India’s mobile VAS (value added services) businesses made a lot of money in the days before 3G, because it acknowledged a basic truth about Bharat. ABCD is what Bharat wants.
No, I’m not talking about English education or NRIs. I’m talking about Astrology, Bollywood, Cricket and Devotional content. These are Bharat’s abiding passions, and any well-crafted offering in these sectors will always sell. And today, I want to talk about Cricket, and specifically a key element of the cricket viewing experience—commentary.
If cricket is our religion and Sachin our God, then commentators are the high priests of the game.
They chant the hymns of runs, and bhajans (devotional songs) of wickets. The footsteps of the bowler charging in, the roar of the crowd anticipating a ball, the sweet sound of willow on leather—this is our music. And commentary is the lyrics.
At least, that is how it’s supposed to be. And in the eras of Richie Benaud, Geoff Boycott, Harsha Bhogle and Tony Greig, that’s the way it was.
It wasn’t perfect though. The song of cricket was sung exclusively in English—the language of our former colonial masters. As if that wasn’t bad enough, in recent years we’ve somehow managed to add insult to injury. Nepotism, sycophancy and political correctness have robbed us of even competent English commentary. We’re now subjected to the tone-deaf, self-serving, cliched, Kafka-esque hell of Messrs Ravi Shastri, Sunil Gavaskar, Sanjay Manjrekar and Arun Lal. And it’s been so for far too long. But it doesn’t have to be so.
As live-streaming platforms like Facebook Live, Twitch and Periscope have demonstrated, it’s now technically possible to put the power of commentary in the hands of fans. Maybe it’s now time for crowdsourced cricket commentary. After all, in every galli of Bharat, there exists at least one expert who can expound on the game in their own unique way. And the best part is that the commentary can now be in their mother tongue. Just imagine, live commentary in Tamil, Assamese, Bengali, Telugu, Punjabi, Santhali, you name it. Commentary by grandfathers who will speak of how Pujara’s cover drive will never equal Vengsarkar’s grace. Commentary by teenage girls, who will annihilate stereotypes with searing insights. Commentary by our mothers who in all likelihood will know more about the game than we do.
Commentary by you and me, for you and me, in our mother tongues. A few friends and I were so excited about this idea that we actually went ahead and built it for our own amusement. We called it ShortPitch, and tried it out during the IPL and a few other matches. During this test period, we learnt a few things about commentary and content platforms.
The first thing I learnt from my many hours behind the microphone was that commentary is much harder than it looks. Even if you have the gift of the gab, talking non-stop for hours on end while being entertaining is a non-trivial task. This is why commentators switch out every 45 minutes on TV broadcasts.
Therefore, in order for this to work in a crowdsourced context, commentators must be able to “dial-in" their other friends, who also commentate, by adding them to a live stream. Alternatively, the platform should do a good job of dynamically switching to another live stream whenever a broadcaster drops off, so as to maintain continuity.
The second thing we learnt was that there is more than enough demand, as evidenced by the fact that I regularly had more than a hundred listeners, often across four continents. This, despite the fact that we had done zero marketing. All we ever did was tweet out the link or share it on Facebook. We didn’t even use aggressive broadcast tactics on WhatsApp.
If we’d spent just a few hundred rupees per game, there’s enough evidence to believe attracting thousands of listeners wouldn’t have been a challenge.
Finally, the most important thing we learnt was that there needs to be a financial incentive to attract committed content creators of a certain quality. This ties in to the monetization aspect of the business. Such a platform could be very well suited for both banner ads in-app and audio ads spliced into the stream in between overs much like a radio broadcast. The advertising market in this space is always looking for targeted low-cost high-engagement options, and a local language cricket audio-stream is great for all of the above. Revenues from this can be shared with the commentator after deducting platform commissions, thus encouraging them to return. Another monetization aspect could be tiny, sachet-size user donations. After all, every rupee counts, and Chinese platforms like QQ have shown features such as virtual gift sending and tipping, can become significant revenue sources for live streaming platforms.
The business aspect aside, I find myself regularly dreaming about this product operating simply because I wanted to listen to cricket in Konkani. To me, commentary is one of the best parts of sport. It’s about voicing your opinions, passions, and beliefs. And that is not just a business but a democratic value. One that grandiosely asserts that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.
Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a weekly column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid.