Unfazed by reports of television rating dips and erosion of brand value, Sundar Raman , chief executive officer of the Indian Premier League (IPL), speaks in an interview about plans to expand the reach of the Twenty20 cricket tournament. Edited excerpts:
Over the last five seasons, we have seen some amount of rationalization in terms of ratings. How do you meet that challenge?
From the inaugural season of IPL, the absolute audience watching IPL has grown by 68%. That is substantial. From 100 million in season one to 168 million last year, 68% growth over a five-year period, in a day when fragmentation is increasing. Close to 2.5 billion eyeballs are delivered through IPL every year. Compare this to the English Premier League, which delivers close to 4.5 billion eyeballs over an eight-month period across the world. People keep talking about ratings, which is a combination of a few things on how it is measured. Let’s look at it objectively—last year, 45 days of the 49 days it was played, IPL was the most-watched programme on Indian television. I would very much doubt if there is any other league in the world which can stand up to this level of scrutiny, in terms of the numbers they deliver. Sure, there is stabilization that is happening. Having said that, people are also getting attuned to their support, loyalty (to the teams), that is slowly building. That is as critical to the growth of the IPL and the franchises in the long term as it is for the league itself. The last numbers I have from our digital partners show in excess of 40% growth in the online space, for this edition of IPL on the first three matches, which is substantial. So to me, the directions are right.
Any concrete steps to expand that reach?
It’s happening at various levels. One, our broadcasters themselves have now three channels showing IPL. You have Sony Max that shows it in English, on Sony Six there is the Hindi feed, which is unique, which is delivering to a newer audience. Up till now, it has been a viewing sport and not so much a listening sport as the commentary has been in English. With the Hindi feed, we are opening a new chapter, getting newer viewers into the fold, making it far more compelling than it used to be. From the perspective of playing the sport, IPL is being played in newer venues. Ranchi, for instance, has a fantastic stadium and huge demand for sport there. Also, we have a new stadium in Chhattisgarh—Raipur, which is hosting the first game of this nature and stature, in terms of scale. So IPL is going to more and more cities than it has in the past. Our partners are also engaged very strongly, Pepsi has launched a fan can, and the Pepsi IPL promo is going to be on 12 crore bottles and packs—that is a substantial number. If we are able to convert those people who are fans of the game to fans of the brand and vice versa, we would certainly have reached more people.
What were the key areas that needed improvement?
Clearly, over the years, the fan experience is something we have focused on. From a television standpoint, our brief is to take the viewer closest to the game. If you look at production, you can hear the players, the umpires, far better angles, statistics and graphics. Also you will see more fan pictures on TV, the way they dress, the way they support their teams, which encourages others to do more. The franchises are improving the fan experience at a ground level pretty dramatically. Our stadiums cater to a large number of fans, but there is a bigger opportunity in terms of improving the hospitality experience and merchandising experience. And that will take time. Directionally we are there, but infrastructurally it will take time to operationalize this level of experience for fans.
Do you think controversies have eroded IPL’s brand value? Research from some firms seems to suggest it has.
Our objective, at least for the management team, our focus is to run the IPL tournament in as efficient a manner and as effective in terms of delivering to the client, to the franchises and the sponsors and including all our stakeholders, including rights holders.
The measurement of (brand) value doesn’t bear any weight on IPL at a central level. Lots of agencies keep doing lots of studies and it’s not something we lose sleep over. Every league goes through a fair bit of ups and downs and we take all in our stride.
T20 as a format is all about fast and furious scores. We haven’t really seen any big scores in the first few days of this season. Are you concerned?
To my mind the T20 format is the low-hanging fruit which most sports fans and non-cricket fans would take up. What makes it interesting is the unpredictability of the game itself. There are no favourites. People come and watch a game because of the unpredictability and close finish. We are five games down and (there are) 71 more to go. So (one) can’t say average scores are lower looking at a five-game sample. The games so far have been extremely close, which is great cricket. If it’s a high-scoring last-over game, that is fantastic. If it’s a low-scoring, last-over game, that is also fantastic. People are there to enjoy a close finish and the unpredictability factor. The scores are only a measure of the intensity of competition on the field of play.
The last time you had seven on-ground sponsors, and this time the number has fallen. Comment.
We’ve got Pepsi as the title sponsor, Vodafone, which is a continuing partner from previous editions, we have Yes Bank, which has come on board, we have USL as official partner for umpires, and we have Star India. Revenues are secondary, we will not sell to close slots. We will hold prices. Even in the first edition, we started off with DLF, Hero Honda, Citibank and Vodafone. Volkswagen and Karbonn came in two years later in 2010. So we believe in holding the value of the event and we want to attract people who are committed to IPL and have the ability to partner with us at the level we want.
You have been very aggressive about protecting your sponsors’ interest. And yet, here you have Star India, competitor to your rights holder Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd, coming on board as an associate sponsor. Comment.
Star India is an official partner. They are advertising in IPL as a ground sponsor. To me, that is a statement or acknowledgement of the audience-pulling effort for a tournament like the IPL. Here you have India’s largest broadcaster coming and partnering in an event which is on Sony. Sony is delighted from a standpoint that Star is advertising on a platform that is on their channel. And Star sees value in this particular partnership because it is reaching an audience that they are possibly not reaching. It will help grow the game and help grow cricket at a larger level. To us it’s the best of both worlds. By the same count, nothing stops Sony from advertising on cricket being played out on Star Cricket.
How has the Fantasy League (a virtual game that allows fans to choose their owns teams ) done so far?
Fantasy League (FL) has been in existence for a while and we’ve waited for the right time to launch it and get it right. The objective of the FL is to give fans another handle for their social interaction and building their discussion points with their friends and groups. We’ve already had close to 11 million page views on the FL and it’s only the first four days. The average time spent on FL is close to 15 minutes, which increases the level (of) interactivity they have with the sport. What it also does, as a fan, is makes me follow not just players on my team, but also other teams. So, while polarization and support for teams is important, getting viewers to follow all the matches is as important.