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Gautam Thakar views Kannada, Telugu as priority language markets for Star Sports

The ambition is to have as many languages as possible over the next two-three years.

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MUMBAI: When it comes to sporting events, Star India and its sports bouquet Star Sports, has been at the forefront for the last couple of years. Event after event has been bagged by the network, beating not just broadcasters but even the likes of Facebook.

Shifting away from cricket, focus on other sports has grown in recent times. But yet, cricket remains important. This Asia Cup, Star Sports is very bullish about regional languages and plans to increase its reach by launching a couple of channels more in Kannada, Telugu and Marathi languages.

The sports bouquet of Star India has increased to 13 channels with the recent announcement of Star Sports 3 launching on 15 September 2018. With the growth of football, it sees merit in dedicating much of the new channel for it.

Indiantelevision.com caught up with Star Sports CEO Gautam Thakar to talk about its plans for Asia Cup and the upcoming tournaments. Though he is all smiles with the response from advertisers, the aim is still to drive up regional areas as well as overall consumption.

Excerpts:

With Asia Cup just around the corner, do you have any specific technological innovation?

I don’t know whether you can call it specific for Asia Cup but a couple of things we learnt from IPL, we want to expand on. Some are possible some are not. Certainly, we feel really good about the regional agenda, getting into languages because it did two-three things to us and I’m using IPL as a reference because it was most recent, partly because it was the most extensive coverage anybody has done and I also joined just before the IPL.

What it does for us is it increases engagement because it’s just more familiar in the language but it has also broadened audiences. So a lot of people, particularly in the south, have written to us saying ‘My mom can also watch the IPL now and I don’t have to bother explaining to her everything because it’s easy’. That is something that we want to continue in Asia Cup and beyond.

Our ambition is to have as many languages as possible over the next two-three years. Certainly, we think Kannada and Telugu will be our first forays, depending on licences from the ministry. But there is no doubt that we want to continue our regional investment.

Asia Cup is a very short duration tournament, so we would prefer to have our own channels to show it extensively as opposed to IPL for where we showed a bit on some GEC and movies channels. In a short two-week window it is less obvious that we can build up habit very quickly. Unfortunately, we won’t do it for the Asia Cup. The tournament will be in Tamil, Hindi and English for which we have three channels.

As the language agenda evolves, every sport that we have, we will put in as many languages. The Select Dugout that we did during the IPL, we will have that for the first time for the ODI format. Now one of the things that our core viewers appreciated was that experts were demonstrating what worked or didn’t work.

By design, we have limited advertising on that particular format and with one-day international, it gives us more time to explain from a cricketing sense both strategy and predictive nature of what will happen. So we think that is something we want to continue to do.

From a Hotstar perspective, ‘WatchN'Play’ was a strong engagement driver. People who played the game online instead of just watch were 2X the number of people who didn’t play the game. We feel that gamification is something that we want to continue to invest in as we go. At this point in time, I think there is so much in the cricket calendar that in fact, this is our biggest year. Asia Cup is followed by India West-Indies tour and after that we have Women’s T20 World Cup, India tour of New Zealand and there are other things but from Star India’s perspective, it is Australia coming to India then IPL followed by World Cup. So we have a continuous nine-month cricket calendar which means that from the marketing perspective and the category building, sports consumption, relative to more developed markets, is still low. It is massive in absolute minute terms but percentage wise it is still growing. Now any given week of the year there is some cricket activity.

After Asia Cup finals we have ISL starting from 29 August 2018. There is a nice build up that we can move the audiences there. PKL will start from 5 October 2018.

I was speaking to somebody last week and he said, from the advertising perspective it is good, because of Diwali season, which is great. But we think the world is changing and seasonality is going away a little bit. IPL which happens in March, April and May period, traditionally it is not the advertising period but it is the biggest sporting advertising property in a year.

Asia Cup will kick it off for us but kabaddi and football added will be three big pillars. There are a bunch of sports we have invested in but these three are the big drivers of growth.

If we talk about advertising, especially because you were in America before this, for a marquee sports property like a Superbowl they make the Superbowl ads. We don’t have that sort of facility. Can a broadcaster play a role in facilitating that?

In the US, as you know Superbowl has been on for a long time and this has built-up. It is like high points of the year and there is a lot of social viewing and from the advertising perspective, people actually take pride in what they have created and are very expensive. Some of the ads only air at the time of Superbowl and they spend millions of dollars doing that, but it breaks through the clutter and gets them virality.

The broadcasters can play some role but ultimately marketing professionals need to drive that agenda. We had Re-imagine awards for IPL, it was the first time we were doing it but the idea behind that was to spur the marketing community to think of the IPL in a different way and create advertising for the IPL. We will do the awards every year now to showcase what is the best advertising. In our own little way we are trying to enable it but ultimately the marketers need to embrace it.

What are the challenges in building momentum for a short format tournament like Asia Cup?

