?Star India is a name normally associated with serials since Star Plus casts such a long shadow over the rest of the television network. Over the past year or more, though, Star India has also been in the news because of a new-found interest in sports.
Q. Where does sports fit into Star's scheme of things?
We got into sports for two reasons. First, it occupies a very low place in India. If you really want to take a leap as a country, sports plays a very important role. We want to be a superpower in sports, but actually we are a zero power. Sport teaches you a lot of things - passion, teamwork, focus and so much more. To reach our full potential, we need to build sports. Second, Star India can make a big difference in the way we, as a country, engage with sports. And in that opportunity, if we do well, we can make a lot of money. The reality today is that none of the sports broadcasters is making money. I believe that if done well, it's a profitable business. It's a journey of at least five to ten years. So, there is a social reason to get into sports and yes, there is a business reason too. The Star sports network contributes about 20-25 per cent of Star India's revenue. If the media market grows at around 12-15 per cent, we feel Star Sports should grow at double this rate.
Q. Rs 20,000 crore is a lot of money. Over what period are you looking at investing this? Why now?
In sports, the content and hence the revenues aren't linear. Every year you have different sports events and hence different kind of content. Next year, for example, the revenues will increase, owing to the T20 World Cup. Some contracts are for three years (English Premier League, EPL and F1), some are for as much as six years (BCCI). To enter sports, you have to invest; there is no other option. There is no good time or bad time. If you want to change the way we play or consume sports, you have to do it in a very significant way. You can't dip your toes and check if the water is hot. You will have to jump into the pool to try and make a difference. That's why now and that's why in such a huge magnitude. It will take five to ten years for the network to realise profits on this investment. We are talking about changing the mindset towards sports. It is abysmal how much time Indians spend watching sports. If you put a good drama on TV people will watch it but that's not the case with sports. In cricket, we want to promote Ranji and as well as domestic players. People need to see and recognise them, idolise them. May be we have to start from schools and colleges and create heroes in those places. We will follow football, hockey or badminton for those who are not interested in cricket.
Q. For viewership, more people need to play some game out there. Are there any on-ground initiatives to promote sports?
We already have a partnership with IMG Reliance for a football league, Indian Super League. Second, we started a hockey league in partnership with Hockey India last year. We broadcast the Indian Badminton League. We are partnering with different stakeholders to not only broadcast the games but to shape the ways sports is played.
Q. Why name the channels 1,2,3 and 4? Why not Cricket, Football etc?
We had a cricket channel. We could have easily done football and hockey. However, I felt that this would be limiting. First, we can put only 24 hours of cricket content on a channel. If we go deeper in domestic cricket, we need more channels. People interested in sports follow more than one sport. Why define a channel with the name of the game? It's about unlocking the power of cricket and the power of all sports. We see these four as a single channel with 96 hours of content every day. Viewers can flip through and watch whatever they like. We spent close to Rs 100 crore - including network properties - in promoting this change. Normally, we spend only 50-60 per cent of this annually on marketing our sports channels.
Q. You are hoping that commentary in local languages could explode viewership of sports. Any guesses on why the commentary has largely been limited to English so far?
It's very difficult to say why it was this way. May be people believed that sports doesn't need a language. To my mind, it's a wrong belief. You need to explain the game to the viewers. For many people cricket is restricted to fours, sixes and the fall of wickets because we don't know the language in which the sport is being talked about. It would be interesting to know where a player comes from, his background, what the shot was called and if there is another technique to play the shot - all this can be explained only through commentary. Language has restricted the understanding of sports for the masses. And it's not just English, you have people from Australia and South Africa speaking about the game. Even while watching Hollywood content people need sub-titles since they aren't familiar with the accents. Going by our experience of Hindi we'd like to consider going to Tamil, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi. I don't know if there will be more channels or feeds, but we would definitely want to go to the regional languages. We already have a Calcutta Football League which is telecast on Star Jalsha. So, we are clear that there will be sports content in regional languages, but which channels, how and what the model will be, I don't know yet. May be a few quarters later, we will have an answer to that. More than studios on the ground the challenge is in finding commentators. The studio issue can be solved with money because it's about infrastructure. But how do you find the talent who can explain the game in that language? Plus, a consumer in Marathi or Kannada must feel that the person has credibility. We have Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri to speak in English, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Kapil Dev can speak in Hindi but who speaks in Kannada? Is he credible? We have Saurabh Ganguly in Bengali but who is there beyond him?
Q. Getting viewers to look beyond cricket is still tough. Do you see it as an opportunity or as a hurdle?
It's both, an opportunity and a hurdle. Opportunity in that at least we aren't a zero sports country! Almost 60-70 crore people have seen cricket on television. Now, the challenge is to get them to see other sport. The task of getting them to watch, follow or play a sport isn't easy. It's limited by infrastructure. Most of the schools in Mumbai don't have playgrounds, and those schools outside Mumbai have grounds but no equipment. So even if you want to play, where and how do you play? The problem goes beyond will and mindsets in India. There is a serious problem of infrastructure and we need the administrators to tell everyone in schools that sports is as important as studies. So it's a challenge of both infrastructure and attitude. It will take many years before it changes.
Q. Where do you see the online consumption of sports going? Is it eating into the TV viewing space?
Given its size and the pace of growth, the good thing in India is that nothing eats into the other's space. Just the numbers vary. People spend 160 minutes per day watching television content here as opposed to 300 minutes in the US or the UK. This is largely because in all our houses, there is just one TV set and that is not going to change dramatically. So, these 160 minutes will go to 300 minutes on the back of digital devices. If the wife is watching a show on TV, the husband might be watching a match on the internet and the youngster might be consuming comedy on the mobile phone. So, I am not so worried about one thing eating into the other. The bigger question is: do we have the right content and strategy for the people to consume content when they access their mobile phones or tablets?
Q. The ad-cap doesn't yet apply to the sports genre in the same way as for others. How do you see the situation?
The first thing is to restrict advertising on all channels. The only difference in sports is that during a live match some sports have more breaks and some have less. For example, cricket has a lot of breaks but football goes on continuously for 45 minutes. In most programmes the ad cap is by the hour; in sports we must do it by the day. On an average it shouldn't be more than twelve minutes per hour. The ad cap is a challenge of implementation more than that of revenue. What will you do if six wickets fall in quick succession?