'I see the cost of sports rights continuing to spiral':Rik Dovey - ESPN Star Sports Asia managing director

This has been more than just another busy year for ESPN Star Sports (ESS). The broadcaster has not given up hopes on getting the India cricket rights.

While it is currently airing India's tour of Bangladesh it certainly needs to look beyond cricket to build up cachet with the viewer. One initiative that holds promise in this regard is its recent tie-up with the Indian Hockey Federation for a Premier League.'s correspondent Ashwin Pinto caught up with ESPN Star Sports Asia MD Rik Dovey for a lowdown on the channels performance in Asia, how the strategy is different in different countries as well as the scope for marketing innovations.


What have been the highlights for ESPN Star Sports Asia over the past year?

This November marked our eighth year as a joint venture in Asia with the last 12 months in particular punctuated with a number of significant milestones, adding channels and new content, as well as subscribers and advertisers.

On the content front we concentrated on having the key products people want to watch. So for example we added the Asia Cup and the FA Cup. On the distribution front, we signed some new agreements including carriage on PCCW's NOW broadband platform in Hong Kong for which we have created two completely new channels presented in Cantonese.

How would you characterise your performance in India?

We have had a very exciting year. This included acquiring and successfully telecasting The Asia Cup for cricket, doing a Hindi telecast with Euro and then extending it to Asia Cup. We also bid for the BCCI rights. The response to a full Hindi presentation with commentary has been very encouraging.

Thanks to the growing popularity of soccer combined with Hindi programming, the telecast of Uefa Euro 2004 on ESPN and Star Sports outperformed almost all the mainline channels according to Tam ratings males 15+. It is very encouraging to note that the Hindi-speaking states rated so well. It clearly shows that there is a market for soccer and that if the language barrier was broken, our soccer properties will better current ratings

The simulcast of the IndianOil Asia Cup continued the trend with the combined channel share of ESPN and Star Sports being the highest for the period at 13.5 per cent. The share of Star Sports (Hindi telecast) for the period was 41 per cent All India and 62 per cent in the Hindi Heartland.

"The staple for much of Asia is football, led by the English Premier League. All other sports fall a distant second or third"

You mentioned bidding for the BCCI rights. It would seem that whichever way the final Supreme Court verdict goes India cricket will either stay with DD or go to Zee Telefilms. What impact will ESS failing to get the India cricket rights have in the overall scheme of things?

I don't agree with your conclusion. But as I have always said, we've built a good sports broadcasting business without cricket in India. So if that's the way it turns out, so be it.

In terms of the country break up how much revenue is coming in and from where?

Our key markets include India, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and South East Asia. Markets that we see growth potential in terms of revenue and viewership are China, Malaysia, Indo-China and India.

Could you give an idea of the manner in which the programming strategies for countries like Singapore, Hong Kong differs from India?

The staple for much of Asia is football, led by the English Premier League. All other sports fall a distant second or third. In that regard, we've made it a point to deliver the key sport viewers want to watch which includes top-flight football programming such as the English Premier League, the UEFA Champions League as well as for the first time on our network, the FA Cup.

India is steadily developing into a multi-sports market like developed sports markets like Australia. Cricket has been, for many years, the most popular sport and it continues to grow. However, besides cricket, soccer, hockey, F-1 are catching up on popularity and hence gaining in viewership as well. In the last two years, we have invested marketing money in developing soccer and this year we have added hockey in a big way.

The growing popularity of hockey will be driven mainly with the help of the Premier Hockey League, which kicks-off from 13 January, 2005. We will be showcasing the league for the next 10 years. Hockey fans will also see much more international hockey being played by the Indian team on us. We recently showed the India leg of the 'Dosti' series played between India and Pakistan. India also played two matches with Spain, which we aired.

We produce considerable local programming such as SportsCenter and Sportsline, the ESPN School Quiz. The entire PHL will be produced and directed by our India production team. Our programming has won various awards across the year including Harsha Unplugged winning the Best Sports Programme at The Indian Telly Awards 2004.

"Sponsors are seeing a positive impact on their brands through our model of taking real-time live sporting action to the viewer, developing creative platforms around it"

What are the major property acquisitions that ESS has recently made?

Some of the major sporting properties we acquired over the past six months include the Wimbledon Championships, US Open Golf and the Super Basketball League in Taiwan. We also renewed the EPL deal earlier this year.

What are the factors that contribute towards making smart buys?

We need to know what sport viewers want to watch, and then to go after these properties sensibly - not paying irresponsible sums of money to the point that it makes poor business sense for the company or creates a false sense of worth for those sports rights.

