The idea was to get into a sport that had a low cost of entry. That is how Star Sports zeroed in on kabaddi. It is played all over the country with about 3,000 clubs. And it needs no gear. But it took a year in planning because, “nobody could produce it. So we had to bring in people who had done contact sports, knew the camera work needed, train the commentators,” says Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India. The result has been staggering — Star Sports Pro Kabaddi got roughly half the average viewership that the Indian Premier League, India’s biggest sporting event, got earlier this year on Sony.
Wanting more: Star Sports Pro-Kabaddi or FIFA 2014 are simple reminders that there are audiences and markets that want something beyond cricket. The big broadcasters are now putting serious money into them. Will the ad money follow?
Star Sports Pro-Kabaddi League however did not make money. And it probably won’t for at least another three years, say sources at Star. Nevertheless, the broadcaster is going ahead with its investment in the Hero Indian Super League, a football series.
Sony, which owns the rights to the IPL, is spending pots of money on football, wrestling and basketball. When it got the US National Basketball Association’s rights three years ago, the feeling was that basketball may not be very popular in India. But viewership has risen from 14 million to 50 million over the last two years. The total viewership for basketball now stands at 89 million people. NP Singh, CEO, Multi-Screen Media (Sony) says that research done a couple of years ago showed clearly that young people were following many other sports online. Sony then zeroed in on a few of them to drive viewership to its sports channels. Ten Sports uses a lot of wrestling, football and other sports to do the same.
In a country which doesn’t have a sports culture and where 90 per cent of the viewership and money goes to cricket, this is perhaps one of the most heartening trends on television. The entry of big broadcasters into a sport invariably pushes the ecosystem towards better facilities, training and production quality.
For those of you cribbing about the quality of football on the ISL remember you are used to international football, which is very popular in India. At last count, the sport had an average viewership of 215 million. The ISL perhaps signifies the first few steps to get domestic football going. IMG-Reliance which owns ISL has a clause that team owners have to invest a percentage of revenues into improving facilities. What ISL has done in its year one, is make eight quality football grounds available to players.
Unless a game develops on home ground and is played by many in the audience, like cricket, the chances of its managing to make the transition from being a viewership magnet to being a revenue earner are lower. The investment into football locally and its popularity should eventually make it a cricket-sized sport in India too. You can see some evidence of that in the number of neighbourhood clubs and coaching facilities now available for football.
Similarly Star’s interest in kabaddi or Sony's in basketball will mean the rise and prosperity of several hundred clubs across the country. What they are doing is helping expand the market — and in the process getting a share of a rising viewership and hopefully advertising.
And that brings me to the tricky part. Can other sports make the leap from something you see because it is a good sport to something that you play or encourage your kid to play? Or something that you pay to watch, like cricket.
K. Satyanarayana, senior vice president at R K Swamy Media Group, reckons that if a sport has glamour - like cricket — it could happen. In cricket you could become a star overnight. That is because big money chases it. But till big money starts chasing kabaddi or football, they will not become glamorous. Chicken and egg that one.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik