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Storyboard18 x Just Sports | Some sports have all the luck

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Storyboard18 x Just Sports | Some sports have all the luck

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Live Sports will determine the course of how mankind consumes content on screens. It will also be a matter of survival for sports to move towards adaptive evolution. Why are some sports adored across the globe whilst others are withering away? What role does the partnership of federation, broadcaster, marketer and fans play? Shubhranshu Singh writes with the cumulative experience of an experienced sports marketer, administrator and sponsor.

Storyboard18 x Just Sports | Some sports have all the luck
Between 2015 and 2018, I ran 5 seasons of Pro Kabaddi. It had become the number 2 sport on television in India right after the very first season. Yet - all this while - I was also marketing cricket in every avatar – domestic, team India and multilateral ICC tournaments and in every format viz: test series, ODI and T20 events. I viewed sports from a marketer and broadcaster’s perspective which is the key to commercialisation.
I serve as the chairperson for the sports development and promotion committee of the Lawn Bowls Federation in India. It is a commonwealth medal sport with a storied history patronised by aristocracy and royalty in Britain and across the commonwealth. It is aiming to grow in popularity via the setting up of rudimentary infrastructure and getting people to play and watch.
In 2018-19, I served as pro bono advisor to the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, Government of India. This association came about as I had earlier developed the plan and launch for Khelo India, a marquee initiative of the government which has now become successfully institutionalised.
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My exposure to sports as a fan, marketer, broadcaster, sponsor and administrator has made me aware of the dynamics of sports adoption, growth and fan following but I am still looking to understand why some sports flourish while others do not.
Mortal Combat
Dozens of sports are struggling with commercial viability whilst a few are richer than the richest banks. The globalisation of most sports continues unabated. This trend is aided by technology which makes 24/7 sports audiences a reality. Successful sports make for a short list. Football, Basketball, Cricket, Rugby, American Football, Motorsport, Tennis, and Cycling are on it. There are challenges in commercial success for one and all.
Everywhere, revenues are flowing in with increasing viscosity. Attention spans are smaller and viewer engagement is shrinking. Aggregated minutes of live sports viewership has declined at a yearly rate of 3-5% worldwide, despite supply and screens multiplying manifold. It appears people are consuming content on toothpicks, not in laden plates.
Understandably, there is mortal combat between sports for advertising revenues, fan attention and growth of followership. Sports earn at least $100 billion in content consumption worldwide. Historically it was linear TV that thrived on sports and vice versa. That effervescence of live sports is still much valued by fans. Sitting with friends in front of a large screen is the next best to screaming your lungs out with them at a stadium.
In America, ESPN has more than 90% penetration into more than 50% of households who are regular consumers of sports content. Netflix has eroded pay-tv viewership in General Entertainment Content (GEC) but not live sporting broadcasts. The 80/20 law applies with its full force here. The National Football League in America will be instrumental in charting the future of entertainment on the internet.
The future of Television corporations may be largely determined from where Americans will watch football games in coming years. Only by retaining football viewers can television companies thrive in the digital age by preventing TV viewership from shrinking too quickly and to support their future in streaming.
The entertainment companies that have must-watch programming will be the ones that make the transition to streaming. Till now, the internet hasn’t transformed the way sports is broadcast. But innovations have become noted. The NBA enriches it via pop up statistics in games and gives viewers choices in camera angles.
In general entertainment, there are two basic paths for online video, namely with stuff that regular people make — on TikTok, Facebook and YouTube. Or like Netflix and the streaming video services from the big television entertainment companies with high cost, old-style programming. That is not possible in sports where access is based on winning rights. After that content can be screen agnostic.
Everyone can learn from football
Football is the most successful sport in the world. Its revenues, following, and clout are unmatched. At $45 billion a year its revenues are roughly 2x that of American football, 5x of basketball and 20x of cricket. The last FIFA women’s World Cup for women was watched by over a billion viewers. FIFA rules across the globe and the coherence and strategic clarity comes through at the ground level. Everyone can learn from football.
To be successful a sport must bear meaning. When I took Kabaddi to Indian TV, the intention was to make it synonymous with Indian pride for young Indians. Every aspect from the branding, visual presentation, language, rituals, connection and celebrity linkage was thought out with this in mind. It worked. I was putting 200 years of colonial legacy upside down. Until then, sports had meant western imports.
