When Jaishree Ram Mohan was younger, she used to sit alongside her father watching car racing on television. Today, the 35-year-old editor at Penguin India is hooked to the sport, waiting for those moments when Star Sports and ESPN telecast her fix, despairing when she misses it.
Ram Mohan is one of the growing number of Indian women with a passion for motor sports—especially Formula One racing. To their cricket-crazy counterparts, Ram Mohan, and fans such as Meha Khanna, Divya Miglani, Mandira Sikand and Sarika Sehrawat want to say: “Cricket is boring.”
ESPN says this is not just a fad, but a growing trend among India’s affluent, and media buyers say they are starting to tap the market. In 2006, ESPN says, a sizeable 9.6 million women tuned in for the Formula One season, not too far behind the 13.7 million men who also watched. Comparable data for the previous year was not available.
But what Sanjay Kailash, vice-president of advertising sales at ESPN Software India Pvt. Ltd, says is more interesting is that a rating index of men and women, aged 25-34, showed 53% more female viewers during the Melbourne Grand Prix last month. The company declined to comment on revenues related to motor racing broadcasts.
Still, advertisers besides the usual automobile, petroleum and technology companies—brands that have a natural association with motor sports—are being added to the line-up. For example, fruit drinks company Parle Agro Pvt. Ltd began plugging its Appy apple drink last year, saying it wanted to target the sport’s growing elite fan base.
“We are positioning Appy as a beverage for this segment. They are our target group,” said Parle Agro marketing director Nadia Chauhan Kurup.
A number of niche brands in luxury items, such as watches and perfumes, would also be interested in associating themselves with Formula One racing, said Madison Communications Pvt. Ltd chairman and managing director Sam Balsara. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said.
Car racing attracting Indian women viewers is something not unique nor entirely new to this country; the sport has conquered conservative Iran, where a woman, 30-year-old Laleh Seddigh, has been nicknamed “little Schumacher” after German Formula One legend Michael Schumacher.
India has its own share of women racers, too. Miglani, 26, and a Star TV network employee in New Delhi, has been participating in rallies since 2005. “It’s the thrill, the endurance, the speed that I’m passionate about. It’s the best sport,” she said.
Other fans are not as actively involved, but are as enthusiastic. Khanna, a 36-year-old Delhi housewife, was exposed to motor sports quite early; her father ran a now-defunct go-karting track in Gurgaon. Khanna accompanied her husband to Malaysia last year to witness the Kuala Lumpur Formula One race at the Sepang circuit, and wishes she could pack in a few more visits. “But it’s so terribly expensive,” she said. (Formula One has also been eyeing India to host a circuit, but no plans have been finalized.)
Sikand, 32, was drawn to the sport when she was involved in the TV production of motor races about five years ago. Today she loves “everything” about motor racing. “It is fast paced, and contrary to popular belief, is probably one of the most mentally- and physically-challenging sports,” she said.
Cricket appeals to none of these women; Ram Mohan says it’s a case of “too much hype, too many marketers”, while Sikand’s former colleagues, “a bunch of cricket fanatic men”, turned her off the game. Seeing a surge in interest from newcomers, ESPN Star Sports has also begun actively promoting Formula One through special live screenings of selected races. “Race Day”, the preview show, and the review show “Chequered Flag”, for example, target new fans who might not yet comprehend the nuances of the sport. “With the 2007 season promising a cut-throat competition among teams, we expect an increase in ratings this year,” said ESPN’s Kailash.