As a strategy we have never completely rested our fortunes on only India cricket: Rajesh Sethi

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By Sidharth Iyer Posted on : 01 Mar 2014 02:54 pm

He worked with the likes of Tata Motors, GE Infrastructure, GE Money and Allianz Global before taking on the mantle of Ten Sports CEO in July last year.

A graduate in mechanical engineering and a post-graduate in marketing, Rajesh Sethi spent many of his academic years in hallowed institutions such as the Harvard Business School, Kellogg School of Management and INSEAD.

Sethi has an impeccable track record of value creation and growth across sectors and is known for his entrepreneurial streak coupled with a keen sense of global business. Little surprise he has been conferred the ‘Rashtriya Udyog Ratna’ by NEHRDO and the ‘Global Indian Achievers Award for Business Excellence 2012’ by the Economic Development Forum, among others.

In an exclusive interview with Sidharth Iyer of indiantelevision.com, Sethi opens up about Ten Sports’ journey since its launch, the diverse sports’ offering of the channel, its digital presence and more...

Q. How has the channel progressed in the past 12 years since its launch in April 2002? What is the idea behind launching Ten Cricket, Ten Action, Ten Golf and Ten HD? Are you happy with the way these channels have shaped up?

The journey of Ten Sports started in April 2002, at which point, our offering mainly revolved round the India vs Pakistan cricket series. Ten Sports had the opportunity to host some of the greatest matches in the India Vs Pakistan cricket rivalry, including the Sharjah series, and this was our brand identity back then.

But over a period of time, the sports industry witnessed a gradual shift in audience preferences. In my opinion, the shift began post-2010 or so, when Generation Y started showing interest in sports beyond cricket like hockey, tennis, badminton and football. This era also saw the emergence of a niche audience for sports like golf. Looking back, it was imperative for us to break the clutter in the space and really honour viewer preferences. And so, we launched Ten Cricket and Ten Action in 2010 with the former targeted toward cricket and the latter toward football. In 2012, we launched Ten Golf, a dedicated golf channel. In 2011, we introduced Ten HD to improve the viewership experience by offering content in high definition.

Unlike our competitors, our focus is not just cricket but a wide array of sports - what I call a segmented, nuanced approach through multiple channels. While we’ve seen Ten Action’s viewership increase manifold, Ten Golf is still in its nascent stage but we’re confident it will do well as it’s a long-term investment. With Ten HD too gaining rapid traction among our viewers, we are extremely happy with the progress made so far.

Q. With five channels in your stable, how do you ensure each gets its due in terms of viewership, distribution, advertising and brand identity?

As mentioned earlier, we follow a segmented, nuanced approach with different channels covering different sporting events. We have a team focused on each of these channels with a strategy to nominate an internal ambassador to each one of them. So, say within the Ten Sports team, we have avid sports fans as ambassadors, who take up the responsibility for any one sport for which they are the critic-cum-advisor-cum person who remains glued to the channel for constant feedback and suggestions as to improving the viewing experience. The whole intent is to focus on viewers, which in turn ensures that our content and scheduling is absolutely aligned to what our viewers want.

Coming to distribution, we have ensured that our channels are widely and adequately available and viewers are able to watch their favourite sports on our network. Thus, we are available across multisystem operators, direct-to-home platforms and as video-on-demand. As a network, we are available in nearly 140 million households, with Ten Golf accounting for nearly 1.2 million homes. Our distribution team ensures that each sport is given due importance and reach so as to sustain and increase viewership.

Our segmented approach also gives advertisers better visibility in terms of a dedicated audience, allowing them to reach a specific audience in a more refined manner. Among the advertisers onboard, few are focused on sports as a genre while others look at investing only in cricket or football or golf. So, it’s a fair mix of both kinds of advertisers.

Q. Phase 3 and 4 of digitisation are drawing near. How do you intend on monetising sports other than cricket, especially since you have so many sports on offer?

We are bullish about promoting sports, especially under the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, since these are in the national interest and have a wide viewer base.

Digitisation will largely benefit sports viewership. It will give viewers an opportunity to see what they want to see and broadcasters a chance to provide multiple ways and means of consuming content. So, there will no longer be the problem of limited bandwidth where broadcasters are confined to providing one solution on the national platform. Ten Sports will be able to offer varied content on varied platforms through digitisation, especially with our differentiated sports offerings and multiple channels. Indeed, this is how TV viewership has evolved in developed markets. Sports’ broadcasting is slowly moving from a B2B to a B2C model, and B2C really helps us connect with the audience in a more refined manner and by offering more quality content.

