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How ready is the Indian OTT ecosystem & the audiences for sports streaming?

When STAR India acquired the TV and digital rights of the Indian Premier League (IPL) by paying a whopping Rs 16,347 crore in 2017, several eyebrows were raised. But soon the apprehensive analysts were proved wrong, as in the very next year, in 2018, more than 700 million avid cricket fans watched IPL on its network, with Hotstar, STAR’s India-focused streamer, accounting for 22% of the viewership. And since then, the viewership on Hotstar has only been going up. This was despite IPL being put behind the paywall. It’s not surprising because cricket has such a rabid fan following in India.

The very notion of sports being streamed on OTT platforms sounds appealing. But the question is – are we ready yet?

In the West, especially in the US and Britain, sports streaming has evolved. A recent survey conducted by Roku shows that in the UK, live sports, a traditional live pay-TV bastion, has now become popular on streaming platforms with 51% watching sports.

Another research on sports streaming audience in the US, commissioned recently by Tubi and Fox, found that 64% of US consumers aged 13+ stream sports weekly. And 78% of Gen Z and 82% of millennials stream weekly. The research also found that nearly a quarter of ad budgets will shift to streaming in the next 12-18 months. Streaming is categorised in the Tubi report as one of the most effective means to target fans interested in multiple sports. Many of the respondents – 45% to be precise – preferred streaming sports on AVOD with commercial breaks integrated into the event if they could get it for free.

In India, Viacom18 recently acquired the broadcast/ digital rights for football league Italian Serie A. According to Media Partners Asia, in the Indian SVOD market, the likes of Disney, Amazon, Facebook, Jio and Sony will likely be competing for the IPL media rights. It’s also a fact that brands are not averse to advertise on sports streaming. For example, Maruti has invested more than Rs 250 crore in the IPL during the last five years. In 2020, Maruti associated with Disney+ Hotstar as an associate sponsor by skipping TV.

Going forward, can we see more streamers with a strong subscriber following suit? Can digital be scaled like a mass media platform television?
According to Manish Thanvi, Senior Creative Director, Dentsu Webchutney, the answer lay in looking at the steep rise of content consumption across social/ video platforms. He commented, “If we marry this consumption with a passion point and convenience, then it’s a winner in my opinion. And it isn’t a new phenomenon, OTT platforms have been bundling exclusive rights for a sports event in their monthly package as a consumer benefit regardless of the platform credentials as a way to acquire new customers. Case in point is paramount plus in Australia taking the football rights.”

Thanvi noted that when it comes to passion, digital has always been a medium that bridges the gap. “Sports fans across India have been using digital to live stream sports that were originally never broadcasted in India like the NBA, NFL and such. I am sure if given a choice, they would rather pay for watching the game rather than go link hunting online,” he added.

IPL proved that there is a vast addressable audience willing to pay for content for live sports on mobile. Will digital play a dominant role in sports broadcasting in India in the days to come? “I remember reading a BARC report that claimed that 90 million households are yet to own a television in India. While the growth of tv households in 2020 has been positive for both rural and urban, which when compared to the smartphone penetration across rural and urban shows the disproportion of preference. Given the on-the-go convenience and personal screen that mobile provides, married with smarter plans that make economic sense to the end consumer, I think digital will be at the forefront of acquisition and trials,” Thanvi remarked.

R Venkatasubramanian, President & National Head - Investments, Havas Media Group India, however, felt that considering India’s population and a large part of the viewers reside in the rural areas, it will take time for OTT to be considered as mass media like the television.

Venkatasubramanian affirmed that digital will play a dominant role in sports within the next 3-4 years, adding that it already has a key presence in metro and mini-metro cities.

Thanvi is sanguine about Viacom18’s recent foray into sports. “It’s a telling sign, to be honest. Live sports is the final ace of linear scheduled television programming. Given the disruption that on-the-go, on-demand content has caused, consumers want more from their live sports viewing experience than before. This can be as basic as an ad-free experience to access premium content/ Hotpoint through the sport. Recently, Jeff Bezos spoke about Netflix’s great internationalisation strategy with ‘Squid Games’. If you think about it, live sports is the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to internationalising your content.”
With regard to digital players entering into sports broadcasting, Venkatasubramanian says that it all depends on how broadcasters chart out smart packages for the subscribers. If not, it will not evolve into a mass medium and continue to be niche.

Beyond cricket

While the dominance of cricket continues, Indians have started consuming other sports too, as is evident from the growing audience base for football, hockey, boxing, tennis, etc. So, how will it change the dynamics? And what does it mean for various stakeholders such as brands, broadcasters and streaming platforms?

According to Thanvi, in India, viewership for sports barring cricket is linked to success and until that changes we have a long way to go. “The recent Tokyo Olympics is a good example of that, as India had its best Olympics performance in a while, the total viewership was somewhere close to 69 million in the opening week, in contrast that to the 268 million that viewed IPL’s opening two weeks this year, which had a double-digit decline. But it also sets up an interesting opportunity for marketers who can reach markets and regions that are otherwise untapped. For example, 27.7% of Olympic viewership in India came from Assam/ North East,” he added.

Venkatasubramanian observed that cricket has reached its highest level of fanbase in India and people will continue to watch this sport. Adding further, he said, “Another growing sport in India is football, which people have started following. But the timings of most of the matches of various football leagues is post 11 pm through to 3 am. In such cases, the TG prefers watching them on OTT platforms. Other sports like Boxing, Hockey are not yet at par, as people follow them only during the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. For now, youth and male targeted brands are mostly keen to get associated with sports on the OTT platforms, especially ride on cricket and football.”

“Sports and premium content are monetisable on digital,” said Rediffusion Managing Director Dr Sandeep Goyal. But what is required, according to Goyal, are: 1) exclusivity of content and 2) the content should not air frequently.

Goyal noted, “In the old days, boxing used to be that very premium and very exclusive content – see Mohammed Ali fight Joe Frazier...it was a bout of a lifetime. Viewers used to pay super high prices to watch on pay-TV. So, the games on digital have to be monumental to build loyalty and premium. An IPL that comes so frequently will only fetch lukewarm monetisation.

According to Keerat Grewal, Partner, Ormax Media, post the implementation of NTO, non-cricket sports channels have struggled to garner subscriptions. “Outside of cricket, there is no sport which has a mass fan following in India. Moving these sports to their OTT platforms allows for better monetisation opportunities for a broadcaster,” he added.

Zenith Senior Vice President Mimi Deb felt that it’s just a matter of time for that digital shift. “The GenZ is growing up with digital, a significant lot is embracing sporting events other than cricket, such as soccer. There is high engagement with soccer. There is a big lot on connected TVs and the numbers are growing, so definitely sports streaming is going to scale and will find audience. New-age, digital-first brands will gravitate towards this audience, it’s just a matter of time. We all must prepare ahead for this shift,” she added.

While it is a fact that OTT will not supplant TV altogether, when it comes to sports broadcasting, the streaming ecosystem will significantly play a decisive role in this regard in the foreseeable future.

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