Entrepreneur Akul Ticku hasn’t missed a single Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket match since he discovered the convenience of watching the game on a laptop at his office in the tournament’s sixth season last year.
The afternoon matches, which typically start at 3pm, were part of Ticku’s work hours.
“It was more convenient and I could tune into the matches at my own discretion,” said Ticku, founder of a Kashmiri food-delivery start-up.
With an eye on cricket fans like Ticku, one of the 55 million viewers who watched IPL on YouTube last year, Times Internet Ltd and its partner Star India Pvt. Ltd are sparing no effort to draw audiences to their mobile and online platforms in the seventh edition of the Twenty20 cricket tournament that starts on Wednesday.
Times Internet won the Internet and mobile broadcast rights for IPL for Rs.261.6 crore crore in 2011, and teamed up with Star India in January 2014 to share the rights with Starsports.com, the broadcaster’s online brand.
This year, the two media companies are hoping to surpass last year’s IPL online audience of 55 million viewers.
According to Star India, the video streaming of the recent ICC World T20 tournament on starsports.com, generated unprecedented traction. The final between India and Sri Lanka attracted a record 1.93 million unique individuals, it said.
Star is hoping for a similar response to IPL.
“The success of ICC World T20 really positions us well for Pepsi IPL 2014, which is debuting on starsports.com this year, and where we have the opportunity to really deliver a whole new experience for IPL fans. Our aspiration is to break the 20 lakh mark for a single game,” said Ajit Mohan, executive vice-president and head of new media at Star India.
On April 14, Times Internet, a Times Group company, also launched GoCricket.com for all content related to IPL, including live streams.
“We’ve partnered with Star for greater distribution for IPL on both StarSports and GoCricket,” said Satyan Gajwani, chief executive officer of Times Internet.
According to Gajwani, in the last three years, IPL on Indiatimes, the Internet subsidiary of the Times Group which became the official online broadcaster for IPL in 2011, has been the largest digital sports streaming event in the world as most sports leagues globally restrict access to paying users.
“Last year, we reached 55 million users and we expect that to grow this year,” he said.
Praseed Prasad, national trading head (digital media), GroupM, the media buying agency of WPP Plc, does not put a number to the people who will watch cricket matches online, but said viewership could jump by 35%.
“Online traffic has grown and consumers are trying it out. Television is for large captive audiences. Online viewership is private, more convenient in many ways,” he said.
Star India decided to refresh its website starsports.com for the seventh season of IPL.
Star India’s chief operating officer Sanjay Gupta said that while a lot of the live video content on the website is available only for a subscription fee, the media company decided to draw users to the site by offering Season 7 of the IPL, with a five-minute delay in match streaming, completely free.
Even GoCricket will be distributed free globally.
“We are paying extra attention to mobile, but the experience is across all devices, including phones and tablets,” said Gajwani.
He maintains that the nature of consumption online is changing.
“It’s not just about watching the event. People check in regularly, chat with friends, debate, discuss, predict and do much else,” he said.
To push and promote their content, the two portals from Star and Times Internet will leverage their media assets. For instance, starsports.com launched a television commercial earlier this month to attract young viewers to watch the game online.
The campaign will continue to run across the Star network, on news channels as well as online. Furthermore, the media company will use its associate ground sponsorship of the IPL to highlight the new version of starsports.com. The brand will be very visible on ground and on perimeter boards.
Times Internet, meanwhile, will unleash a print campaign for GoCricket.
Clearly, if eyeballs move online, so will advertisers. Marquee brands like Hindustan Unilever Ltd and Amazon.in have already signed up with the sports viewing platform for online sponsorship deals worth Rs.3-5 crore each, according to media buyers who did not wish to be identified.
The online sponsorship formats include sponsorship presence, banner inventory, video inventory and other innovative branded content.
Advertisers on IPL online will get exposure on both StarSports and GoCricket, said Gajwani.
The launch of the tournament online, free of cost, though with a five-minute delay according to contract conditions, will go a long way in drawing close to 50 million viewers to starsports.com alone, said Gupta.
What is different this time for starsport.com is that the broadcaster has focused on creating the content for mobile first rather than for web first.
“It is usually the other way round. But in a country like India, which has a growing base of mobile users, it only makes sense to ensure that our product and design are fine-tuned to deliver a good viewer experience on that medium as well,” he said.
Will the online marketing blitzkrieg affect television viewership of IPL?
Interestingly, executives at Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd, the company that owns the rights to the television broadcast of IPL matches, do not think so. Multi Screen Media will telecast the matches on its channels MAX and Six.
Rohit Gupta, president (network sales) at Multi Screen Media, is confident that the telecast of the tournament online and on mobile will only supplement the overall viewership on television, rather than eat into it.
“Over the years, the numbers have clearly demonstrated that people continue to watch the match on television... At the end of the day, you really can’t watch an entire match on a handset,” he said.
Gupta said the audience reach of the tournament has only gone up in the last three years from approximately 150 million in 2011, to 164 million in 2012 and 250 million in 2013.
He is expecting far more interest in the game this year, even though the initial matches will be played in the United Arab Emirates to avoid a clash of dates with the ongoing general election in India.
To begin with, the number of games being played this year has come down from 75 to 60, which means that there will be fewer afternoon matches, and more matches during prime time.
“Moreover, unlike the earlier seasons when certain teams were emerging as clear favourites (resulting in lower viewership for other matches), this year, the auction has meant that all teams are starting on an equal footing, which will go a long way in keeping the interest high and improving the overall viewership numbers,” said Gupta.
According to Puneet Johar, managing director at To The New, a digital services network, although television viewership of sports is not under threat, online consumption will only grow.
“The Star management is forward-looking. If it has to be in sports telecast, it is hedging its bets for the future—and preparing itself for future broadcasts on different devices. Its digital strategy reflects a 10-year view. Advertising will ultimately follow consumption online,” he said.