Star Sports’ Short-Sighted Football Broadcast Strategy In India
I got introduced to the Premier League because of friends. However, the reason I became a fan was because I could watch Premier League matches live on my TV. I was exposed to a world of entertainment and scintillating display of skill. The pre-match and post-match analysis was of high quality. The weekly shows on Football were educating and gave great insight into how the sport was run. The only way you develop an interest and convert it to a passion is if the content is available. When I look back I became a cricket fan as a child too because I could watch the Indian team travel across the world on TV. Access to experiencing the content was never a problem.
Unless you can watch matches regularly in a stadium, there is no other way you can recruit new fans to your product but through TV/Live Broadcast.
I am part of a 100 member sports group on WhatsApp. There are people trying to get others on the group interested in EPL. However, there is no way for the newbies to access this content. They just don’t know where to go and watch matches. Most of them have already given up as they can’t sample this ‘exciting’ thing called the Premier League. This is anecdotal evidence but I wouldn’t bet against many similar experiences across India really harming growth of EPL viewership in the country.
Unfortunately, Star Sports India’s strategy will harm growth of interest in English football and in the long run it will harm their own interests. Let’s take all issues one by one.
So, what is this new strategy? What is the problem?
I have subscribed to 8 Star Sports Channels – Star Sports 1,2,3,4 + Star Sports HD 1,2,3,4. However, from October if I want to watch Premier League action, I need to mandatorily subscribe to Star Sports Select HD 1 and HD 2 channels. Now, subscribing to these 2 new channels will not guarantee coverage of all matches but you can be assured of being able to watch the big matches at least.
The other way you can get access to the action is if you subscribe to Hotstar at INR 200/- per month. You can watch all matches live on demand. This also means you get access to other premium content on hotstar but I am forced to take it even though I only want to watch the premier league. This option means tons of extra money I need to spend on internet data. It isn’t such a great deal if you ask me. You will consume at least up to 1 GB data on every match day.
Indians don’t like to pay for content
This is not entirely true. One could argue that Star is trying to maximise its revenue but I think they are pushing it too far. It is not that people are not paying for content. I am paying for 8 star channels already. Now, I need to pay for 2 more ‘premium’ channels. When will this end?
Also, it is not like the 8 channels I have subscribed to have world class live programming all the time. There are re-runs of matches and packaged cricket programming which is shown multiple times each week.
There is only so much viewers will take, Ultimately, they will just give up and not care. Highly passionate fans will find ways to watch what they want. Star Sports is making watching live action legally as painful as watching something for free on an online stream.
Ok. So Star is greedy. What is your point about it affecting them in the long run? Why is this strategy short-sighted?
Football hasn’t reached a critical mass of viewers in India yet. They are killing the growth in its popularity even before it reaches its true potential. For context, look at this FIFA Television viewership report for World Cup 2014 in Brazil 2 years ago. The highest number of people to have watched any match at any point of time is 5 Million whereas the average viewership per match is 1.3 Mn. The total reach of the entire competition is 85 Million. A country like Indonesia (1/5th of India’s population) with a far worse time zone for live broadcast from Brazil reached 103 Million. On the other hand Cricket ICC T20 World cup was watched by 730 Million Indians. All these stats point to the ground football still has to cover in India and the massive potential it has.
India is one of the few markets where channels/broadcasters not only make money through Pay TV (Subscriptions) but also through advertising. The argument generally is that people pay too little per subscription so they need to monetise through ads as well. When HD programming was being promoted initially, one of the key features mentioned was ‘Ad-free programming’. Channels then started inserting 30 second ads. Then they became 90 seconds. Now, its exactly like the SD channels. So consumers pay extra for HD channels and still have to endure the advertising. Read this piece from 2012.
This mindset of continuously trying to exploit every possible way to make money out of the consumer is what will lead to their downfall. Apart from the bad PR that these issues generate (check protest Facebook pages, quora and petitions on change.org), what this is doing is restricting the growth of the popularity of the game. Unless you are born in a family that has access to HD TVs and has someone in the family who has also subscribed to Star Sports Select HD, you will never be introduced to Premier League Football. Unless I watch games as a kid on TV, how will I be interested in the game or the league? If I haven’t developed an interest why will I ever subscribe to this content?
PL football became popular in India for the following reasons :
- Time Zone : Weekend Afternoon in England is prime time in India. So a 3 pm BST kickoff means a 7.30 pm or 8.30 pm match in India. La Liga matches are generally much later in the night and this is a big reason La Liga isn’t as big as EPL in India. It is also the reason NBA will find it tough to reach same popularity. Matches take place when kids are either sleeping or in school.
- Language : There is an historic comfort with everything English.
- Access: Access to Premier League action was always easy. It was easy for a newbie to be introduced to the game.
It is this third reason which is critical. Football viewership needs to grow at a fast clip if Star Sports wants to make money (either through Pay TV or advertising). By restricting distribution they are bracing themselves up for pain in the future. Disgruntled fans will switch to free online streams. New additions to fan base should be as important as making money out of the present ones. The Premier League itself may not be too enthused if viewership in India does not grow fast enough. Clubs like Arsenal who look at India as their next market for expansion would not be too happy with these developments either. They will need young kids to be able to watch the Arsenal team in action for their fan base to grow. This Medium piece talks about how big the EPL is going to be in the coming years and even markets like USA haven’t been tapped fully yet.
I am sure they would have done their analysis before shifting PL entirely to Star Sports Select HD. The Star Sports CEO Nitin Kukreja (an IIM A alumnus) claimed on an interview to Sportskeeda that they are already in 7 Million homes. The assumption must be that everyone who watches EPL is from a background that fits the profile of these 7 Million homes. What is not clear though is why they need to add two new HD channels and charge for it and not use the existing 4 channels? There can’t be any other reason but to make additional money. I am also not entirely sure if they’ve weighed in the costs of not letting a fan base develop though. It is possible Star Sports thinks current fans will eventually give in and subscribe but I am not sure how they will attract more viewers with such a restriction in distribution and access.
The alternate view is that the number of EPL followers is so small that it doesn’t affect the overall viewership in a big way in the short run even if there are drop offs. Importantly, the additional money from ‘forced’ subscription of SS Select HD will cover up for the relative loss in viewers who won’t subscribe to it. This is in my view is a short-sighted approach to maximize revenue. A little bit like killing the golden goose that will lay the eggs.
Every situation is an opportunity. If Sony can get its act together it can really popularize the La Liga and Serie A. But the leagues need to take advantage of this situation. That India is the next frontier for football or sports in general is well known. Even if a fraction of India starts following a league or a sport it will break records in viewership. The popularity of Kabbadi League and Indian Soccer League is enough evidence that there is appetite for good sporting content (Star has been a big promoter of both these leagues!).
The other option is if Youtube, Facebook or Twitter can get exclusive rights of sports. NBA already has a deal with Twitter. Imagine if one could watch the EPL on Facebook or Youtube for free. All I need to pay for is the data. The reach will be massive – definitely more than the 7 Million HD homes Mr.Kukreja spoke about.
The author is the creator of this platform