After that Kabaddi stood for ‘Desi Cool’. Sports must adapt to modern viewing habits, not the other way around. Kabaddi arrived on the social scene as something new and aspirational but rooted and ancient. Growing a sport needs an easy-to-understand language, clear relational context and iconic heroes who spring up from the soil. Growth then demands expansion into newer markets.
Proudly desi sport
Here, I must give Cricket its due. Despite its limited global footprint, it has emerged stronger via a power-packed TV reincarnation. T20 is just what the doctors ordered. IPL is its best version. At three hours of end-to-end run time compared with eight hours for OD cricket or up to five days for Test matches, T20 was bound to become the rage it did.
Rugby sevens, in which matches consist of two halves lasting seven minutes, compared with the usual 40 minutes, featured in the 2016 Olympic games for the first time. Three-a-side basketball, in which games last ten minutes as opposed to 48 minutes for NBA matches, featured at the Olympics. This 3x3 basketball is a variation of basketball played three-a-side, with one backboard and in a half-court setup.
Cricket is unshakeable in India. It is – for all intents and purposes – an Indian sport. Its reinvention has made it proudly Desi. The Indian Premier League is by far the fastest-growing major league of any sport in the world. The next rights cycle bid process is currently on and, I predict, we shall see a never heard before the eye-popping number.
Indian money runs world cricket but, amongst world sports, cricket is unusual in relying so heavily on one market for sustenance. Other sports have grown apace across countries. Basketball has 32 teams competing in the men’s World Cup. Rugby’s cup has 24 teams vying for it. Football is at the top with 48 teams in the FIFA World Cup for men. Rugby took its world cup to Japan. Basketball’s World Cup got slated for Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines. The ICC ODI Cricket World Cup scarcely ever goes to expansion worthy geographies.
The success of Basketball in China is often attributed to one man. A tall man. Yao Ming became the first Chinese player to be the top pick in the NBA draft, two decades ago.
NBA’s physical expansion in China was fuelled by Yao’s popularity. There are now 600,000 basketball courts in China. The NBA has three academies in China, besides one each in Australia, Mexico, India and Senegal.
Even the most conservative of sports bodies such as the venerable International Olympic Committee (IOC) is responding to change, even embracing it. Rock climbing, skateboarding, surfing and karate made a much-noticed debut at the last Tokyo summer Olympics.
The IOC knows its commercial success depends on getting and keeping a younger crowd. Shooting, fencing, water polo or weightlifting may not be youth crowd pullers. Hence, the expansion is well aimed. The new sports alone created 54 medallists. In addition, baseball and softball made a comeback aimed at popularity in both the US and Japan.
The new sports are admitted in competitive formats that make them interest worthy, even riveting. For example, climbers do bouldering, lead climbing and speed climbing. The last has been an innovation to emphasise the edge and athleticism. It makes for gripping, suspenseful screen content.
Even outside medal events or formal sports, there is evolution. Take base jumping — the sport in which you leap from a fixed object, like a bridge or a cliff all the while piloting yourself at speeds of 100 m.p.h. or more before pulling a parachute. Fightball is a combative take on one-on-one street basketball. It repurposes it with more physicality for the unregulated intensity for the Instagram era.
Not all innovations are adrenalin-charged or high contact. There is (Cup) Stacking which is evolving into a fast-growing sport and part of the physical education curriculum at thousands of American schools. More than two dozen nations will field teams at the world championships, and stacking is growing fastest in Asia. Think of it - why should stacking cups be any less important than putting a ball in a hole, through a hoop or into a net?
It is not unreasonable to apply a lifecycle framework to a sport. The world is moving away from a purely western sensibility to sports and cross-pollination is happening as much in sport as in fashion or cuisine with the caveat that, for sport, it takes more time to strike root and grow. I am not going to get into the magic and might of e-sports as it deserves a separate piece.
Look at it anyway, India will become the world’s leading market for sport in the next 2 decades by volumetric criteria. It will be a top 3 market by value.
Play on.
Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.
Note to readers: Storyboard18’s new Month In Focus initiative spotlights themes and topics that are pushing marketers to reshape and rethink how brands interact with today’s customers. Our first theme is Just Sports, a special spotlight on sports marketing presented by Sports18. We bring to you stories of how marketers are harnessing the power of technology, innovation and creativity in sports to create powerful storytelling in campaigns that increase affinity and loyalty with audiences. From traditional sports platforms around cricket to emerging games and the rise of esports, we get leading voices from the marketing and sports worlds to give us sharp and fast insights into future-facing marketing practices. Also, tune in for analyses which will surface ideas and strategies that are helping brands to level up experiences and storytelling with authentic collaborations. So watch this space for Just Sports.
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