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2011 will be a challenging year for Indian sports biz -Broadreach Media director Peter Hutton

2010, the year of the tweet, comes to a close with Indian sport in much better shape for the New Year, with the Commonwealth Games leaving behind a legacy of completed stadia and some rather more cautious administrators. Add Delhi‘s new monuments to the vision, or something, of Suresh Kalmadi to the opening of the new Grand Prix track and the investments in cricket facilities across the country, and the overall picture for the infrastructure of Indian sport looks much more optimistic.
 
Though stadium builders have been busy, sporting performance has not been as consistent despite the abundance of talent available. The Indian cricket team has gone into a series of tournaments with one hand tied behind their back as the board continually "rotate" their tired squad. That rotation has lowered television ratings of the bilateral tours with advertisers understandably preferring to bet on the quality of the ICC events and the bigger series against Australia and South Africa rather than gamble on the questionable selections for tours to Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and the rest. A tour without Sachin, Dhoni and Harbajan is not an easy sell.


The form on the pitch also affects the returns of the broadcasters, even if most tours are largely pre-sold. The three Indian cricketing high points for 2010 all came on Neo Sports, the home test series against Australia with its terrific finish in Mohali, the win in the Asia Cup and a home victory in January against South Africa.


The disappointments were spread between the broadcasters, Neo‘s home ODI series with Australia suffering from poor weather, while on Ten Sports India lost twice to the home side and failed to make the final of the triangular in Zimbabwe, then again lost a triangular in Sri Lanka (winning only 2 of 5 games) and the biggest disappointment of all, the struggles on Star Cricket in the ICC‘s T20 tournament when India lost to Sri Lanka, West Indies and Australia.


Away from national team cricket, ESPN Star Sports gambled on an expensive marketing campaign to breathe life into the Champions League and were rewarded with much improved ratings, though the initial billion dollar price tag still dominates the industry perception of the event as over-priced.


The IPL managed to squeeze in yet more commercial content with mid-over advertising breaks. It would be nice to think that those forced breaks will go the way of the televised post game parties come the new IPL season in April.


This year‘s tournament is going to be very keenly watched by the industry, potentially overshadowed by the World Cup that immediately precedes it and, of course, missing its chief cheerleader. IPL life without Lalit will never be the same, but the world’s most remarkable sporting story of the last decade is one that the BCCI tamper with at their peril.


The ratings game for 2011 will be an interesting battle with ESPN Star Sports having the upper hand in terms of year round events. They have the cricket World Cup through February and March, then India‘s prime time tour to England in the Summer, the Champions League in September as well as the mouthwatering prospect of India in Australia in December.


Ten Cricket has what should be an excellent ODI series of India in South Africa in January, then India in West Indies in May, while Neo has a long period away from the limelight before India‘s home series against England and the West Indies dominating October to December. Centre of attention for Neo will be the much awaited IPO rather than their cricket content in 2011.


There‘s plenty of interest off the pitch in the next year for the industry, with virtually all the cricket boards set to go to market for the next five years of television rights sales. Neo enters this negotiation period with the advantage of having the Indian home rights all secured already and ESPN Star Sports secure in their long term deals with the ICC and the Champions League.


As a result, the focus of attention will be the other nine national team boards. Some of the existing deals end in 2012, some in 2013, but the next 12 months will be key in determining where the bulk of cricket content will end up with some negotiations already underway.


Of the nine boards coming up for grabs, Ten currently holds five (Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, Zimbabwe), ESPN Star Sports two (England and Australia), Neo one (Bangladesh) and Sony one (New Zealand). For each broadcaster there is the challenge of judging the valuation trend of bilateral cricket as that trend underpins the price that they‘ll be prepared to pay.


Though competition between broadcasters will no doubt help keep the prices up for the various boards, the advertising money is suffering a "flight to quality" with a concentration on the prime time Indian tours, the ICC events, the IPL and the Champions League.


