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Starsports.com: YouTube of sports in India?

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Barely a year old and starsports.com could well qualify as an example of the limitless possibilities of the World Wide Web.

Ever since its launch in June 2013, starsports.com, has been drawing nearly 28 million unique visitors every day with as many as 45 minutes spent per match. These numbers - comparable to television - are the highest ever on a digital platform.

starsports.com’s meteoric rise is not for nothing as the website has always been about giving sports fans a rich, immersive video experience a la YouTube and becoming a one-stop shop for them.  

Star India digital head Ajit Mohan puts it well when he says: “The philosophy of the design and the service itself was to make video the hero; we believe we have become the YouTube of sports.”

Drawing attention to how sports coverage has evolved from print to radio to television and now the digital medium, Mohan says: “The idea was to create a new immersive experience around sports on digital for fans. The best way to attract the viewers was to add a lot of video elements that allowed getting data and analytics into the experience in a very meaningful manner. So we wanted it to be fully relevant to the digital medium, rather than what consumers were being served.”

Starsports.com has a 20-strong content development team and leverages the network’s production and broadcast team. Explains Mohan: “The idea is to keep delivering content on-the-go and report as events take place. The team creates video stories as well as columns and articles, but the point is to create a lot of video during the course of a live match as people would love to listen to someone’s point of view on the state of the match, thus driving home our point of an immersive experience.”

Speaking of design, starsports.com isn’t cluttered with irrelevant content like other sports sites. “We have kept the design experience for the consumer in mind where it becomes easy for viewers to discover a live match. Having said that, we have had a lot of learning over the past 12 months and we want to further improve on the experience for consumers,” says Mohan. “We work with a lot of world-class platforms and partners to help out with execution on the video as well as platform development.”

Apart from content and design, the revenue model too has evolved with time. At the time of the beta launch in December 2012, the streaming was free and had a little delay but post the launch, the live streaming experience was taken behind the pay-wall. “Just to give an idea about the conversion rate, it’s been in the range of three to five per cent - depending on whether on the web or the mobile app or any other operator service. Looking at the current subscriber base, if we exclude the telecom world, we probably have one of the largest subscription base of content subscriptions in the digital world,” says Mohan. “We are currently in a dilemma trying to figure out what services to charge for and what to keep free access for. So if we are asking people to pay, then there has to be something really exceptional and a high value proposition.”

Mohan believes the site’s success owes to two big leaps: firstly, high quality streaming of an even higher standard than YouTube or a comparable platform and secondly, advertising which allows a deeper engagement with sports fans on the back of very high quality video and content created exclusively for starsports.com.

“We have provided a much customised backbone to serve a very good video experience in live viewing. The response for the streaming quality has been very good and users find it very reliable and of high quality. So if the user has access to even a 1 mbps net connection, the video is of HD quality. That is something that is unprecedented and no other sports company has managed thus far,” Mohan exults. “We already had Adidas and Red Bull being associated with Starsports.com and within the next four to six weeks, we are sure to get more brands on-board with the announcement of the IPL streaming rights. Also, we will be having a lot of action for fans with the Asia Cup, the ICC T-20 World Cup in March and moving onto the IPL in April and May. So with a fully packed calendar for the next three and a half months, advertisers are keen to come on board.”

On the subject of IPL streaming rights, Mohan believes that despite the five-minute delay in streaming, IPL is sure to generate a lot of viewership on the digital platform.

“There is a habit of watching the event on the mobile and other portable devices, so the idea is to leverage our platform and provide a much better consumer experience and advertising solution and deploy it for IPL where there is already a habit and increase the numbers even more as against last year,” says he.

Again, IPL isn’t the only such property available on starsports.com; the site also streams as many as six to seven matches of the Barclays Premiere League (BPL) at one time. “We also show Sierra and La Liga matches along with F1 and the Australian Open. During the grand slam, we witnessed a spike of 200,000 users in a day coming on the back of the Open. Cricket will continue to be our cornerstone but we will also generate focus and engagement in other sports,” says Mohan.

Any discussion on the success story of starsports.com would be incomplete without a reference to ‘The Sachin Memory Project’, one of the website’s biggest and most innovative online campaigns around cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar.

“The idea was to be distinctive at the same time connect the master blaster with his fans. So starsports.com believed that the best way to create that connect would be to make a timeline of all the major events of Tendulkar’s career and best innings with the support of archival videos,” recalls Mohan, pointing out that the engagement reached such levels that people tried to think back and see where they were when Tendulkar broke a certain record. “The reason for calling it ‘The Memory Project’ came across well and we achieved what we had set out for!” he exclaims. Starsports.com had nearly four million visitors during the India-West Indies series, largely on the back of this innovation.

Mohan is happy with the way things have shaped up. “We have already made strides on unchartered territory and it would be really difficult for anyone to find a digital service on sports that has created a great video player and gives HD quality output,” says he. Currently, the site has video content across cricket, football, tennis, hockey and F1 but is looking at what consumers want and intends to bring back discontented sports fans who aren’t satisfied with the digital content provided by others. “We will add new sports and improve the consumer experience, and try and reach out to people with lesser bandwidth as well and provide equal quality of content,” says Mohan of the company’s future plans.

Plans are afoot to provide short clips which allow consumers to pick up the best moments in the match which they either missed or would love to relive. Providing ample visibility for advertisers is also on the cards. “We do believe that going forward, a lot of the brands will be looking to build traction on the digital platform and we want to provide such a platform where advertisers feel their products and brands will get proper visibility and the right value,” he signs off.

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