 p.m. onwards. Please click here to register for the conference.

Star Sports not only provides match commentary in regional languages, but has also launched 24/7 channels in these languages and also creates original content to cater to different language audiences.

Gupta speaks about the channel’s regional strategy, power of local content and its impact on other network channels.

Edited excerpts.

Khandekar: We all know the power of the local language. But you would never imagine that sports is a place where you'd find irrefutable proof of its power. Star Sports is the preeminent media place to watch sports. Could you give the audience a sense of the extent of your expansion into languages?

Gupta: It's obviously something that's very close to our hearts. Our primary mode of expansion and growth of sports has been built on the back of what we believe is our regional focus. At the last count all cricket matches that Team India played were being watched in Hindi by almost two third of the viewers. More than 80% of the consumption of cricket today is now in local languages, about 65 per cent in Hindi and another 20 per cent in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. So what was originally one sport being broadcast in one language, English, has now truly become a broadcast that belongs to regional spaces. It is customised for fans based on their preferences and with a never-before regional focus. In the case of football, Bangla and Malalayam constitute almost 70% of the total consumption of ISL. That's how much affinity there is for regional broadcasts of sports.

Khandekar: In retrospect, it seems pretty evident that the commentary in a local language is likely to lead to more people watching the sport and for a longer period of time. Then why did it take so long?

Gupta: I think we were limited by our imagination. This journey really began in 2012. All cricket other than on All India Radio and Doordarshan was being broadcast largely in English. There were a few attempts at language broadcasts, but few and far between and not really consistent. These were mostly attempts at dubbing the English feed into local languages. Firstly, our objective was to grow viewership of cricket and other sports. We looked at two factors- one, what has happened in media in general, two the growing strength of vernacular media. Then of course, there was the broadcast ecosystem itself where the share of viewership amongst regional channels was only growing. The third factor is that sport inherently is local. When you play a sport, your language of expression, connection, discussion, tends to be the language that you are most familiar with. Not just at the professional level, but also when you play gully cricket the inherent expression is in the language of familiarity. So when we launched our first marketing campaign for our first language broadcast in Hindi, the tagline was ‘Hindi me baat hai kyunki Hindi me jazbaat hai’. Lastly, we undertook almost a year long consumer/ fan immersion exercise where we went into people's homes to understand the barriers for consumption and the kind of affinity the local language had. And we saw that it was a matter of immense pride to consume content in your own language. So the pride of language was a big factor that made us believe that there was definite potential for us to go down this path of regionalising sport.

Khandekar: What were the other factors?

Gupta: When I say language, it also includes how it's spoken in different parts of the country or region. And it's important for those nuances to be equally represented in the commentary. Talent selection of the people commentating and producing becomes fairly important as well. The kind of talent for different regions tends to be different based on preferences of viewers, how deeply connected they are to the sport and to what are the overarching cultural trends of the region.

The kind of talent for different regions tends to be different based on preferences of viewers, how deeply connected they are to the sport and to what are the overarching cultural trends of the region.

Khandekar: How large is your pool of commentators?

Gupta: So for IPL 2019, the last pre-COVID IPL, we had a roster of 110 commentators and presenters across 8 languages.

Khandekar: How deep can local commentary go? What are the factors that you consider while deciding to go into that language?

Gupta: There are four or five factors that we look at. One is the potential size of the market. There is an assessment done of the region for the number of viewers and to understand if the consumption in that region is under indexed or over indexed, or comparable to the national average. Typically an under indexation would mean there is potential in the market for growth. We also do a fair amount of qualitative work on the need gap and that's where some of these qualitative factors come in- how much pride does the region take in its own language? How much local content is consumed with the national content? The state of vernacular media. We also consider whether the region is ready for a local play or sport. There has to be a basic affinity for sport for us to consider that region as a potential growth driver for the broadcast of that sport. So for example, the decision to expand significantly in Kerala with football comes from the fact that the state has deep affinity for this sport as compared to Kabaddi, which doesn't have a Malayalam. But there is a Kannada feed for Kabaddi because of deep affinity for it in Karnataka. We foresee many more languages entering the fray as we look to customise each sport broadcast.

Khandekar: Could you give an example to the audience of what going local does?

Gupta: IPL in 2020 has grown by almost 50%. This is a fairly mature property, as it was in existence for 10 years before we acquired the rights and truly regionalised it. It's not just that it has been dubbed. For example, in Tamil Nadu because of their high levels of affinity for CSK, there is a show dedicated to fans of CSK. It's not just the live match broadcast, it's almost a content flywheel, which is constantly working to attract, engage and delight viewers who are coming in. For the large part of the growth in IPL viewership has been driven by the southern states, where we introduced truly regionalised feed.

It's not just the live match broadcast, it's almost a content flywheel, which is constantly working to attract, engage and delight viewers who are coming in.

Khandekar: What have all these changes done to the distribution part of the game?

Gupta: The whole purpose of the regional strategy was to take the network deeper. Our journey in the regional broadcast space has been broadly speaking in three phases. The first phase is about producing or serving the live match along with the pre and post shows in the local language customised for that region. The second stage is to complement it with programming before and after the game highlights, which allow fans to connect more deeply with the match broadcast. The final phase of the journey is the launch of a 24/7 regional sports channel. We've now come up with Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada and we have a few more launches coming up. As an outcome of this strategy during IPL 2021, for the first time ever, Star Sports Network was subscribed by more than 100 million houses. That just speaks about how the penetration has been driven by the combined efforts of the regional strategy in play. In states like Tamil Nadu and AP-Telangana, nine out of 10 homes have Star Sports 1 Tamil and Star Sports 1 Telugu respectively. It just goes to show that the adoption of the local channel is really driving the consumption of sport.

Khandekar: Is there a positive gain for other channels in the Star network too because of the entry via sports into these homes?

Gupta: The big driver for us has not just been the channel itself, but what the channel has done to the rest of the Sports Network. For example, when a consumer subscribes to Star Sports 1 Tamil, there is promotion of properties that he or she can watch on other Star Sports channels. There is a growing inclination to also subscribe to that channel. So I think it does have a network effect.

Khandekar: How are the marketing challenges different from one state to another?

Gupta: There is an attempt at segmenting viewers in a way where we bring in different cohorts to watch the same sporting properties. We look at if we need local variants of a national campaign? Or do we need fully independent local campaigns? The answer is different for different sports in different regions. In the case of ISL, there will be a campaign almost exclusively dedicated to the state of West Bengal and Kerala running alongside the national. But in the case of an IPL the focus would be on local activations around the national campaign. The campaign mix that we have to arrive at really has to be an attempt at attracting viewers. One, in states where we think we have the possibility of recruiting new viewers and by bringing back those who have lapsed. And two we believe that a local campaign will galvanise those viewers much more than a local variant of a national campaign will. That’s an active dynamic choice that we are constantly making.

In the case of ISL, there will be a campaign almost exclusively dedicated to the state of West Bengal and Kerala running alongside the national. But in the case of an IPL the focus would be on local activations around the national campaign.

We have actually experimented with two feeds in the same language as well. In IPL 2019 we had a Hindi feed meant for the fans of IPL and an additional Hindi feed called the SuperFunday feed, to exclusively cater to young fans that did not have deep levels of affinity for IPL.

Khandekar: What did you learn from that experience?

Gupta: Between 2019 to 2020 we saw viewership amongst women and kids below the age of 14 grow by more than 20% largely on the back of this additional feed and the programming initiatives that we had launched around the objective of attracting female fans and kids.

Languages Week is presented by ABP News and powered by COLORS Bangla.

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