'2006 might turn out to be the year of domestic sport'

Nimbus chairman Harish Thawani holds forth on the current sports scenario in India and throws light on what 2006 may have in store for the sports broadcasters.

The sports television market in 2005 was characterised by an phase of attrition between the federations and the television industry as a whole. That included sports right management agencies who also represent TV rights and sports broadcasters.

You had the BCCI involved in an ongoing never ending process of awarding the rights. Eventually it failed to conclude a transaction in 2005. This process had begun in 2004.

That kind of poor management of the federations' responsibility has also been seen in the continued mismanagement by the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF). It seems to have successfully spiked the sport to the extent that nobody wants to show it.

The exception is the reinvented, reformatted PHL. The characteristic of PHL should be understood from a television viewpoint. It is an apology for a professional hockey league. It violates the three fundamentals of what constitutes exciting television. Exciting television is based on a core sense of affiliation. Affiliation comes from a sense of ownership. This means that it is either city based or community based. This tends to get a following. Affiliation is with your school, then college, then city and then country. But you cannot have city named teams that are not based in those cities. They are based somewhere else and all are owned by the IHF.

PHL's ratings PHL proved that while hockey was considered to be a more national sport than football, which is popular in two and a half states (West Bengal, Kerala and Goa), it really pales in comparision to football. The early results that Zee Sports got for the Federation Cup, which is the least important event in the AIFF's calendar were sensational.

Even though only two and a half states pulled in the ratings they were still head and shoulders above what the PHL managed to get. I suspect that the NFL will see a huge momentum going for football. Despite the AIFF changing its mind 20 times over and getting less than what they could have got for the rights if they had been sensible about it they still got some serious money into the sport. Football had its first year of genuinely making some inroads into the Indian television market. It became a distant but very visible number two sport.

Over the first three years it will be a fairly robust second sport - still distant from cricket but by 2007 we feel that football will start making its mark in more than just three states. I want to see the NFL numbers in 2006 because then we will know what the trend is. If four of five more sates start pulling in numbers we will have a powerful number two sport at a very low cost.

Regionalisation of commentary is something that we as the producers are actively telling Zee Sports to go in for. Languages like Punjabi, Bengali will work and we can do an audio multiplex. The AIFF is working hard to improve the structure and pull in bigger teams to play. This will be important in pushing the sport past the three strongholds.

Equally the Challenger trophy (which Nimbus Sport produced and marketed in 2005) ratings were unprecedented. A domestic tournament got an international look. The performances were great. It sold worldwide and it got an average rating of 1.2 and a peak of 2.9, which is more than what Zee gets. This indicates that domestic sport properly packaged and focused in cricket and football has an audience. 2006 might turn out to be the year of domestic sport. That might be the strongest contribution that television can make to sport as a bigger social thing.

However, the interesting part of that is it may eventually have a deflationary impact on the price that international cricket gets when the rights of boards in different countries come up. At the end of the day there is only so much cricket you can watch. If you can take about 60-70 days of domestic cricket, 50-60 days of domestic football and make them viable combined with around 100 days of international cricket you have 250 days or thereabouts of sport between the two sports.

This leaves very little room for international sports to make their mark in the country. This may be the ground shift that characterizes 2006. Hockey seems to be a distant dream what with the national team performing badly and PHL not pulling numbers. If the federation can manage itself well and the sporadic interest in tennis grows with Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi visible on the international circuit then we might see the emergence of a four sport market.

Three very distant sports but having pockets of following could be the norm. The emergence of domestic sport as a staple diet to fill up the calendar with the tentpole viewership coming in international events.

Having said that unless the Indian national football or hockey team perform consistently at an international level, cricket will stay the only sport that one can have an affiliation to. Everywhere else we are getting hammered.

Something that stood out head and shoulders above everything of course in 2005 in sports was the poor management of awarding of sports rights. It ended on a reasonably good note for football, a poor note for hockey and a disastrous note for cricket.

Looking forward though to 2006, obviously cricket is now being more professionally managed. It will end the television crisis.

2006 will see the settling of the cricket rights issue and the setting of a new production standard for domestic and international cricket. The impact that DTH has on sport will be interesting. I cannot see DTH impacting sport as much as a lot of crystal ball gazers feel it will. The regulatory bar creates a problem.

You cannot run a DTH signal in India on a live sports network because your cable operator will stop paying you. He will say "Black me out". He will just take the signal from the DTH service provider and pump it into his cable. The monitoring mechanism, the policing mechanism is inadequate. So I do not see DTH making a significant impact. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it as and when they begin gathering subscribers. Right now the subscriber base is non existent. 300,000 for Dish TV compared to 50 million plus for cable.