Even in case of our online platform, tensports.com, we have seen unprecedented growth with the recently concluded South Africa Vs India series as well as the South Africa vs Australia series. Availability of online content is very much part of our long-term content strategy. We want to further enhance the quality of our online content as it’s a win-win situation for both broadcasters and viewers. We want to harness and at the same time harvest this opportunity as we go along.

Q. In terms of generation of ad revenue, are the trends changing for sports broadcasters? How is your channel positioned as compared to the competition? What is your share of the pie and are you planning on hiking ad rates?

I do not feel revenue share is the right parameter as it varies from event to event and depends on the number of marquee properties the sports broadcaster has. I can emphatically say that Ten Sports is the leading sports broadcaster in terms of revenue when it comes to non-cricketing properties, and no other sports broadcaster comes close to us as a network in terms of non-cricketing properties.

We offer propositions in leading properties like WWE, football, Indian I-League and athletics, where I believe we are the home of athletics in India. We have also acquired a few more non-cricketing properties, which we will announce shortly. We are witnessing incremental growth coming from niche sports on Ten Golf and multi-fold growth from non-cricketing sports.

Unlike GECs, sports’ broadcasting is an evenly poised business and ad revenue is directly dependent on the events that take place during the year. But talking about the recently concluded South Africa Vs India series in December, we witnessed some healthy billing with bookings at 115 per cent and we sold out our ad inventories, which were nearly 30-40 per cent higher than any earlier India series. We also benefitted as it was a shorter series whereas a longer series leads to viewer saturation, which in turn, impacts ratings and advertisers and sponsors.

We are currently analysing all our properties and are in the process of identifying the possibility of hiking our ad rates as we believe we have been delivering quality content across our network and will continue to do so for years to come.    

Q. How has your recent relocation from Dubai to Noida helped the channel? With huge investments in state-of-the-art studios and broadcasting and transmission centres, has it helped in creating better content for viewers?

The relocation was one of the best strategic moves made by Ten Sports, which we have completed in the last few months. It has helped us integrate our backend with the frontend, where until recently, Dubai was more for production, programming and other such activities and India was focused on distribution, ad revenue and marketing. With both aspects under one roof, it gives us the advantage of driving better synergies, helps us in integration and enhances the overall positioning of the company, which is strategic as well as commercial in nature.

For the last one year, we have invested heavily in in-house programming, state-of-the art studios, commentary rooms, master control rooms, new equipment and technology; all of which has really helped us enhance our graphics and production quality, which is evident on our channel and in the encouraging feedback from our viewers.

Also, as a sports network, we invest heavily in upcoming local leagues in India. We have been doing the production of the I-League in India for football and we have been investing heavily in audio-visual equipment to improve production quality. So, we are investing heavily in improving the way sports is consumed in India and we will continue to get the best of sports content and serve it to our viewers with the best production quality.     

Q. In 2014-15, Ten Sports does not have much India-related live cricket; what is your programming strategy? Also, with cricket broadcasting being a highly loss-making business, how do you think it can become a profitable proposition?

As per the current Future Tour Program (FTP), we don’t have much India-specific live cricket, but Ten Sports as a sports network has never completely rested its fortunes on India cricket.

Other than India cricket in 2014-15, we have close to 150 days of international cricket. And based on the numbers we witnessed during the recently-concluded South Africa Vs Australia series, we are confident of replicating the same success during this calendar year as well.

We believe in segmentation of sports and if we take the example of the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, we have a huge in-house contest around both these games and with the improved performance of our athletes in the international arena and Indian viewers looking forward to these events, we will ensure state-of-the-art broadcasting coupled with great programming to make for a superlative viewing experience.

For any property to become profitable, the network has to have control over both revenue and cost. With cricket broadcasting, while the cost has sky-rocketed, with the mad rush to acquire content, revenue remains the only constant in the hands of broadcasters to drive profitability and generate higher numbers. But unlike developed markets, Indian regulators still somewhere regulate the pricing of channels such that it hurts the profitability of broadcasters. There is also a cap on the pricing of channels, and with things like piracy of signals, there need to be stringent, anti-piracy laws that can help make cricket broadcasting a profitable proposition.

With digitisation setting in, we are confident it’s going to help bring about change in the way sports penetrates smaller pockets of the Indian subcontinent. With an overall mix of sports on offer, we are confident that we will continue to deliver on our commitment of providing quality content and at the same time, acquire properties that are more in line with our content strategy.  

So, with a reach of more than 140 million homes in the Indian subcontinent and a sports offering of WWE, US Open, ATP Tournaments, WTA, Ryder Cup, Moto GP, Euro league, PGA Championship, Asian Tour, European Tour and Tour De France; Ten Sports is all set to consolidate on its share in the competitive landscape of sports broadcasting.

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