Mumbai: Manu Sawhney, the Singapore-based managing director of ESPN Star Sports, says using technology is the right step forward in cricket. With his focus mainly on the launch of the new ESPN Star Sports high-definition (HD) channels —available for the India-England Test series starting at Lord’s on Thursday—Sawhney also spoke in an interview about Formula 1 in India and the umpire decision review system (UDRS). Edited excerpts:
With the launch of ESPN and Star Cricket in high definition, how soon before other channels in the bouquet go HD? What has been the response from advertisers for the India-England series for this, especially since HD feeds have thus far not carried any advertisements?
We tested market readiness and acceptance with special HD feeds of the Fifa World Cup, the Champions League T20, the Cricket World Cup and the French Open. The launch of an HD channel, and especially a sports HD channel, involves a lot of ground work and investment—it not only needs to be produced in HD, but also needs to be uplinked and then delivered accordingly which, therefore, requires additional investments and resources.
We have encouraging response from advertisers and have already finalized Tata DoCoMo as the partner for the HD broadcast of this series and are in talks with a few other sponsors. With regard to carrying advertising on the HD feed, market reality based on industry’s current set-up and pricing models necessitates this. The increasingly high cost of content acquisition and HD technology cannot be subsidized with current subscription pricing alone.
What is your personal opinion on UDRS, the use of technology in cricket and reluctance of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to use some of it? Is TV equipped to get it right all the time? (BCCI and the English Cricket Board have agreed to restrict the use of technology for on-field decisions)
My personal opinion is that using technology is the right step forward. It allows for a process of continuous improvement in the game. However, all parties need to work closely to keep evolving (in order) to get it closer to 100%.
Ten years down the line, will TV viewership in India be larger for football than cricket?
Cricket continues to be the most popular sport in India and over the years, with the emergence of new formats, the popularity of the game has further increased across demographics. From the media and content perspective, it is no longer just a sports genre phenomenon; today, it is the most popular form of entertainment and engagement across genres. It will continue to dominate Indian sports.
However, we’re seeing the emergence of multi-sport fans and the Indian sports fan is maturing faster with an increasing level of acceptance for other sports. Today, clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea, players like Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, have become immensely popular. With the Force India team’s increasing profile and the maiden Grand Prix race scheduled later this year (October in Delhi), interest in Formula 1 is high.
I couldn’t be more happy with the way Indian sports fans are now consuming different sports and with the proliferation and adoption of new media platforms there are many opportunities to engage with content and thus with fans.
What progress has been made on infrastructure? How big is the viewership for Formula 1 in India?
I am sure the organizers along with FIA, or Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, (which governs the sport worldwide) are working on achieving the deadline. We haven’t heard otherwise from Formula 1 management. As a broadcaster, we work closely with Formula 1 which, in this case, is responsible for providing us the host feed from the track. In addition, we produce unilateral feed from the venue to package all of them together.
More than 25 million motorsport fans watched 2010’s Formula 1 season in India and the first eight races in 2011 have already seen over 16.7 million in-home viewers tuning in. In addition, F1 attracts a significant proportion of out-of-home viewing. Young male adults of 15-29 years age group formed the core base with highest 18% reach and upscale males were close with 16%. In addition to the live race, pre and post race shows, Raceday and Chequered Flag, were most critical to the overall Formula 1 experience for the Indian fans—expanding the overall viewer base by more than 36%.
What was the experience with live streaming during the World Cup? What are some of the other new additions to the channel?
Across many countries, we have launched ESPN Player, a broadband player, which allows fans to watch sports at their convenience. In addition, it showcases additional content that is not available on television. For example, in the recently concluded Wimbledon, we showcased simultaneous feeds from 11 different courts on ESPN Player. On television we can show only one court coverage at one time. Likewise on F1, the fan has the choice to pick and see the view from the driver’s camera.
We are in the process of launching ESPNEWS, the first 24/7 sports news channel and we are not only planning to launch it on television, but also across mobile and broadband.
The ICC Cricket World Cup has been the latest event that we have streamed live in India. From 16 February till 2 April 2011, more than 64 million streams were served to 26.8 million users.