What Hotstar’s high score on IPL-9 means for television

MUMBAI: It is a generally accepted fact that cricket is a religion in India. This country of 1.2 billion (120 crore) people that is further divided between different communities, states, and languages has one of the few things very much in common - cricket consumption. A case in point for this has been the repeated successful seasons of the Indian Premiere League or IPL. While different cities and its people swear loyalty for different teams, the love for the sport outshines all. Given its mass appeal it’s only natural that television is the most preferred medium to consume the sport. Advertisers and sponsors too bank on this and pour thousands of crores of rupees in sponsorship deals into the league to make the most of the promised eyeballs.

While this was true even for the league’s 8th leg that aired in parallel on Star India’s over-the-top digital video arm Hotstar for the first time in 2015, there has been a sea change in the digital consumption of the sport in season 9 that just concluded. In a recent statement, Star India has shared some jaw dropping numbers on the overall consumption of the sport on Hotstar.

According to data aggregated by Star India, “overall followership of IPL crossed the 100 million (10 crore) mark on Hotstar, and its associated properties, over the months of April and May. This was a dramatic increase from the 41 million (4.1 crore) users who watched IPL on Hotstar in 2015.” What’s more, the report shared by Star also cites over 4.5 billion (450 crore) interactions with fans or viewers IPL through Hotstar.

According to several media reports, earlier in 2015, Star India bid Rs.302.2 crore to win the global Internet and mobile rights for IPL for a three-year period, beating Times Internet and Multi Screen Media (now Sony Pictures Networks). Though not profitable by itself even after doubling its viewership reach, to say that the digital rights to the tournament have been useful to Hotstar is an understatement.

When asked to comment on these statistics, Hotstar CEO Ajit Mohan shared, “These numbers indicate a big shift in consumer behaviour. Cricket fans have firmly moved beyond just following scores and text commentary on the web to watching video on the mobile and deeply engaging with video services.”

The dramatic growth in viewership could be attributed to a surge in cricket fans from the top metros and cities where access to mobile broadband on WiFi, 3G and 4G has seen a rapid growth over the last 2 years.

It is but natural for the industry to wonder if digital is gaining ground and possibly on its way to establishing an upper hand over television as a preferred medium to watch sports. Currently limited to affluent metro youth – cricket fans over the age of 15 in the SEC A, B segments who live in the largest 6 cities in the country – digital , currently led by Hostar, has emerged as a primary screen with more viewers watching the tournament on the OTT platform than on television. “The first 59 matches saw 49 million (4.9 crore) fans on Hotstar while the television reach for the same period and audience was 29 million (2.9 crore),” the statement issued by Hotstar further read. While cord cutting isn’t a new thing in the more mature digital markets of North America and Europe, digital exceeding television reach is an entirely new phenomenon in India, even though for now, it is limited to the more affluent cricket fans.

When asked if television as a medium has any reason to fear losing its loyal cricket loving viewers to digital platforms, Havas Media Group, India and South Asia CEO and veteran media planner Anita Nayyar reassured that there was a long way to go before one even needs to be concerned. “The statistics show that the significance of digital has gone up, that doesn’t mean the relevance of television as medium will go down. Television’s significance as a medium in our country will stay the way it is during many more years to come for the simple reason that is its reach. Digital as a medium by itself is growing and as we see from the stats that Hotstar is growing in popularity, but that won't affect television.”

Nayyar also pointed out that it is important to consider a medium’s reach throughout the country before making assumptions from these numbers. “India is a large country. When we speak of how well digital is doing as opposed to television, we forget that 50 percent of the viewership still is rural, which is not infrastructurally ready for Hotstar or other similar services. Once the entire country is taped up with a proper internet connection, maybe after Reliance Jio comes into the picture, we can think about whether digital will have any impact on television’s pie.”

“Today, in fact, if anything, online video is complimenting television consumption,” Nayyar added.

As far as advertisers are concerned, the growing traction for digital consumption of sports is a bit of welcome news, given the targeting of consumers that the medium allows. In fact, Hotstar had a total of seven sponsors - Flipkart, Raymond, Axe Deo, Airtel, Nestle, Amity University and Volini for the season that just went by.

Commenting on how his company views digital as a destination for advertising Sun Pharma - Consumer Healthcare VP and global head Subodh Marwah said, “With millennial’s accounting for 65 percent of India’s population, digital as a medium is fast growing and the alternate screen penetration is far greater than TV sets. Hence, a digital led strategy was an obvious choice for Volini spray to reach its ‘sports enthusiast’ target audiences. Volini associated with Vivo IPL 2016 as the official pain relief partner on Hotstar. To our advantage Hotstar became the primary screen for this season and crossed 100 million. We are happy with our association with Hotstar for Vivo IPL 2016.”

But not all advertisers are quick to jump the gun as yet. Some have a long term strategy. As Nayyar puts it, it is important for current advertisers to think screen agnostic. Acknowledging that the figures shared by Star India definitely are humongous enough for advertisers to turn and take notice, as a planner Nayyar pointed out that the entire audio visual picture of the landscape needs to be taken into account. “Planning can’t be done in silo for individual media, one has to do a plan for a communication on television plus digital. Because after a point when wanting to get additional reach on television becomes very expensive, that’s when the presence of online videos gives you that incremental reach at a far efficient cost. Therefore being screen agnostic and planning for both is the way forward,” Nayyar shared.

Albeit it is too early for digital to go head to head against television, when looking at the broader picture, Hotstar's growing popularity amongst sports fans would definitely boost prospects for the sporting fraternity in general and place far more significance to the digital rights of each of the tournaments. With several new OTT platforms mushrooming, some specifically eyeing the sports genre, the business around sports in India is to become far more interesting, given the fact that there are new leagues awaiting to be launched within this financial year.

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