In a country where cricket is a religion, ESPNcricinfo, which celebrated its silver jubilee recently, has made several efforts over the years to bring the sport closer to fans across the country.
In a country where cricket is a religion, ESPNcricinfo, which celebrated its silver jubilee recently, has made several efforts over the years to bring the sport closer to fans across the country. But competition has grown multifold today as broadcasters and OTT players as well as other digital platforms are fighting a fierce war to grab eyeballs online. Ramesh Kumar, over a conversation with BrandWagon’s Meghna Sharma, talks about the shift in viewership patterns due to various sporting leagues, as well as how the company plans to stay ahead of the curve. Edited excerpts:
Can you highlight the milestones in ESPNcricinfo’s journey over the last 25 years?
Our beginning can be traced to the early beginnings of the World Wide Web (www). In 1993, it was set up as a product to fulfil cricket needs of people who didn’t have access to it; either cricket broadcast wasn’t available or print media did not have cricket details. So, the solution was set up at the University of Minnesota campus where Dr Simon King, a British researcher along with students and researchers, started circulating content.
We started live streaming and audio commentary much before other players in their current forms did. In the mid ‘90s, we had a partnership with Rolling Stones. In 1997, much before digital advertisement gained currency, we had advertisers like Amul and Intel on cricinfo. Along the line, we have had strategic investors and we have grown in terms of our content, reach, etc. As IPL is on, we have had 20 advertisers (from India).
With competition growing, what would you say are your strengths? How do you re-imagine content and coverage?
We are very close to what we cover — the core of cricket. Since the beginning, we have been creating all-round coverage around cricket — live report, match reports, analysis, photographs, interviews, etc. But with the ESPN association, for the last 10 years, what we have built is the ‘game around the game’ concept. Today, people while watching a game also want to engage with other aspects around it. They want to talk to the peer group, other fans, etc. Even after the game window is over, they want to interact through contests, conversations, etc. Therefore, we have various offerings like post-match interviews, previews of upcoming matches and more.
For a sports fan, it is extremely important to go beyond the sports window. If we talk about a live match, it is important for her to experience the live streaming, but if she is not able to access it then she at least would want clips of the match; and might want to read an in-depth report of one. We reach and engage with each and every sport fan — loyal or casual.
Where are the most eyeballs for your platform coming in from? As India is a diverse market, don’t you feel the need to localise your content?
Our biggest market, as one would expect, is India. The second biggest market is North America (the US). Then, we have other cricket following countries like the UK and Australia while the Indian subcontinent, that is Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc, are growing markets for us. Within India, we have been strong in the top six cities with peak growth coming in from markets like Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. But over the last five-six years, we are seeing that the growth in mobile traffic — it makes for almost 80% of our digital traffic — is coming from SEC B towns and interestingly, these towns see a lot of interest as small-town cricketers are getting into IPL.
So it is twofold: a growing interest in the game and an increase in mobile consumption. Our primary feed is in English; we are looking at doing certain video programming with Hindi-English treatment to appeal to the youth, which is fluent in Hinglish. We have plans, in very advanced stage, of launching mobile offerings with six popular languages. We want to go beyond the language commentary of live matches and want to know what will a viewer want in the non-live window — expert analysis or interviews with local cricketers, etc.
What are the challenges in retaining readers/viewers?
We are not just an ‘updating-between-the-match’ platform. We want to engage with consumers not only within the match but also before and after it. We need to have a different offering — people know what they will get with us as compared to others. Take the case of the recent ball tampering issue — the core audience will want to know why it happened, was the punishment adequate or not; the casual audience broadly knows what happened but doesn’t know why it is illegal.
The third type comprises the highly evolved user who wants to know why we are so finicky about it and nothing was done when the same ball tampering was done by another star player from our country; and why disciplining star cricketers is so important to Australian cricket and culture. Then there are people who just want entertainment. We have to make sure we give everything to everyone without offending any of these fans.
With various sports leagues coming up, do you see a shift in viewership patterns in the country?
The kind of growth we are seeing in other sports — for instance, tennis on ESPN.in is seeing a 160% growth y-o-y and badminton is seeing 200% growth y-o-y — shows that there is a massive spike. Good performances by Indian players in various other sports have also helped in popularising them.
If we look at Sony and Star, they have done amazing work by investing in other sports. The fact that both these players are strongly invested in the growth of sports has helped their cause. Has cricket reached a saturation point? My take is that if it wasn’t for the experimentation with shorter formats like IPL, T20 and the huge surge in mobile penetration and data, it could have been so. Now, we have a wave of new users coming in — some of them only follow these shorter forms. So, cricket continues to grow.
How do you see the collaboration between ESPN and Sony helping the brand?
It has been almost two-and-a-half years into the collaboration. We have a digital destination as well as a broadcast one. We have an integrated presence. What is interesting is audience behaviour — someone who watched NBA on Sony can also get analysis online. We have a local player who has invested in the sport but also has an international portfolio.