Anirban Roy Choudhury
Media

Viacom18 all set with Indian language feed for sports properties; to bet on football first

Can the Mukesh Ambani-backed network dent the reigning duopoly in sports broadcasting in India?

Leading media conglomerate Viacom18 does not own a sports channel. But it recently acquired the rights to broadcast top division football league matches from Spain, France and Italy, in India. It already has the rights to broadcast the Carabao Cup, a knockout club competition in England. Then, it has Abu Dhabi T10 cricket and ATP Masters tennis. Along with these live sports properties, it also broadcasts the Legends Cup, featuring Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Shaun Pollock, among other legends of cricket.  

One can argue that apart from the Legends Cup, the rest hardly provide any opportunity to monetise. Why else would the duopoly in India's sports broadcasting business - Star and Disney India and Sony Pictures Networks India - let go of these live sports properties?

With VOOT, its digital video-on-demand (VOD) platform, nascent in the paid space, Viacom18 can rake in subscribers on the back of sports properties. El Clasico, Madrid Derby, Barcelona, Real Madrid, etc., very much remain marquee sporting extravaganzas, despite losing out stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. In fact, Viacom18 can bring the latter (Messi) to Indian fans as he makes his debut for PSG in France's Ligue 1 soon.

Viacom18 owns youth and music channels, like MTV and VH1, and Hindi mass entertainment offering Rishtey. By not launching a sports channel yet, it has saved itself from the obligation of having a large portfolio of live sports content, which can get very expensive.

Suarez celebrating after LaLiga goal
Suarez celebrating after LaLiga goal

In 2018, when the Indian Premier League (IPL) rights were up for sale, the incumbent broadcaster Sony went up against Star. Little did anyone predict Viacom18's price tag of Rs 16,348 crore for a period of five years, to outbid Sony's Rs 11,050 crore. Star had also written a cheque of Rs 11,880 crore to own the rights to broadcast International Cricket Council (ICC) events, like World Cup, etc.

"There is no certainty that Viacom18 won't bid for IPL next year, or for ICC matches in a couple of years. We must not forget the network is backed by Mukesh Ambani's company. The fact that it broke away from a potential merger with Sony Pictures Networks India signifies that it is going to place big bets," says an industry veteran, who earlier worked as the CEO of a media company.

Viacom18 all set with Indian language feed for sports properties; to bet on football first

Cricket commands high acquisition costs because of its popularity in India. It is, by far, the largest driver of distribution in the country. In terms of ad rates, a 10-second slot in an India versus Pakistan World Cup match, or when Mumbai Indians take on Chennai Super Kings in an IPL match, can cost brands around Rs 12 lakh.

Most general entertainment channels (GECs) spend as much, or lower, to produce a 20-minute episode that sells 10-second ad slots at Rs 1 lakh. Unlike cricket, football still struggles to find advertisers.

Viacom18 is upbeat about the opportunities that these footballing properties provide. According to the numbers shared by the company, attributing them to Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, the opening La Liga week garnered three times more reach this time around. Viewers spent at least 30 minutes watching the match. As per Anshul Ailawadi, business head – Youth, Music and English Entertainment, Viacom18, what was surprising was the 55:45 male-female ratio on MTV.

Lionel Messi training with PSG teammates: Ligue 1
Lionel Messi training with PSG teammates: Ligue 1

Going forward, the network is willing to use its regional channels, or at least provide multilingual feeds on MTV. That, Ailawadi feels, can open doors for distribution in football-crazy markets, like Kerala or other south Indian states. In Kerala, the average time spent on (watching) a La Liga match is 41 minutes, higher than the overall average of 30 minutes.

"We are having discussions with the leagues to evaluate how we can roll out multilingual commentary," adds Ailawadi. In fact, only 27 per cent of the viewership in the first La Liga week was from the Hindi speaking market (HSM). Thirty-eight per cent of the viewership came from the rural areas, and 51 per cent from urban cities, with a population of 10 lakh or lower.

Anshul Ailawadi
Anshul Ailawadi

The network is already planning to mount El Clasico on a large scale. What is missing for La Liga, which is mostly streamed on Facebook in India, is the marketing might that TV channels possess. MTV has an in-house studio that provides advertising solutions to brands ranging from FMCG to retail and edtech. The channel has unveiled a campaign to promote La Liga, which has been created by the same in-house team. It is tracking the social media chatter and has capabilities to improvise in no time, whenever necessary.

Experts believe the "marketing might" missing piece in the puzzle will help the league to become popular in the country. Ailawadi also shares that the network plans to fly fans to Spain so that they can connect with the league.   

The league owners have set up an office in India and want to grow the revenue from the market. The biggest contributor has to be the earnings from media rights, which La Liga is struggling with. Viacom18 says it wants to grow the fan base of the league by at least 10x. La Liga wants Ailawadi and Viacom18 to pay more for the rights, three years from now. For that to happen, both parties will have to take a big stride, and a mere step won't be enough.