"FIFA World Cup is being played in Russia, so for Indian viewers it is going to be primetime. It is completely different this time."
SPN India invested heavily on growing its sports offering over time; however, losing its marquee property IPL to rival Star India last year was a big setback. Rajesh Kaul of SPN speaks with Anirban Roy Choudhury about plans ahead for the network and the ongoing FIFA World Cup. Edited excerpts:
This is the second FIFA World Cup that Sony is broadcasting. How is the 2018 programming different from 2014?
It is completely different this time. The tournament is being played in Russia, so for Indian viewers it is going to be primetime. Matches are played between 3:30 pm to 12:30 in the night; there are matches starting at 5:30 pm and 8:30 pm so it could not have been any better for Indian viewers. The timing has also allowed us to create wraparound shows before and after the match, and it is much easier to promote initiatives when matches are played in primetime. We are expecting a bigger reach this time.
This year, FIFA is being broadcast in six different languages. Will you monetise each feed separately?
The idea of broadcasting a marquee event in multiple languages —English, Hindi, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam — in India is to ensure that the sport grows. Also it helps us reach deep into rural markets. We are not monetising regional feeds separately; the same ads will appear across different channels.
How do you monetise a sport like football which does not have frequent ad breaks like, say, cricket?
That is why we have wraparound shows and then there is the half-time period when ads are displayed. Yes, it is true that unlike cricket, there aren’t frequent commercial breaks during a football match. But we need to understand that advertising revenue is not all that matters for a sport like football; that game is a great driver of sports and distribution in India.
How has the favourable timing helped you up your ad rates? What are your expectations from advertising this year?
From both TV and digital, we are expecting to generate advertising revenue of more than `200 crore. During the last World Cup (2014) this number was in double digits; it is a significant growth that we have managed to secure.
India’s sports broadcasting ecosystem is a duopoly (with Star and Sony). Has the lack of competition helped you bring down the acquisition cost?
It has changed the ecosystem to an extent that a viewer today knows it is either Star or Sony which would broadcast a sport event, so the destination is quite clear. As far as content acquisition cost is concerned, yes, we are witnessing some correction in that. The rate at which the cost was going up has come down and we expect it to reduce further.
Sony recently acquired media rights of England Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA), which means you now have broadcasting rights of seven cricket boards. Is that enough to take on Star which has IPL, BCCI and ICC rights?
We have a sufficient number of cricket days for the next five years. The Indian cricket team is travelling a lot in the next five years which gives us a decent number of Indian cricket matches as well. Also, India is a cricket loving nation and viewers love watching non-India cricket too, provided it is of quality. With over 50 days of Indian cricket and 300 days of international cricket in the next five years, I think we will be able to maintain our leadership in terms of the number of days of quality cricket.
Given that we now have a digitised cable ecosystem, do you see distribution revenue surpassing ad revenue?
Globally, that is the trend but in India, I don’t see this happening immediately. How long it takes will depend on regulations that are drawn, changes in pricing, etc.
You operate 11 sports channels after the acquisition of Ten Sports, a plan crafted around IPL. Without it, how do you plan to sustain the sports network?
To grow the sports portfolio was an integral part of our strategy at Sony Pictures Networks as sports happens to be one of the strongest drivers of distribution and digital revenue in India. The best way to grow your portfolio is to buy out competition, and that is why we acquired Ten Sports. Then we went for IPL, which we could not get. Right after that, we invested in acquiring the rights of other boards and with everything we have today, I think there’s enough to sustain and grow. I say this because we are not dependent only on cricket for our growth; we have fight sports, football, basketball, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, etc, and that is why I see us being on stable ground for the next five years.