India might still not be in the throes of the beautiful game, but there is no giving the fact that the popularity of the sport is slowly and steadily seeping through towns and cities of India, particularly among the youth. And the Indian sports broadcasters who have till now put all their energy and resources into one sport (read cricket) are also beginning to take notice of the changing landscape.
While cricket continues to be the dominant sport in the country, football too is witnessing a tremendous growth both in terms of popularity and investments. In order to reduce their dependency on one sport, sports broadcasters such as Star Sports, Ten Sports, Sony Six or Neo Sports are putting their weight behind football.
After cricket, soccer is the property that is being chased the most by sports broadcasters as one can see from the acquisition trends in the last few years with broadcast rights of football properties witnessing a steady rise. Whether it’s the English Premier League (EPL), Fifa World Cup or Uefa Euro, all have seen a significant jump in acquisition price. Such is the power of football that the country’s leading media company Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL) has a full-fledged football channel Ten Action. The survival of another sportscaster Neo Sports is to a large extent dependent on its most prized property, the German Bundesliga. Sony Six is positioning itself as the home of international football through properties like Fifa World Cup and Uefa Euro. Star Sports, on the other hand, is using football to drive subscription for its HD channels.
Star Sports has taken its association with the game to another level by partnering IMG Reliance for a soccer league on the lines of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Although the league titled Indian Super League (ISL) is yet to take off in the right earnest, it nevertheless has the potential to take the sport to a different level, what with the backing of the who’s who from entertainment, sports and the corporate world.
Over the past few years, Star’s main focus has been on pushing the EPL. However, it now has turned its focus to pushing local football. Star India COO Sanjay Gupta said that local heroes will push soccer to the next level. He cited the example of badminton which saw a surge in popularity due to Saina Nehwal.
“Football needs a similar push which the ISL will give. However, soccer is not a small sport. Already 200–250 million people follow soccer. But they don’t have a local soccer team that performs well. Once that happens, the sport will grow much bigger than what it is today. The ISL will make great local content available for 60 days a year. Among the young male urban audiences, soccer already has a strong following. Thanks to ISL, we can expect soccer to become much bigger than what it is today,” expounded Gupta.
Star showcases the EPL, Serie A (Italy) and La Liga (Spanish). It used to have the Fifa World Cup and Uefa Euro which are now with Sony Six.
“We believe that football is a great way to build and grow sports broadcasting. We are taking the EPL deeper as part of our larger game plan. Apart from Hindi, we also see potential in Bengali and Malayalam language for football. We are evaluating this for the ISL. The challenge is to find the right level of commentators. Local feeds make content accessible to people not comfortable in English,” Gupta noted.
Talking about the ISL, Gupta said, “The aim is to take the soccer experience to the next level by getting international and the best local players coming together to create a spectacle. We are on this journey because soccer has aspirational value.”
Gupta doesn’t expect significant jump in subscription revenue through football. However, he is optimistic that the revenue will flow in once international leagues go deeper beyond the metros and the traditional markets of West Bengal, Kerala and Goa.
“I don’t see a serious jump in the short term. But the international leagues that we showcase are stronger than they were three to four years back as a lot more people follow them. As we move forward, we will make more money as more people would like to consume this content both on TV and digital,” averred Gupta.
Multi Screen Media’s Sony Six is also betting big on football along with basketball and fight sports as it seeks to build its two-year-old sportainment channel. To grow beyond the IPL, the channel acquired rights to 2014 and 2018 Fifa World Cups besides the rights to 2016 Uefa Euro.
For Six business head Prasana Krishnan, football is a clear number two sport in the country. “It is the second sport in the country. That is why different broadcasters are investing in and pushing soccer in different ways. Our focus is on international football which is why we have done deals with Fifa and Uefa. We have taken a big bet on soccer.”
While Indian football doesn’t have too many takers, the affinity for international football is growing, claimed Krishnan. And with competition among sports broadcasters growing to have football properties on their roster, the acquisition costs have also seen a jump. “More competition has come into the marketplace. When that happens, prices will naturally rise,” he admitted.
Ten Sports CEO Rajesh Sethi asserted that football is a key part of its strategy. “Football has strong pockets of interest in states like West Bengal, Kerala and Goa. However, the sport is growing beyond its traditional bastions, particularly in Tier I and II cities. There is a strong metro-centric audience for international football,” said Sethi.