For five years now we have been walking away from some acquisitions where we have felt it made no sense from a business perspective to pay the exorbitant asking price. It is never easy, it is frustrating, but common sense must prevail.

Having said that looking at the future I see the cost of sports rights continuing to spiral out of control. This is largely due to newcomers coming into the market and not really understanding the values within the business.

Would basketball, golf and soccer be less expensive to acquire for India compared with Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore?

Pretty much because they are not so popular in India. But as we produce our own content on air it is still not cheap.

Besides soccer courtesy the EPL and Euro, which other sports that ESS airs are growing in terms of viewership?

Basketball and badminton are big in Taiwan and China. Tennis, and in some markets, pool are growing. Formula-1 and Golf also continue to grow in various parts of Asia, including India.

Last year you launched two Singapore channels. Are you planning to increase the number of feeds further in the near future?

Just recently, we added two new services, ESPN Hong Kong and Star Sports Hong Kong, which takes our total number of services in Asia to 13. Right now we do have plans for more channels to be launched in the next 12-18 months.

What were the major carriage agreements that ESS signed across Asia this year?

This past year, we concluded new distribution partnerships with PCCW's NOW broadband in Hong Kong as well as locked in a number of distribution and syndication deals in China, South East Asia and Indo China.

This has taken us over the 128 million household mark for ESPN and 54 million households for Star Sports. There is no absolute figure we are aiming to reach before the end of the year but the must-see programming on our network continues to yield new opportunities for us in various parts of Asia.

Star Sports is free to air in a number of Asian countries. Any plans to make it pay across the entire region in the near future?

Only in China is it FTA where its distribution is still encrypted.

ESS Asia recently reported a 25 per cent year on year increase in ad revenue. In what way have the ad sales and marketing strategies been modified over the past couple of years to suit client needs?

ESPN Star Sports has led the way in integrated advertising following the 1999 introduction of its 4 O's strategy which combine on air, off air, on ground and on line benefits. Since then, integrated advertising on our network has risen to new levels with a growing number of brands moving from commodity-based to solution-based advertising.

Sponsors are seeing a positive impact on their brands through our model of taking real-time live sporting action to the viewer, developing creative platforms around it and delivering an expanded sporting experience. What we are doing especially well for our clients is ensuring strong, measurable brand associations throughout the period of their sponsorship, both on and off air. As such, integrated advertising solutions now extend across a spectrum of sporting events on the network and attract a variety of blue-chip brands, many of whom are repeat advertisers.

We are also able to provide two platforms (ESPN and Star Sports) simultaneously to our clients enabling them to broaden their reach. A case in point is the IndianOil Asia Cup simulcast. With the simulcast, we were able to offer our advertisers the luxury of placing different products on different channels depending on their TG. For instance a Samsung could place a Plasma TV ad, meant for the English speaking metro based TG, on ESPN and a mobile ad meant for mass consumption on Star Sports for the Hindi speaking audience.

We were able to offer this kind of flexibility to the clients because we are the only one in India with the advantage of having two channels. And this benefit came to the clients at a very nominal incremental cost. With the simulcast, we were also able to tap new advertisers that were keen to be visible on Hindi cricket programming. Hero Cycles and Reckitt (Dettol, Disprin and Mortein) are examples of brands that advertised on Star Sports only during the IndianOil Asia Cup.

"As I have always said, we've built a good sports broadcasting business without cricket in India. So if that's the way it turns out (ESS not getting the India cricket rights), so be it"

One reason why ESS has done well with soccer across Asia is due to the interactive measures it has done with viewers where advertisers like Nokia were also involved. Do you see scope for this level of interactivity to be extended to other sports?

Football is not the only sport to see this kind of interactivity on our network. In fact, it probably began with our cricket programming. Some successful initiatives include Super Selector, a show we launched in September 2001. This interactive and integrated game show set and broke its own record for the number of entries received for any similar on-line game conducted across the world: 265, 000 (Nov 2001).

Another was the combination of studio phone-ins and on-line communications in Harsha Online. The interactivity was based on a selection of questions and comments harvested from the website.

In 2004 we made special efforts to increase the level of viewer involvement. We have been trying to move towards greater interactivity in all our live programming. During the IndianOil Asia Cup we launched an interactive programming with OnMobile to run during the 'IndianOil Asia Cup' telecast. In this programme, selected callers got to talk to cricketers and commentators.

