Despite last month's controversies, Manjit Singh, CEO of MSM India - which owns the Sony channels, Sab, Max and others - does not see the popularity of the Indian Premier League fading. Set Max and Sony Six broadcast the IPL. "Controversies may come and go, but I don't see the interest in IPL dipping," he says. However when it comes buying rights for Sony Six, which was launched recently, he does not want any other cricket tournaments, preferring alternative sports. Edited excerpts from an interview with Ajita Shashidhar:
Q: Why a sports channel?
A: The only thing you are sure the audience will watch on TV is live sports. People are okay watching TV soaps on their tablets or even mobiles. But when it comes to sports, they may go to their mobile devices to check the score, but if they want to watch the full match, TV is the obvious choice. Therefore, it is necessary for every network to have its sports capabilities in place.
Q: When did you realise the need for a dedicated sports channel?
A: We have been debating about it ever since we won the IPL rights. But at the time investing in league cricket was a huge risk. We had taken a huge chance and we could have missed. But when the fast form of cricket looked promising, we were wondering if we needed to have a separate channel just for the IPL. However, we realised that there was a huge gap for new sports, and that there was a market for a channel which was much more than just IPL. Instead of launching a channel right away, we decided to first acquire rights to certain sports properties before announcing the channel.
Q: But cricket is the only sport that works in India. Why other sports?
A: You are right that cricket is religion in India, but Indian youth is moving away from cricket too. The number of youth wearing a Manchester United jersey or an NBA jersey is on the rise. India is definitely ready for new sports. The ratings for ODI and Test matches are very low, even advertiser interest is dying out. The IPL has shown us that Indians are looking at the fast form of the game. We have seen success in the coming together of entertainment and sports. Despite all the controversies around IPL, we were completely sold out this time. Even those sponsors who decided not to invest in IPL last year came back this year. In fact, with IPL we have succeeded in getting women to watch cricket. You know that cricket has always been a male-centric sport. This year 75.2 million women viewers watched IPL.
We looked carefully at the fastest sports that young India is looking towards, and then decided to invest in football and basketball. (Sony Six has rights to UEFA tournaments such as UEFA EURO 2016, qualifiers of the UEFA EURO 2016 and European Qualifiers for FIFA 2018. It also has the broadcast rights for NBA till 2015). By giving Indians alternative sports to watch, we also hope to see them playing these sports and bringing glory to the country. The NBA, as you know, is working with schools in India to promote basketball. We are working with them to organise a school and college level tournament. The event will culminate with the finals where we plan to get NBA stars to play with the finalist team. We also rope in film stars to promote the event in order to build the entertainment quotient.
Q: But the fact remains that sports other than cricket don't attract eyeballs. How do you plan to monetize?
A: We are taking a long term view. We want to invest in building sports in India. Promoting sports will definitely be a challenge initially, but once UEFA gets as popular as IPL, it won't be a challenge. We are looking at a five to seven year time frame to make money. I agree betting on other sports is risky, but I have paid far less to acquire those rights than what the competition has paid for cricket. To that extent my risks are much lower.
Q: How do you plan to build interest around UEFA or NBA?
A: We will blend entertainment with sports, just as we have done with the IPL. We will do back stories on the players. To get the viewers to connect with the sport, we will have to get them to see their heroes and also tell them how they got there.
Q: Broadcasters have tried doing alternative sports in the past, but it hasn't worked.
A: They didn't package the sport properly. Most of them merely tried to put a new sport on TV and hoped for the best. If you put a new sport, you also need to educate the viewer about it. We are doing programmes which will explain the rules of basketball and football.
Q: How much will sports contribute to your overall revenues?
A: I see it contributing around 20 to 25 per cent of our overall business. This will be in addition to IPL which contributes a happy percentage to MSM's revenues.