It’s been a great decade for sports in India. Excellent performances at world events with newer, more engaging formats across different disciplines. Growing grassroots focus and an exciting pipeline of talent have all brought Indian sports out of the shadow of being a slow, largely government-funded sector. Success attracts money, as they say, and the Indian sports ecosystem today boasts of world-class infrastructure, a high number of start-ups, rapid growth in sponsorships, as well as large investments in franchises, coaching and distribution.
Importantly, sport has managed to capture the imagination of the Indian spectator. Indian sports events touched 46 billion impressions on TV in 2018, a 7% rise in viewership in just one year, on the back of robust 2-digit growth in the preceding few years. And what is perhaps better news is that this growth has been secular across various formats, with cricket, football, Kabaddi and wrestling leagues taking the top 4 spots in viewership. Digital streaming platforms are adding another rapidly growing slice of sports viewership to the mix.
But like it is with any industry experiencing a rapid influx of money, there is an urgent need to deepen the market. With traditional and non-traditional distribution channels getting set for hyper competition, preferred sports formats may soon be at risk of being over extended, and newer leagues or formats may not get a good enough chance to establish themselves. Businesses in the Indian sport ecosystem are already working to address this challenge, and more often than not, are using the internet as a power tool to broaden their reach and spark newer connections. Here is a quick roundup of why the internet is at the centre of these strategies.
The Newer Segments
The strong rise of women’s sports, and the phenomenal growth in regional audience are two of the most hopeful trends when it comes to growing the pie for Indian sport. And the internet has played a key role in pushing the needle on reach and engagement in both.
As per Sports Flashes, an internet-based sports content company offering radio, digital streaming and app-based services in 7 regional Indian languages, by December 2018 alone, their content reach had expanded to 45 million spectators across India, making it today the world’s first ranking sports online radio in terms of reach. Online media has played a huge role in running several narratives highlighting the successes of women athletes, and Mithali Raj, the Indian cricket team captain during the women’s ICC World Cup 2017 has, on several occasions, credited social media for the rise in popularity of women’s cricket. – Indian Sports – Internet
The Second Screen Effect
Somewhere at the start of this decade, the media industry noticed that people were not using one screen at a time any more. If they were watching a movie, they were likely reading up about the characters or actors at the same time. If they were watching a sport, they were researching teams, players, venues. With social media and digital streaming platforms, this phenomenon has only intensified: over 80% TV or mobile viewers, and over 60% of stadium spectators are on social media while watching a game live.
This has opened up many different ways of engaging with sports spectators while the game is still going on, including anecdotal commentary, regional language updates, memes, pop-quizzes, contests and more. Content and app creators are also looking to engage a wider audience by designing focused engagements for different demographics during the game. Finally, there is usually a trail to such interactions that lasts for a few days after the game itself, helping prolong and enrich the experience for spectators.
The Cult of the Sports Star
Probably the best understood and explored use of the internet has been its potential in creating brands out of the better known sports stars or franchises. Social media feeds, personalised websites and interactive apps that deliver updates on a sportsperson’s or team’s life off the field, training schedules, nutrition, and injuries are all grist to the mill, ensuring that millions of followers stay tuned into a sport even when there is no game on the horizon.
But this is not all. Personalised engagement online is a long-tail feature, and for every established sports star with legions of followers, there are hundreds of new or amateur athletes who are using the internet to procure sponsorships, deals, and a fan following. The struggle to achieve and win is a strong part of sport’s universal appeal, and people can, and do, connect with athlete’s stories, and invest in their success. I am sure we all remember how Sunil Chhetri’s online appeal, asking people to come and support them as they played Kenya in the Intercontinental Cup in Mumbai, led to a sold out stadium, despite heavy rains.
Encouraging Amateur/Recreational Sports
One of the weaknesses pointed out in Indian spectatorship is that we tend to view every sport as entertainment. We have limited interest in the nuances of a game, and thus, the focus is only on winning and performing teams. The sub culture of health and fitness, wherein Indians are now looking for avenues to play sports rather than just be spectators, has the potential to change this and create a more mature sensibility towards sport in the country.
We are already seeing strong growth in demand for playing fields and turfs for cricket and football around the country as well as a rise in local tournaments, but this is still largely unorganised and people find it difficult to find other enthusiasts or focus groups to train with, or even information on events where they can participate.
Creating a more organised space for this online can be a great opportunity for franchise owners, distribution businesses or even sports personalities, helping them deepen engagement with a more steadfast and technically aware sports spectator group. It can also possibly create a second rung of amateur influencers who can further evangelise the sport.
Author of this article, Nikhil Arora is the Vice-President and Managing Director, GoDaddy India, leading Internet domain registrar and web hosting company.