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Sony Networks looking to change face of Indian football in '17

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MUMBAI: The year 2016 saw quite a bit of shake-up in the realm of Indian sports broadcasting. Zee signed a proposal with Sony to sell its sports channels, marketed under Ten Sports brand, to the latter; the Indian cricket broad’s fight with the Supreme Court putting a question mark on IPL and its broadcast and the arrival of some professional sports leagues in India that garnered viewers as well as on-ground audience. The developments also saw sports broadcasting turn primarily into a two-horse race Star India on one side and Sony-ESPN combine on the other, while Nimbus Sports remains a comparatively small player.

Talking to indiantelevision.com on the changing sports broadcast dynamics, Sony Pictures Network India (SPNI) sports and distribution president Rajesh Kaul said, “2016 was a spectacular year for the sports cluster of Sony in terms of the growth. In January 2016, we launched the Sony ESPN channels, which scaled us up to a four-channel sports network. IPL 2016 exceeded expectations with a record viewership of 361.6 million viewers.

“In addition to this, we also had the on-air and digital telecast of UEFA Euro 2016 on our network, one of the biggest and most watched international football tournaments in 2016. To amplify the viewing experience of the tournament, we continued our pioneering initiative of multi-language feeds and for the first time in India, there was a multi-language feed for an international football tournament with the telecast of Euro 2016 in English, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam languages.”

Acquisition of Ten Network by SPN, subject to regulatory approvals, in a deal worth US$385 million does add fire-power as the channels operate in several countries, including the Indian sub-continent, Maldives, Singapore, Hong Kong, Middle East and Caribbean.

The Sony sports network grew majestically in 2016. From Sony Six, Six HD, Sony ESPN and Sony ESPN HD to a bouquet of nine sports channels (Ten Network) prove Sony is looking to be serious player.

Asked about the most viewed sporting event on SPN in 2016, Kaul said, “2016 was a strong year for the sports cluster of SPN and we enjoyed an excellent response to a plethora of our properties in cricket, football, fight sports and basketball / NBA. Both our marquee sports events IPL 2016 and UEFA Euro 2016 got an unprecedented level of viewership. In addition to this, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and NBA in our breakfast viewing category have also seen a substantial growth in viewership this year. Over 100 million viewers sampled UFC this year and more than 140 million viewers sampled NBA season 2015-16.”

To cash in on the growing popularity of football in India and give a contest to cricket viewership and English Premier League (still the most followed footlball league in the world), the network tried to change the Spanish La Liga playing timings for the Indian audience who are ardent followers of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The matches were scheduled to start at 4.30 pm local time in Spain (8 PM IST). This added a huge chunk of viewership to the Spanish League and with a new La Liga office in Delhi, the league and the region’s broadcaster is surely looking to tap into the South-Asian audience.

Talking about viewership of foreign leagues in India, Kaul opined, “The sports cluster of SPN caters to a diverse spectrum of viewers with a wide range of sports. The variety of foreign sport on SPNI is widely followed by Indian viewers.

La Liga made a blockbuster start to the 2016-17 season by trebling its reach compared to last season. El Clasico match between Barcelona & Real Madrid is the most watched international football league match of the year (4.1 million viewers).

UFC has seen exponential growth in ratings in 2016 with over 100 million viewers this entire year. TNA is immensely popular in India with the property being sampled by over 185 million viewers this year.

NBA is another sport which has a wide following among Indian fans last season NBA 2015-16 being watched by more than 140 million viewers and we are expecting a strong season showing for the 2016-17 season.”

With the television rights of La Liga in India, SPNI also has the digital rights for the Spanish League. Showcasing important matches on Sony LIV, its digital platform, SPNI has been able to get its share of sports’ digital audience. Knowing its huge potential in the Indian market, the digital platform, beamed the El Clasico live on its website and garnered huge numbers.

“Sport is one of our key focus areas and we have the best football action available with us. We have showcased big ticketing football events like Euro 2016, Copa America Centenario as well as the El Clasico,” SPNI EVP and digital business head Uday Sodhi said, adding with a strong event line-up that includes La Liga Santandar, Sony was “truly the (Indian) home of football.”

The network also recently showcased Bangladesh Premier League 2016 and, according to Sodhi’s claims, it turned out to be most watched cricketing event so far on Sony Liv. “In all our marketing and brand communications, we have sports as a prime genre. We have done a 360-degree campaign for promoting Sony Liv as the one-stop for the best of sporting action,” he added, highlighting the digital platform’s attempts to ride the sports bandwagon.

With the Internet’s reach increasing in India, which also ups the potential of products riding it, dwelling on digital platforms’ strategies in general, Sodhi said, “With 350 million internet users in India (65 per cent users being mobile only) and projections of crossing 700 million internet users by 2020, there is huge potential in India that’s yet to be tapped. Online video is thriving and 50 per cent of total mobile data traffic is video. Youth is driving the mobile data usage and sports is one of the top online video genres.”

So, what’s in store for 2017? “For the sports cluster of SPN, 2017 would be one of the biggest years and epic too as IPL would have its 10th edition. In addition, Kaul elaborated, adding there will also be two major FIFA events (2017 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup). Since the juniors’ championship will be the first FIFA even to be hosted in India, there is lot of anticipation and it could, according to him, change the whole landscape of football as a sport in India.

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