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Star Sports isn’t going to let Reliance take a ‘free hit’ in the galactic IPL viewership battle

For many Indians, it’s eat, sleep and breathe cricket. The fervour soars during the Indian Premier League, the richest franchise cricket league and one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. IPL saw its brand value almost double to $8.4 billion last year, according to brand valuation consultant Brand Finance.

Considered the Super Bowl of India, IPL is enjoyed almost as a festival during the summers in India. This league is a golden goose as well as a battlefield for brands, advertisers and of course broadcasters.

The battle is set to get intense this year, as we await a key galactic fight on IPL viewership between titans Star Sports and Reliance-owned JioCinema, which will stream the matches for free in 4K resolution on its OTT platform. This off-field battle is not just about the present, but will provide enough cues about viewership for the future.

Reliance‘s switch hit

Reliance won the lion’s share of IPL broadcasting rights (for 2023-2027) by winning Package B (digital rights for Indian sub-continent) and C (non-exclusive digital rights for 98 matches across five seasons in the Indian sub-continent) for a total of Rs 23,758 crore.

Disney Star bagged the TV rights for the Indian sub-continent, paying Rs 23,575 crore.

Many believed the move by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani to go for OTT rights as something beyond what meets the ordinary eye.Having paid billions, Reliance also delivered a ‘full-toss’ offer of streaming the matches on OTT for free. Some analysts and experts see Ambani to be building something for the future via benefits he may reap in future. For instance, the move is seen to push his telecom business via data consumption.

Moreover, Jio Platforms, Ambani’s mobile-internet startup, is keen to hit Dalal Street sometime soon and at a time when the business tycoon’s rival Gautam Adani is distracted by a share meltdown following the Hindenburg allegations of manipulation.

Star Sports not warming the benches

Disney+Hotstar had reported a 6% decline in paid subscribers in the October-December period. Some attributed the shrinkage in paid subscriber base as it didn’t have the streaming rights for IPL.

However, industry sources, who didn’t wish to be identified, said that the drop in subscribers was on account of a migration of Disney+Hotstar subscribers in certain markets to Disney+.

Star Sports isn’t sitting on the fence and has stepped up its marketing push to convince viewers why IPL is best enjoyed on TV.

“Star Sports’ new campaign (that IPL is better on TV) is more of a preemptive move aimed at maintaining the dominance of TV both with respect to advertisers and broadcasters,” said Swarup Gupta, financial services lead and head, ESG ratings service, at Economist Intelligence Unit.

“In India, sports remains a shared viewing experience and the penetration, experience and experience of TV broadcasters remains unchallenged. In contrast, cord cutters, viewers disavowing TV for streaming services, constitute just 0.2% of the tv universe by several estimates,” he added.

Star Sports is confident about where India will watch IPL – on their TV sets.

Data wagon-wheel

According to YouGov, 83% viewers prefer watching sports on the television. Broadcast Audience Research Council notes Asia Cup 2022 grew by 12% in ratings on TV. The India-Australia T20I series delivered 36% higher viewership than its previous highest in 2019 and was the highest-rated T20I bilateral series in the last five years. The India-South Africa series rated 47% more than its previous series in June 2022. The recently concluded India-Sri Lanka and India-New Zealand witnessed a 63% increase in ratings as well.

India vs Australia 1st Test is the 3rd highest-rated bilateral Test in the last five years.

Sports viewership on television grew by 11% in 2022, with 758 million viewers watching sports on linear TV. The overall linear TV universe stands tall at 900 million and is believed to have enormous headroom to grow.

Star Sports’ powerplay marketing

Star Sports is banking on data and has stepped up the promotion push, unleashing a 360-degree marketing campaign reaching every corner of the country leading up to the IPL.

The company said it will make all the efforts to ensure that more people have access to Star Sports. To capture the increasing premium HD audience base and to fill the gap in HD vehicles for sports viewers in the South India market, Star Sports is launching two premium HD sports channels — Star Sports Tamil HD and Star Sports Telugu HD.

“We will have over 100 commentators and are looking at engaging with the viewers in a much bigger way. We will focus on building and engaging communities and creating content around IPL for different cohorts, from school kids and sports academies at one end to young mothers at the other,” the company told ET Online.

“Our ambition is to make Tata IPL 2023, the biggest-ever on TV,” it added.

Star Sports said they will broadcast IPL on more than 22 channels with over 10 feeds. “Disney Star network which has a market share of 30%+ will use the might of its network to make this the biggest IPL ever on TV. There will be the largest ever IPL broadcast coverage with the widest bouquet of channels,” it said.

Television has been the preferred medium for brands to leverage keeping in mind the high viewership for IPL on TV. IPL on TV is where brands are built, no one wants to give it a miss, the company said.

An easy chase for Star Sports?

As per the industry sources, Star Sports has set a target to reach 500 million viewers this year through IPL, higher than the roughly 400 million that the network reached in previous editions.

“If the last few months of live cricket on Star Sports is anything to go by, we have seen very good participation from various clients across categories advertise with us. We are seeing good interest from the clients that we are meeting for IPL 2023, and we are expecting a positive response,” the broadcaster said.

There are more than 100 advertisers every year on TV and 75% of Indian B2C start-ups have used IPL on TV to become unicorns. The IPL leads in terms of advertising expenditure across media properties and platforms available to advertisers. It has consistently been a catalyst in providing a boost to the economy as well.

“Summer is also the time when brands across a lot of categories become active advertisers and no other platform can deliver a scale for brands like IPL on television,” Star Sports said.

Star Sports also believes this edition of the IPL is going to generate a huge interest than in recent years, which should make it an easy chase for broadcasters to achieve growth targets.

The rich cricket league this time will happen after a year’s gap, which wasn’t the case for the past three years. The revival of matches being played on home grounds after three years will ensure that local markets in cities that are hosting the league will infuse fervor among viewers.

A slow over rate for OTTs?

Some experts and analysts believe that Reliance will not pose any threat to Star Sports or any TV broadcaster in the near-to-medium term as viewers would largely be in front of their TV sets.

“I do not foresee people watching IPL matches on the phone sitting at home. It is going to be more convenience-led when you are travelling. The largest chunk of the match will be seen at home on TV because you need a larger screen when you watch sports as a content,” said Karan Taurani, senior vice president and media analyst at Elara Capital.

“So, I think sports as a proposition is very strong on TV. I don’t foresee OTT to be a big threat to broader TV ad revenue in the near term, at least because the 4K penetration is low and second of course the smart TV numbers are very low to support this kind of an argument. And lastly the broadband penetration numbers are also at about 15-16% in our country,” he added.

Industry reports of EY-FICCI and Affle have confirmed that the smartphone penetration in India is close to 460 million, which is just half of the television penetration in India.

Data cost is another major factor that is likely to slow down the interest to watch matches on OTTs.

Jio Media Cable will let people connect their phone to a TV to turn it into a smart TV. However, the data required to stream a 3.5 hour match typically using the Jio Media Cable ranges from 3.6 GB per match for SD transmission to 26+ GB/match for 4K transmission.

Considering the cost per GB as determined by TRAI is about Rs 10, the cost of streaming merely 10 IPL games with the Jio Media Cable would be in the range of Rs 360 – Rs 2,600. Therefore, the data cost for watching 10 games will be sharply higher than watching the entire IPL on TV. In contrast, TV audiences can pay about Rs 30-40 for a Star channel and watch the entire length of the tournament.

While the matches usually promise to be nail-biters during otherwise tardy summer evenings, the fight for viewership will be equally interesting. This is not going to be about one evening or one edition, but it is a battle to be fought over years. However, it shouldn’t be the consumers losing wickets at the end of the day, forced to pay hefty subscription amounts for wherever they want to watch the matches.

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