The third and other interesting aspect that we might see in 2006 is more sports themed programming. Our early experiments on Zee Sports are beginning to pay off in that area. You reduce an excessive dependence on live sporting events like live cricket. Zee Sports programmed a lot of archived material and reformatted it in interesting ways. Now ESPN Star Sports has started doing the same thing. It will force networks to be more innovative in using archived and custom built programming.

New kinds of content: I think that we will see the emergence of sports soap operas, sports reality shows and there will be more participation from the viewer rather than just armchair viewing. It might be participatory in an armchair sense. There might be bowling contests etc. Clearly there is a social change that we have been seeing in the last two years. More youngsters are taking to sport and 2006 may see networks waking up to that opportunity as programmers like Nimbus, TWI come up with ideas and say "Let us try this".

Finally I see a substantial increase in the number of professional presenters and commentators who are working in the business. There will be more iconoclastic Harsha Bhogles emerging. This is because in a five sports network country the demand for talent is increasing all the time.

Government policy: Mandatory content sharing I think is much ado about nothing. In reality the major events have always been on DD. For the last ten years DD has shown BCCI cricket at home. Even in the era when ESPN had the rights they shared the ODI rights with DD. Nimbus has been marketing ICC cricket for the last five years. We will continue to do for the next seven years. We share the World Cup and the Champions Trophy with them. So I do not see what the big hue and cry is about.

The football World Cup has always been on DD. Fifa protects that and you do not need the Indian government to intervene. This is Fifa's stated policy and in the new tender we are one five companies in the final round of negotiations to represent Fifa for Asian rights marketing. The tender says that you have to give feed to terrestrial networks. I think that it is for 22 matches and all highlights.

Wimbledon and French Open tennis Grand Slams prefer to share the semi finals and finals with terrestrial television.

I do not see Sony and Zee Sports making a noise. The noise being made by ESPN Star Sports and Ten Sports is about having to share the rights for the away matches. I do not see the big deal. I am sure that once the dust has settled on all this, DD will leave live Tests out of things. They will just show highlights. It then boils down to 12-13 ODIs that India plays in a year on an away basis. As an industry professional I am not in favour of fighting over that. Just give it to them. The bulk of it are Test matches, which are protected.

Having said that, I think that the retrospective thing (the government has mandated) does not apply. I do not support retrospective.

The DD Advantage: If DD has an advantage it is that they can use equal bouts of Hindi commentary with English. I saw that during the 1999 World Cup. We beat ESPN in terms of ratings. We took away a 30-40 per cent share in cable homes. The big opportunity for DD is to go into several audio streams with regional transmitters. They should have a combination of English and Hindi for the North, English and Tamil for the Tamil Nadu, English and Telugu in Andhra Pradesh. They have the regional footprints. Satellite cannot match that as it cannot multiplex eight to nine languages.

Sports rights: As far as rights are concerned, besides BCCI, the ICC will set into process in the latter half of next year tenders for finding a marketing agency to market the rights from 2008. Fifa rights for 2007-2014 is under negotiation for Asia. Besides Nimbus Sport, there is Infront who is the incumbent, Dentsu, Wharf Cable and Sportfive.

On the advertising front, over Rs 1000 crores (Rs 10 billion) in ad revenue will happen in 2007 which is a World Cup year. In a non World Cup year i.e. 2006, Rs 500 crores is easy for cricket to make.

Sports Marketing: I do not think that it is an industry. We have seen IMG progressively move away from sport and go into fashion and other things. They are still the world's number one sports marketing agency. But despite making an early entry in India they were rocked onto the back foot and lost most of their market share. They are a great organisation and have been around for 40 years. They invented the business. In the last five years though we have been ahead of them several times. We focused on trying to deliver global standards.

Other than IMG and Nimbus, there are one-man and two-man outfits. They operate as opportunistic brokerages. They have not made investments in infrastructure, personnel. They are not willing to take the capital intensive risks that are required to succeed in the sports marketing business. For Fifa's marketing rights rumour has it that the five parties made a minimum guarantee of in excess of $300 million. That compares with the BCCI rights which have a reserve price of $308 million.

You need to have the appetite and the customer relationships in place to monetise deals struck. You also need a successful track record saying that you will deliver the goods.

Production, satellite delivery skills, production expertise the whole value chain management is a fairly complex operation.

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