Little India will decide India’s big IPL digital push

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The migrants make daily video calls home. The daily commuting young digital native with headphones. Taxi drivers equipped with GPS navigation with time to kill between trips. Villagers not connected to a cable network but within range of cell towers. The new internet users of the pandemic period. Country folk with ambitions and smartphones bought from EMIs. And especially the powerful, control-obsessed BCCI officials.

It’s this eclectic group that will decide whether broadcasters’ attempt at the recent record-breaking IPL-E auction would prove wise in the long run. They will determine together whether the latest IPL rating of Rs 48,000 crore was indeed an exaggeration or whether the BCCI and broadcasters got the tea leaves floating over the ever-simmering IPL pot right.

The Indian Express spoke to three industry veterans — all decision-makers who play a part in the game but insist on remaining anonymous — to understand the great churn. They hailed the 2022 IPL auction as a turning point that produced two landmark events – digital outperforms television in valuing media rights and BCCI has signed more than one broadcaster for the first time.

The men in the thick of things agree that Viacom 18-Reliance, IPL’s new digital rights holder, will get its return on investment despite pushing the envelope and promising an unprecedented Rs 23,775 crore to the BCCI. To get their point across, they talk about the dramatically increasing T20 consumption capacity of cricket fans and the recent Deloitte forecast that India’s smartphone count will surpass 100 million by 2024.

They trust the ever-expanding army of handheld devices to push Viacom 18-Reliance beyond the bottom line. But it’s the BCCI suits they’re not sure about.

You have your reasons. In this Digital vs. TV battle for the same set of IPL-devouring eyeballs, both competing broadcasters would prefer an exclusive look and feel for their TV show. To do this, BCCI must move away from its previous policy of providing the same global feed – both linguistically and visually – for digital and television.

These are times of change. BCCI has never dealt with a situation where its broadcast partners are working in opposition. As smart TV blurs the lines between the traditional idiot box and online content, IPL airways are engaged in an intense tug-of-war.

Media rights raised the BCCI Rs 48,390 crore. (File)

The last five years of the monopoly era, when Star owned everything IPL owned, is over. Now there are two legitimate sales teams aggressively pursuing IPL advertisers.

“Star and Viacom must have different products. When the BCCI plays right, they create healthy competition between the two. They should enable content and product innovation. If they let that happen, fans will have a choice,” says an insider.

The BCCI, meanwhile, is not yet ready to change its policy when it comes to sharing the live feed from the stadium. “When they signed up, they knew that. It’s difficult to see two commentary boxes at the venue – one for digital and one for television,” said a BCCI official.

In retrospect, he points to the possibility of negotiations. “You can approach us and a conversation can take place on the subject.”

The auction dust has just settled and the winners are now sitting in two corners of the ring. As in boxing, the strict-eyed referee whispers the rules of the game to them. He sounds strict but is willing to be flexible.

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From the Pepsi breach of “nothing official about it” on Coke territory during the 1996 World Cup, cricket has come a long way. Expect intense off-field skirmishes in 2023, where “everything will be official.” The two broadcasters, each spending almost Rs 50 billion on each match, are in a jumble trying to figure out how to turn every stone on the cricket pitch.

While Star’s commercial blitz might be about the communal joy of watching IPL in the living room, Viacom 18-Reliance might well be selling the bliss of watching sports with noise-cancelling headphones.

“Whoever innovates more in comments and data will push the penetration of IPL further down to smaller segments,” says an insider. And follows with a line that would explain the uncharted territory the broadcasters are eyeing. “Even today half of India does not see the IPL.”

Some numbers will help to understand this.

Currently, India has almost 400 million digital users while the corresponding TV figure is 1 billion.

Those connected to the airways say the growth potential of digital media is immense, but television has reached a saturation point. “People are now just swapping out their TVs, but not adding anything. On the digital side, smartphone reach is wide. And if someone launches a cheaper smartphone, more unexplored areas will be covered,” says one expert.

Even looking at the current stagnant TV numbers in the country, the star’s Rs 23,000 crore bid has profit potential, it said. “Television has its steady subscriber base and over the years we’ve seen that even with high advertising rates, new products are launched on television during the IPL months,” he said.

What about the digital channels? Will they laugh their way to the bank too? Experts throw in words like ‘notional profits’ and ‘long-term valuation’ when asked about the reasons behind scooping out Rs 23,757 crore for the digital rights. “Digital sees things differently. When Amazon came to India, it wasn’t about making a profit in the early days. It was about captivating consumers, getting subscribers. These things increase the company’s valuation. Digital may not see direct cash flow from IPL for the first few years, but over time their positions will improve,” says a high-profile broadcaster, while listing Reliance Group’s interest in e-commerce and telecoms.

ipl media rights BCCI Secretary Jay Shah said that even if the rights went at base price, the rating of the biggest cricket tournament would have taken a giant leap.

“Like Amazon, Viacom 18-Reliance is expected to use the IPL pitch to promote its telecom and e-retail products. They will first build a subscriber base and later monetize it and also use it to cross-sell their services. This is the big game, they will make gains over time.”

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A market watcher and badminton enthusiast among pundits shares an urgent app download episode to get his point on the ease of watching sports on digital platforms. Earlier this year, at his farmhouse, he suddenly felt the urge to watch badminton star Lakshya Sen play. He called friends to find out where to tune in. He was told it was on Voot, Reliance’s OTT platform. It took him less than five minutes to get the app and see the game live.

“Now imagine if it were only on TV. I would have to reach the cable guy first and wait for him to fix things. Because you get broadband on subscription, it’s easy. The costs have also fallen. The pandemic gave digital another boost. During the pandemic, everyone wanted to automate and work remotely. With the advent of the cloud, you no longer need to buy servers, and all of this helped digitally,” he says.

There are more reasons for optimism. With the impending rollout of 5G, expected higher data speeds and ubiquitous and therefore more affordable Wi-Fi usage, the jump in consumption is expected to multiply.

The digital broadcasters are on a frenzy, they can’t wait to get up and running and adventurous. “In the digital realm, they can create multiple segments because they can be easily customized. That’s a big advantage over television. If you want to create a new segment on television, you first have to find a slot, then you need a station, TRAI approval and finally you need to convince the cable network operator. In the digital realm, you just sit in an office and create a segment. Let’s say there’s this big game that’s expected to get a big audience. A digital broadcaster can create two more channels just for this game,” says one expert.

So will television soon become background noise? Not really. It also has its advantages and also its own ease of use.

For starters, whatever the digital backers say, sports lends itself better to larger screens. It’s also more convenient.

“People are generally lazy. You want easy access. In the digital realm, interaction is still limited. From a human interface point of view, television is a cozy medium. It’s easy to switch channels. The user experience is seamless. If I want to check the news between overs and get back to the sport, it’s easier. In the digital world, you get stuck in one medium,” says one expert. And buffering is still a reality, not a thing of the past.

Most trend watchers say there is enough room for the two to coexist. “For the next five years, television will still come first, but digital will prevail. After 10 years, one can only guess.”

It is technological advances that will determine the timing of the next game-changing churn. Like many of nature’s mysterious ways of balancing things, the acceptance of these big ideas, with millions at stake, will depend on Little India.

Send your feedback to sandydwivedi@gmail.com

Sandeep Dwivedi

National Sports Editor

The Indian Express

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