Mumbai: Having committed close to $2.5 billion (Rs12,025 crore) in acquiring broadcast rights for several cricket tournaments, Manu Sawhney, managing director of ESPN Star Sports, is confident that the investment will pay off in India, given the sport’s popularity in the country. He talks in an interview about the inaugural Airtel Champions League Twenty20 tournament, which will see the world’s best domestic teams play each other 8-23 October, the broadcaster’s plans for a sports news channel and future strategy. Edited excerpts:
Long-term goals: ESPN Star Sports MD Sawhney says sports is a genre that is of great interest to the consumer from a news perspective. Ramesh Pathania/Mint
In the inaugural Champions League Twenty20, teams have few recognizable faces. How will you ensure that there is enough interest in this Champions League?
The current Champions League tournament is going to have about a hundred international players, represented in 12 teams from seven nations, which is more than what we could have asked for. As we have seen in the past, each tournament comes out with new stars and new valuable players and we’re quite sure that by the time this tournament is through, not only will the familiar faces get more recognition, it will be certain unfamiliar faces who, through the quality of cricket they play, will be the new heros.
You’ll have emerged as one of the highest investors in cricket globally, having committed close to $2.5 billion. How do you hope to recover these steep acquisition costs?
All our investments are based on the economic value they represent to our business and how we can use that for our partners and for our fans. We have a very comprehensive, focused plan to take our business to the next level and our investments in cricket for the Indian market are completely in line with that philosophy. We will leave no stone unturned to ensure that we continue to enhance the leadership position we have. As long as the investments and quality content are based on a certain strategy and based on the economic value they bring to your business, which is the core of our thinking. We’re not here for the short term, we are here for the long term and India is a core market for us in Asia.
You’ll have applied for permission to launch a round-the-clock sports news channel. How will you compete with existing news channels which have dedicated sports bureaus?
As far as Asia is concerned, we are currently evaluating the space. We think that 24x7 sports news space is a space which has a certain amount of business proposition within it. The consumption of news in India and across the world is an area which is growing. Very clearly, sports is a genre that is of great interest to the consumer from a news perspective. We are evaluating the space now and depending on how the business plan looks, we will take a decision.
Last year, media buyers maintained that the network had some trouble selling ad spots to advertisers who had cut down on ad spending due to the economic downturn. What is the situation this year?
As you are aware, there were two key events on our network the last time round which did not happen because of circumstances beyond our control. There was the Champions Trophy in Pakistan, which is now happening in South Africa, and there was the Champions League in India, which had to be postponed due to terror attacks. When you don’t have two events in your calendar, from an advertising perspective it does create that position. Once those events come back you pretty much go for it. One thing we have seen clearly, that the appetite for quality content is maintained and is still firm. As a result of which you are able to get a good response from advertisers, which we are seeing with our Champions Trophy and Champions League. We have already sold 75% of inventory on the Champions League, and we’re holding on to 10% for last-minute buys.
Over the next few months, the channel has lined up several short-format cricketing properties; clearly, the focus is on properties that will attract a wider audience. Please comment.
Very clearly, that is why we went out and acquired the Champions League, because we believe it goes beyond just cricket. The three-hour format has increased the demographic spread. We’re continuously looking for avenues to do that. Apart from that, we are also producing 3,600 hours of original programming across Asia, which we want to build value with. We’re also looking at the digital platform, so whether it’s ESPN mobile or ESPN Star.com, to see how we can reach not just more consumers but also make sure that no matter what they access—whether it’s television, mobile or Internet—we offer them the best experience.
The India cricket rights will be up for grabs again in March. How aggressively will you go after them?
I would say that I have focused on any opportunity that can help grow the business and cricket has been a strategy that we have followed in India very successfully. Once the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) rights come up, we will obviously evaluate the opportunity and based on the content which is offered, we will try and make an offer which reflects the economic value to our business.