The most recent viewer involvement initiative, that is also running currently, is the Closeup Dream Job - Harsha Ki Khoj. Under this initiative we are looking for an individual who has an unlimited amount of passion for sports and the confidence of bringing sports into millions of homes. It's a search for a presenter and a personality who will join the team of ESPN Star Sports presenters and commentators.

Closeup Dream Job - Harsha Ki Khoj went on-air last month. It has a human interest factor and interactive viewer voting. In this manner it is a participative show for viewers and will involve not just die-hard cricket or sports fans but just about anyone who tunes in to a cricket match.

Could you elaborate on your expansion plans across Asia and do they include providing broadband?

Broadband distribution, except for Hong Kong, is in its infancy. Let's see how it grows.

Are you looking at increasing the amount of content devoted to news given that you have enjoyed success with the different language versions of Sportscenter?

SportsCenter remains one of our biggest programming initiatives and reflects the company's investment in high-quality long-term sports programming. We have first-class presenters and producers delivering sports news at a level previously unavailable to audiences in Asia, not to mention sports news footage from more events than any of our competition.

Where it makes sense for us to do, we will be exploring increasing the programming content, which would make for a longer show, as well as the number of Asian versions of the show.

"There have been so many false starts with mobile it's hard to say. We'll have a better idea in a year or so"

China is one of the key emerging markets. Keeping in mind the Chinese interest in sports across the board would you be looking at co-organising sporting events there which will air across your channels?

We have worked with local sporting authorities to stage sporting events in China for some years now, which involved airing the events on our network across Asia. Two ESPN Star Sports-organised events for example, the ESPN X Tours presented by Toyota and the Asian Bowling Tour saw qualifying legs in Shanghai and GuangZhou respectively as part of the overall multi-city event. Discussions to hold the right type of event for the market are continuing.

In India your brand ambassador is Sachin Tendulkar. Are you following a similar strategy for other Asian countries of roping in famous sports personalities to forge a closer connect with the sports buff?

We are always keen to work with successful and influential Asian sporting idols. Where there is a fit and it makes sense for us to do so, we will. Besides Sachin, who has been wonderful for the network, we are also working with world-class pool maestros Efren Reyes and Bustamante in the Philippines.

The effort is to use sports personalities who would be able to generate interest in viewers for their given sport and also help us simplify the presentation format of the sport. In a similar vein, we have used Bhaichung Bhutia, the Indian soccer star, for various on-air and on-ground promotional activities for soccer in India. In addition, we signed Waqar Younis for Hindi commentary during the IndianOil Asia Cup, given his relevance to cricket in Asia and his comfort level with the language.

A Synovate study released earlier this year found that ESS benefits in a big way from out of home (OOH) viewing in some Asian countries. Do you see this trend picking up in India?

Our OOH findings reflect studies in the US as well as existing research that sport is an appointment viewing priority not only in but out of the home as well. Results from our study reveal that 88 per cent of all those surveyed watch out of home. The findings also suggest that 60 per cent of viewers are missed out by traditional in-home meter systems. That's a sizeable, captured and passionate audience that cannot be ignored by advertisers, marketers and media planners in their media buying decisions.

The six cities covered by our survey, which included China, confirmed a growing phenomenon, prevalent around the world not just Asia. While no quantifiable out of home research has been conducted in Indian cities yet, it may well reveal similar findings. We plan to conduct another wave in the future, which could include India.

While mobile content is at an early stage in India in the other Asian countries what promise does it hold as a revenue source for you'll?

There have been so many false starts with mobile it's hard to say. We'll have a better idea in a year or so.

Unlike some of the other Asian countries, which maintain an interest in a variety of sports in India, serious mass viewership simply does not go beyond cricket. What strategy will you adopt to counter this problem in the absence of serious India cricket for the next two years?

We have created a number of our own cricket-based productions without matches, which have a strong following and rate well. We've also introduced other sports, such as football, formula 1 and tennis, which are seeing growing audiences. Now we are going to revive Indian hockey at home.

Finally I would appreciate your comment on the regulatory environment in India what with Cas not coming in and Trai's virtual price freeze?

Cas was completely shambolic. We never objected to the principle but we did object to the way the government tried to introduce it, and we were right. It was a disaster for everyone, consumers as well as those in the industry. Now to keep a price freeze makes absolutely no sense, it does absolutely nothing to address the fundamental problem with the business which is growing under-declaration, better known as theft.

We need Trai to really understand the business, be able to withstand pressure groups, to continue to focus on what is good for the consumer and allow normal commercial conditions to apply.

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