Kabaddi league's surprise launch-run and football league's audience expectations lift the broadcaster's hopes of growing sports viewership.
Star India (Star), the big boy in sports broadcasting, spent over 90 per cent of its budget on the king of sports in India -- cricket -- last year, leaving the rest for other sports. In a cricket-crazy nation, that is what it has been doing for years.
But in 2014, Star has taken a surprising gamble. It is forking out 30 per cent of its sports broadcasting budget on sports other than cricket. It has bet big on two sports it thinks would be game-changers -- kabaddi and football.
The popularity of the just-concluded eight-team Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), has taken even the broadcaster by surprise. Says Sanjay Gupta, chief operating officer, Star TV India, "Except for cricket, there is no game that has been able to get the kind of viewers and engagement levels as kabaddi. It was really a surprise and could be the game we were looking for."
The average television viewership rating (TVR) of kabaddi matches was at 1.6, compared to the FIFA World Cup (2014), which was around 0.7, says Gupta. Cricket's most popular Indian Premier League gets an average TVR of 4 plus.
Infact, Gupta says that on days when the recent India -England cricket series and PKL were telecast simultaneously, it was PKL which stole the show by getting more TVRs. It has also overtaken, online, Aamir Khan'sSatyamewa Jayate, another Star programme, which had the maximum number of digital impressions (people discussing, liking or commenting on social media).Breaking ground
Gupta says the engagement of the viewer was as high as 10-11 minutes, which was also the highest after cricket (around 15-16 minutes for every half an hour of programming). Contrary to common wisdom that kabaddi would have more viewers in smaller towns and villages, the larger share of the audience was in big cities. It comprised the youth, aged between 18 and 30 years. The female viewership was much higher than for most other sports. Gupta says it is the same audience which would also see football. He, however, concedes that this is only the first step, as cricket remains a truly a mass game.
The other sport, football or soccer, that Star is backing, might face a challenge of another kind. The Indian Super League's (ISL) biggest hurdle might be that of expectation. "The challenge is that ISL will be compared with the EPL (English Premier League) and others that people watch. So, the quality and the presentation will be crucial. That is why foreign players will up the ante. Of course, its success will lie in creating a lot of local football heroes too," he says. The IPL, on the other hand, had international stars clamouring to take part. Star agrees that it cannot afford bigwigs, but except for the three leagues in Europe, which pay big money, there are a lot of talented footballers who play in smaller leagues and are ready to play in India. So, is the case for African footballers.
But unlike kabaddi, which was uncharted area, advertising and sponsorship interest has been high for ISL (a JV with Reliance-IMG). The two and half month-long tournament, to begin in October, will see investments many times higher than kabaddi because of the scale and duration, according to Gupta. Analysts say it could be as high as over Rs 500 crore. Football is an established game with a loyal viewership base. That has helped Star rope in Hero Motorcorp as the title sponsor for three years, with scope for six more sponsors. Media planners say that Star could easily rustle up over Rs 50 crore Gupta, however, says it might not make money in the first three years.
For kabaddi, Star forked out over Rs 100 crore for the five-week extravaganza, and does not except to break even in the next three-four years. It was the main sponsor this year. Gupta says, "We had zero ad revenue this year as we did not want to sell it cheap. Also, everyone wanted to test the concept. But now there is a lot of interest." It would look at a 26 week-tournament, to build a loyal following, and a Kabaddi World Cup next year, as the game is played in 36 nations.Non-cricket spell
Despite all the publicity and hoopla, all of sports constitutes just 4 per cent of total TV viewership, substantially below general entertainment and news. Star wants to spur non-cricket sports in order to add to the share. "Out of the 4-per-cent-share, 3.5 per cent is contributed by cricket. If PKL grows, it can add 1 per cent to the share. While ISL's impact is not yet known, the two could move sports' share to 6 per cent," says Gupta.
Even though Star backed the Indian Badminton League, and there were hockey and some tennis leagues planned, it would be difficult to spin these off as sports with a mass following. And, these are also expensive to organise (hockey requires a hockey stick for each player and astro-turf, badminton racquets and shuttles). But kabaddi does not need any gear and football has a larger fan following than tennis, and could together lend wings to Star's ambition.
And, if the packed stadium for the PKL final in Mumbai was anything to go by, non-cricket sports might finally get heard above cricket's din.