Losing IPL hurts, but we can get it back in 5 years: Sony’s Rohit Gupta

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With FIFA World Cup, India’s tour of England and the forthcoming Asian Games to be followed by Indian Cricket team’s tour of Australia, Sony Sports Cluster is the television destination for the sports lovers in the country. One of the two largest sports broadcast networks in the country is reaping rich harvest from its premium sports properties in terms of viewership ratings and ad sales.

The Sony Sports Cluster channels are heading the sports genre top five charts in Broadcast Audience Research Council viewership ratings. And there is a virtual “no stock” tag on the advertisement sales inventory for the FIFA World Cup 2018 and India’s two limited-overs series in England. The official and exclusive broadcaster for the FIFA World Cup in the Indian sub-continent, according to reliable sources, has reached its ₹250 crore goal for the World Cup ad sales.

Amidst these happier times, the broadcaster still feels the vacuum created by the loss of the Indian Premier League media rights. The channel though has strengthened its cricket portfolio with the acquisition of some top cricket boards, but losing the IPL still hurts. There is an optimism to get back the precious sports broadcast property that Sony has built season on season.

In an exclusive interview with InsideSport.co, Sony Picture Network, President, Network Sales and International Business, Rohit Gupta candidly talked on a number of subjects ranging from Sony sport’s philosophy to the FIFA World Cup and cricket business. Here are the excerpts:

InsideSport: India’s tour of England is one of the top sports acquisitions for the Sony Pictures Network over the next four-year cycle. What are your expectations from this full tour of England and how is the initial response?

Rohit Gupta: It has done extremely well. The England series is always very important from the cricketing and viewership point of view. The timings are also perfect for the Indian television audience. It is one of the best overseas tours for Indian cricket team. Everybody waits for this series for the reason that the conditions in England are very different and there is always anxiety about India’s performance under those conditions.

Even when India has done very well at home for long, the England series is an interesting testing time. There is a lot of spectators and hence the advertiser interest. We were fully sold out even before the start of the series. There is no inventory left even for the One-Day Internationals to come next. We have got a great response from advertisers. There are five co-presenting sponsors and eight co-sponsors on board for the T20I and the ODI series. All spots are sold out, too. We in principle don’t disclose numbers, but I can confirm that we have exceeded our set goals.

There is still a month left for the Test series to start, but 70% to 75% of the Test inventory is already sold out with the complete tour packages. Most of the brands are on board with us for all the three formats. Any Test series in England remains among the highest valued broadcast property.

IS: You were said to be targeting around ₹250 crore from the FIFA World Cup 2018 ad sales? How close or far are you from your World Cup commercial goals?

RG: I as a policy matter cannot reveal the numbers.  But, yes we have met our targets for both television and digital. The response for the World Cup this time has been unprecedented in terms of audience and ad sales. We have not seen such a big (FIFA) World Cup in India from the television perspective. Even newspapers are dedicating up to four pages for the World Cup, which is something unprecedented.

IS: Even TV ratings for the first week of the World Cup broadcast will strengthen your claims.

RG: Ratings is one aspect. The World Cup sentiment is there in the air. You go out and you will come across various activations and fan parks. The news coverage across all mediums and discussion among the sports lovers have left everything else behind.

IS: Is Sony expecting any premium after the unprecedented TV ratings for the first week of World Cup action?

RG: It is a very good feeling for us as the exclusive broadcaster for the World Cup in India. However, on the commercial front, it will make no difference as our entire inventory is sold out. Even an increase in demand will make no difference now. With cricket (the England series) and the World Cup, we have been dominating the sports broadcast for three months – June, July and August.

IS: Sony is credited with creating the Indian Premier League as the commercial property for television. IPL would cover a major part of your annual sports business targets. Now, you have numerous assets to monetise all through the year – series on series, month on month and event on event basis. How is the transition from one big asset to numerous properties spread across the year?

RG: This a great experience to own multiple sports properties. That was the reason we acquired Ten Sports. We have a firm belief that the future of Indian television broadcast industry lies in sports. The other genres – be it movie or GEG – have reached a saturation point. Globally, the sports will be the biggest driver for television over the next five years.

Today, in India 30% to 35% TV viewership on sports is coming from the non-cricket properties. There is an increasing trend for consumption of these other sports. Say three to four years back it was 90% cricket and the other sports will contribute a mere 10% of the total TV audience. In the next five years, sports is going to be the driver for any broadcaster and this was the core factor behind our investment in Ten Sports. We will continue to invest in key marque properties because that is where the future lies.

Advertisers are now willing to pay ₹5 lakh for a 10-second ad slot on football, even cricket won’t get you this kind of deals until a few years ago.

IS: Asian Games start in a month’s time. What is your sales pitch for the Asiad and how is the business shaping up from ad sales perspective?

RG: Asian Games are doing good because India traditionally does very well in the Asiad. Wherever Indian athletes perform well the properties do well for the broadcasters. Unfortunately, India’s success rate at the Olympics is not that good so it does not do that well for us.

IS: What is Sony’s overall philosophy for the Sony Sports Cluster?

RG: For us, sports is a business of nurturing and developing key properties. We invest in the properties which do well in India. You have to see what works in India and invest in those properties! For us it is not only about cricket. We have been investing in football for the last so many years. We have a number of global football leagues with us. We have been developing a non-cricket sports portfolio very successfully and we will continue to do that. Sports is going to be the differentiator between the broadcasters in the future.

IS: Will you be looking at any new sporting discipline?

RG: In sports, we have got a very good portfolio. We have cricket, we have multi-discipline events of global magnitude, we have tennis then there is a complete portfolio of contact sports, including the WWE and TNA. We will continue to strengthen this base.

IS: Back to IPL, you have nurtured this league over the years as your baby. Now you are seeing it from the sidelines as someone else’s asset. What was that first feeling on losing the IPL?

RG: IPL going away from us was an obvious bad feeling. Losing it hurts. But then you have to move on. We tried our best but we did not get it. But yes we do feel bad to see it growing because it is a property which we have created. Hopefully, we will get it back in five years.

IS: You have put FIFA World Cup on four regional channels. Star experimented with multiple regional feeds during IPL. Is regional going to be the key aspect of sports broadcast?

RG: Regional market is becoming big as this audience add on to your overall numbers. It is becoming very important to the sports broadcast strategy. The regional audience have been showing a strong appetite for sports content.

IS: You have numerous international cricket boards in your kitty. But does it hurt to miss the BCCI, which is the most important from a sports broadcasters perspective in India?

RG: Not really. We still have two to three big cricket series every year. So it is fairly good for us.