There is not much of a challenge to build momentum for Asia Cup. The challenge I was speaking about was about a channel which is not a sports channel because if it airs on a movie channel it takes time before people watch.

Asia Cup this time has a likelihood of having three India versus Pakistan games. We are not seeing Asia Cup as a challenge at all. In fact, advertiser interest is very strong and a lot of it is driven by India versus Pakistan. The challenge comes when the tournament is short and it is a new sport.

Kabaddi is no longer a new sport. In fact, it is the second biggest sport that we have. Imagine if kabbadi was only a two-week event, by the time you get into it, it’s over. Even football is the world’s number one game and is growing nicely in India but there are still a few years before it scales up. ISL being extended over a period of time allows people enough opportunity to get into the game. Because the real challenge in leagues, if they are very short, is that a lot of interest is driven by team affinity and you need some time to build the rivalry, the team support and things like that.

Now the way we consume cricket is changing because of T20 cricket, shorter attention spans of fans. So in a 50-overs format, what is your vision for interactivity and how do you try and keep the viewers glued to the screens as long as possible?

At the end of the day, we as broadcasters can do a few things in terms of quality of our coverage, ultimately the quality of the game is what drives the biggest interest. The way we think about it is two or three things. One is the Hotstar team is doing a lot of things to figure out how to have gamification.

The other thing is audience profiling over time. If you think about what we tried as an experiment in the IPL, the dugout worked well.

During this IPL season, we used something called Piero technology which dimensionalises action on the field in terms of data.

Ultimately, the quality of cricket and the rivalry between different nations is the biggest factor driving engagement. While the first campaign “Knock Knock” was based on the creative insight that one’s neighbour’s success will always be a consistent reminder of their own failure, the second TVC “Pange Wala Padosi” on the fact that the strongest of rivalries occur between neighbours, or in this case India and Pakistan. The commercial showcases Bollywood actor Omi Vaidya who plays the role of the ever challenging or ‘Pange Wala’ Neighbour – highlighting the tongue-in-cheek rivalry that stems between neighbours.

Another idea we are thinking about is, how we get fans to engage with this #knockthemout theme. Fans could give their advice to the Indian team to knock the neighbours out and we will relay it on the TV. Some of it could be in jest and some could be serious advice. We haven’t yet figured out the way to show it on the TV.

Will you be using Star Sports 3 to telecast Asia Cup because the channel is launching on the same date?

We are not yet sure, but the big part of the launch will be with ISL. We think that football is starting to grow in the country and it might merit a channel that large proportion of it should be football. It is not dedicated as a football channel but it is largely football.

We had our plans ready for Star Sports 1 Kannada, unfortunately, we couldn’t get it through the process. We are working on the formalities which need to be done. Kannada and Telugu will be top of the list. Bengali and Marathi are other interesting markets. After all these, the only remaining is Malayalam which is a very football heavy market and so the question would be, do we require a full channel for it?

How do you innovate coverage for your regional audience?

One is at a very basic level which is commentary. It is easier to hear Telugu if you are Telugu speaking native. Another thing that we have for most of the tournaments is unilateral cameras, which means we have a camera dedicated to that channel. Even in the IPL, when we were showing RCB and MI match, we focussed one camera on Bangalore players or fans and their reactions and cut to more coverage of that in the actual feed. The world feed will be what it is but 20 per cent of the coverage will be dedicated to the local feed. The third thing is every state has a flavour and we haven’t got it fully right yet.

How many advertisers do you have on board for Asia Cup?

Some brands which we have on board are Coca-Cola, Dream11, Hero Motors, Byju’s, Google, Nerolac, Britannia, Kajaria, Domino’s, Apollo, Cars24, Unimoni etc. One advantage of a short format tournament with a few big games is that there is a lot more demand and we have to actually manage some demands, particularly for the big games. Actually, advertising is the easiest thing for the tournament like the Asia Cup with big marquee games like this.

We think India is on the cusp of growth from a sporting perspective, still small relative to the world but growing fast now. We think Hotstar is adding a lot of value and incremental consumption, so how do we better coordinate TV and digital and make the experience more seamless. It is a hard place for advertisers not to be.

Do you have scope of more brands coming in?

There are different properties - one is advertising spots then there is some various sponsorship opportunity. So there are enough to do but we try to keep some amount of category exclusivity. There are some categories coming up which are very sports relevant but historically have not been as big as food and drinks. This category is a massive sporting property from an advertiser perspective for all sports and it's only now starting to take off in India.

How would you manage the Select Dugout feed for 50 overs in Asia Cup?

That’s actually the interesting concept and problem we are talking about right now. The way we are thinking about it is that even in the three hours game the experts' reactions were that they didn’t get enough time to show some of the nuances. It will be a little bit of an experiment because it is the first time for an ODI format. I think between now to IPL and the World Cup we want to perfect both of these offerings for ODIs and T20Is so by that time we have a higher consumption programming.

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