Ten Action has properties like Uefa Champions League, French Ligue, Copa del Rey, Australian A-League, German DFB Cup and I League among others. Sethi claims that Ten Action has a reach of 114 million homes and has live content throughout the year.
While Indian football has its own followers, it’s the international football that gets major traction for sports broadcasters, admits Sethi.
Neo Sports VP of programming Mautik Tolia notes that for a sports channel football has to be a part of the mix. “But we are not over dependent on the sport. 25 per cent of our content comes from soccer. We have been airing the German League Bundesliga for the past eight years. We have been airing Latin American soccer for the past two years.”
He notes that visibility for the Bundesliga has grown year on year. “We do marketing activities in conjunction with some of the clubs. We have also worked with the German soccer federation and have done things like send journalists on junkets to get the Bundesliga experience and contests for fans to win merchandise.”
Both Bundesliga and the Latin American soccer properties come up for renewal next year. For Neo, it is crucial that these rights be retained.
Ad sales scene
Neo Sports VP ad sales Sudip Roy claims that football accounts for 25–30 per cent of his network’s ad revenue. “We have more than doubled Bundesliga’s revenue. The Bundesliga is a fast-paced league. Viewers get hooked due to the speed and vibrancy. The timings are excellent. Advertisers are more open to investing in football leagues compared to a few years back. What helps is that the sport today is getting more buzz thanks to initiatives like the ISL. You see the male brands getting on board. Bundesliga has sponsors like Amul, Airtel and Xolo,” Roy said.
Talking about advertiser interest in the game, MSM president network sales, licensing and telephony Rohit Gupta notes that brands that target the youth are coming on board in a much more active manner now. “If you see consumption patterns among the youth for sports, they watch the Twenty20 format in cricket. The next thing that they watch is football.”
Sanjay Gupta notes that in future investments in football will make sense as ad sales will grow. From a brands point of view, more clients will come in. “Brands are trying to get the attention of young male audiences. Ad revenues will grow. ”
Maxus client leader Jigar Rambhia is bullish about the impact of the upcoming ISL. “The World Cup will get viewership regardless of the time. The EPL sees brands like Vodafone advertise. But ISL could be a game changer. The opportunity for this league is to make soccer more of a mass game. If they get the player mix right by getting in some known international names and ISL works as a property, then there will be a spiral effect. Viewership of international leagues will also grow as a result.”
He notes that since viewership numbers of soccer are not great, one has to consider other factors beond ratings while buying. “The history of a league, its legacy and the kind of players participating play a role. We track fan following. The EPL clubs are followed the most. We are at a stage when advertisers are looking for more sport opportunities beyond cricket. Soccer is one of those sports.”
For him, the three biggest soccer properties are the World Cup, the EPL and the Uefa Champions League. “But rates for soccer have more or less been the same over the past two to three years. There may have been a five to 10 per cent raise here or there, but the fact that soccer doesn’t reflect in numbers is an issue.”
Lintas Media Group VP R. Venkatasubramanian also sees a surge in soccer interest happening on the back of the ISL. “The aim is to grow the sport at the grassroots level. People will understand the game more. I expect that the under-19 World Cup in India will also generate interest. Infrastructure will improve. The in-stadia experience will improve. Right now, telecom, mobile and auto are three categories most visible on soccer. A company like Vodafone that wants to be present everywhere also uses soccer as one vehicle.
The rights scene
2015 and 2016 will be busy years. That is because a slew of football properties will be up for grabs. A sports marketing expert notes that key rights coming up are Champions League, Serie A, French League and South American football including the Copa America event.
“I think that all four will see good inflation in India as Sony/Ten compete for any available football rights,” the expert pointed out.
The soccer rights process is different from cricket in that it is more informal. “Apart from the Champions League and the EPL where there are set dates and times for bidding, the rest of the leagues are sold in a much more informal way,” added the expert.
For sports marketing agencies, money is one component in a deal. The other thing that matters is the exposure/visibility of the league. “This also helps. It improves the broadcaster’s relationship with the league and shows that you care about their long-term goals.”
Gupta doesn’t see a big jump in football prices happening in the next cycle. “As I said, right now soccer does not make economic sense. That is also why we stayed away from the World Cup due to match timings. Until the following of soccer changes dramatically, rights prices will not go up by much. I don’t see them growing in the next one to two years. In fact, I don’t see a jump happening at all in rights prices in the next cycle even for the EPL.”