Mumbai: Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought ESPN Inc.’s 50% stake in ESPN Star Sports (ESS), its joint venture in Asia with The Walt Disney Co., for an undisclosed sum, ending their 16-year-old partnership. Following this, Star India Pvt. Ltd, Murdoch’s broadcasting company in India, acquired the telecast rights for all domestic and international cricket for six years beginning 2012.
Aloke Malik, managing director of ESPN Software India Pvt. Ltd, which is the Indian subsidiary of ESS, spoke of plans to strengthen the network and growing sports consumption in the country. Edited excerpts:
With ESS now being a wholly-owned subsidiary of News Corp., what has been the effect on the network?
Ownership doesn’t change what the viewer wants. We are a consumer-oriented company... We will continue to build upon delivering high-quality content with the best panel of experts to explain the game to the viewers… And it’s not just about cricket, but all kinds of sport.
We will be in a position to share a few months from now what we intend to do in India. But you would have seen the first glimpses through the advertising campaigns we are running. Besides that we have a huge initiative and investment in putting together a world-class Hindi presentation, which is not about ball-to-ball commentary but bringing the game to life.
How do you plan to expand sports consumption in India?
Per capita consumption is driven, first and foremost, by accessibility, which digitization drives… For the first time, the consumer will have the freedom to choose his or her own package, as opposed to analogue, where you watched what the local operator offered you because of bandwidth constraints.
The second part of accessibility is to make content available in a language the consumer is comfortable in and understands. The third aspect is affordability and the fourth is to be able to explain different sports to the viewer.
Football is a huge sport across the world and it is catching on in India pretty fast and we are going to make it available to the viewer in a manner that he will be able to get involved in the game. This is the biggest year for ESS network given the sporting line up. We now have the La Liga (Spanish football league), Serie A (Italian football league)… We have about thousand odd days of football. So football is the next big thing.
We estimate that we will have cumulative reach of about 90 million this year, doubled over the last three years. We are in the process of getting hockey to the viewers… The league will come to life by mid-January next year. (ESS holds the telecast rights for the Hockey India League starting 2013.) Apart from that we have Formula 1, the best in motorsports, tennis and golf. So it’s a combination, it’s not just cricket alone. It is the best possible sports across the globe that we get to the consumer.
The Champions League Twenty20 has not been successful. How does ESS plan to review it?
Every new property takes some time to develop, to get to scale and build stature.
We will certainly be open to all kinds of options to make the Champions League even more intense and a more viewer-friendly proposition.
This is the first time that ESS has signed on annual sponsorship deals with advertisers. Is it to hedge risks given the economic scenario?
We were guided by the fact that advertisers like consistency and a certain amount of predictability… So by offering this kind of content for 12 months of the year we were able to get to advertisers. An advertiser knows that there is content throughout the year and whatever campaign they want to put in place is not dependent on a 40-50 day event… An advertiser can even segment it on the basis of the viewership profile.
The change in ownership will lead to a brand change at some point. Do you fear losing brand recall among viewers?
The consumers want content…and we have the content that consumers relate to and are emotionally connected with, which is what we will get. The brand is a medium, it’s immaterial what it’s called. It is the content that matters.
When will the brand change happen?
We are just starting the whole process. The transaction has just been completed so we are now going to start looking at our business plan and strategies.