The ICC, Champions League and IPL events effectively have a secure "window" (even if the IPL‘s is not official) where no other cricket fights for viewers’ attention. As a result the remainder of the international cricket calendar is squeezed into an increasingly small number of months, which can only further damage the ratings for bilateral, non Indian cricket. In December, for example, Zee‘s ad sales team have had the considerable challenge of trying to raise money on Pakistan v South Africa and Sri Lanka v West Indies at a time when both clashed with India playing at home. These problems will only increase in the next five years as bilateral cricket competes for dates in shortened seasons.


Away from cricket, Hero Honda‘s investment in the Hockey World Cup paid off with great national attention and showed the advantage of investing in non cricket events. Big time hockey returned in December with the Champions Trophy held in India.


The sale of those broadcast rights will be the first of the content battles this year and will give an indication of the funds available to the major buyers. Meanwhile, Indian hockey has overcome the criticism of having a lack of organisation, by now having two seperate organisations. Hopefully one of them will create a domestic format and a national team calendar that creates year round interest, with the Nimbus franchise based initiative an imaginative development.


In football, the headhunting of Kushal Das as the new CEO of the Indian federation was a very welcome symbol of the gradual transformation of the national body into a more organised, professional and accountable organisation. The very fact that the national league fixtures were for the first time issued for the whole year before the start of the season is a very positive indication that Indian football is finally beginning to enter the modern age. However, the "stars" of the national team are not part of this season‘s national league, with Bob Houghton‘s personal influence in the Indian game shown by his ability to take the team into a long camp for the Asia Cup event, where India enter with little hope but plenty of good wishes.


The IMG-Reliance deal to support the next decade of Indian football could be exactly what is needed, a long term investment that will hopefully deal with infrastructure challenges and create the vehicle to bring new money and excitement into the Indian version of the sport. The excellent development stories in the last year behind the professional clubs in Pune and Shillong show the potential for sensible footballing investments.


However, a primary challenge of the new agency will be to create a strong enough format that will overcome historical credibility issues and find suitable broadcaster support; it‘s easy to forget that the IPL revolution wouldn‘t have happened without Kunal Das Gupta‘s decision to invest so heavily for Sony despite the industry cynics. A similar long term broadcasting vision is needed to support the long term development of Indian football and hockey.


In international football, the big sale for the Indian territory will be the European Championships rights for 2012. Last time round the event was a huge success for ESPN Star Sports and reinforced their aggressive position on the World Cup. There is plenty of noise around the Premier Leauge and Champions League, but it‘s only the World Cup and European Championships that seriously affect the ratings and advertising markets in India.


In terms of sporting content being made available to viewers, one of the most welcome signs from 2010 was the success of the Total Sports Asia sale of the Spanish national football team TV rights to a Bangla language channel and Procam‘s work with Times Now to develop horse racing content. The imagination shown by these agencies makes the point that although the majority of international content will always head to conventional locations, "sports" content does not always need to be on the big sports channels.


Champions League cricket on Disney worked very well and experiments of this nature help grow a sporting audience as well as keeping everyone in the industry on their toes. Despite the increasing relevance (and audience share) of Neo Sports, and the growth in Ten‘s portfolio of channels (golf is still promised to follow), there are still plenty of sports events not available to an Indian audience. American football, a lot of the NBA, many of the Premier League games, NHL ice hockey, Manchester United TV and international athletics content are all not available live on India‘s hundreds of channels unlike neighbouring markets such as the Middle East, Singapore and Hong Kong.


This will be a very challenging year for the Indian sports business, with broadcasters and DTH platforms needing a clearer focus on a HD and 3D strategy as well as taking on the challenge of providing increasing content on broadband and mobile in India. The cricket World Cup may take a large amount of advertising money out of the market, but there are plenty of other options to claim attention in a busy year.


2010 has been a relatively low spending year for all the broadcasters; it‘s unlikely they will have that choice in 2011.
 

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