As football frenzy reaches fever pitch with all eyes on the final battle on Sunday, the sport is scoring a big win on screens in India. The numbers suggest that the yawning viewership gap between cricket and other sports is finally narrowing. But are media planners and advertisers buying in?

First the numbers: According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council, with Hero Intercontinental Cup & FIFA 2018, TV viewership contribution of soccer to the total sports genre in India has shot up, from a mere 5 per cent to 46 per cent, in the last couple of weeks.

In 58 matches so far, FIFA world Cup grabbed 150.7 million impressions on TV screens here and 42 million viewers streamed it on Sony Liv app and website. A whopping 42 per cent of TV viewership came from rural India.

Some big goals

A buoyant Rohit Gupta, president, Sony Pictures Networks (SPN), says that the ad inventory for FIFA World Cup is sold out and the rates have steadily climbed. From ₹4.5 lakh for 10 seconds in the knock-out rounds, the channel is now commanding ₹8 lakh for 10 seconds in the final stages.

Uday Sodhi, Business Head for Digital, says advertiser responser on the digital platform has been encouraging. “Leading brands like Patanjali, Uber, Cadbury, AMFI, Swiggy, Nivea, USL and an additional 8-10 brands have advertised on SonyLIV. Besides this, brands like Idea, Axis Bank, Ganna and Ixigo have offered attractive benefits to their users to buy SonyLIV subscriptions,” he says.

This time around, a few factors have helped — the timing of the games in Russia. Plus, “the surround support is very high,” says Gupta. Most print media have had four pages of FIFA coverage, while IPL, India’s biggest sporting property, only gets two. Apart from higher ratings, the conversations around football have been intense, says Gupta. Plus, expanding the coverage to regional offerings has helped.


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“Our regional offerings (Hindi + Bengali + Malayalam + Tamil + Telugu) have contributed to 47 per cent of the overall viewership so far,” says Rajesh Kaul, Chief Revenue Officer, Distribution and Head, Sports, of SPN.

So, is the gap narrowing between cricket and other sports in India? The data seems to support that. In 2017, 706 million viewers turned on their TV sets to watch cricket, 497 million to watch Kabaddi, 441 million for Wrestling and 439 million for Soccer. However, if you add digital media viewership, then football is a clear number two sport in India. Kabaddi is watched mainly on television, but football is scoring on mobile and laptop screens as well.

Interestingly, deterrents like non-participation of India is not fazing broadcasters like Sony. Gupta talks of how big a driver sports has become for broadcasters and it is the reason behind SPN’s acquisition of Ten Sports. Traditional wisdom is that when the Indian flag is in the fray, there is heightened viewer interest in the country. Witness the rise in viewership of badminton, table tennis, wrestling and hockey. However, FIFA 2018 has defied that pattern.

Sodhi says non-participation of India does not affect viewership on digital platforms. Innovations like the ones being done by SPN for FIFA 2018 have also helped hook viewers to the second screen. It introduced an integration with Facebook AR (augmented reality) studio to launch a unique second screen experience for viewers.

Users could select the ‘Doosri country’ they were supporting and the Facebook camera would scan their face and paint the selected country flag over the picture. “More than 25 million people engaged in some way or other with these additional engagements on SonyLIV,” says Sodhi.

Cricket pulls in moolah

Yet talk to advertisers and the enthusiasm is still for cricket. The relative share of money spent has gone up on cricket, notes Ashish Bhasin, chairman and CEO, South Asia, of Dentsu Aegis Network, pointing to the phenomenal amounts (₹16,347 crore) that Star shelled out for five-year global media rights for IPL, nearly double of what Sony had earlier paid for 10-year IPL rights. “Nobody has lost money on cricket yet,” he says, expressing confidence that Star will recover its investment.

He says on IPL, India’s biggest sporting property, you pay a lot of money, and you are rewarded with a lot of reach. For any brand looking for quick impact and universal appreciation, IPL remains the single biggest television property in India, says Bhasin.

Brand strategist and media planning consultant Gopinath Menon agrees. For tactical advertising, football may be great, but for strategic advertising, it’s cricket all the way, he says. “For instance, I am yet to see a single brand get launched on football or other sporting properties while many do on cricket,” he explains. Also, he says, football and other sports have limited time and periodicity, while on cricket a brand can do sustained campaigns. It’s really an Apples and Oranges comparison as soccer is just a 90-minute game, he says. In addition, FIFA coverage comes with strict advertising guidelines, so there are only that many slots that Sony can sell.

However, Indranil Blah, Founding Partner, Kwan Entertainment and Marketing Solutions, feels that many brands are looking for aspirational appeal and football is a good property for them.

“If a brand is interested in urban youth age group 17 to 35, with minimum spillover, it works,” he says. “It’s certainly cheaper than cricket,” points out Menon. IPL rates, on paper, were ₹10 lakh for 10 seconds though advertisers manage to get good deals.

While Sony has, through some aggressive and innovative marketing, increased the viewership reach of football, the advertisers’ favourite still appears to be cricket. “Bollywood and cricket give advertisers what they hope for,” says Blah, adding that while Bollywood works well in the North and West, a property like IPL covers the length and breadth of the country. “Cricket is universal in India,” sums up Bhasin. And now the universe has expanded to include male, female, urban, rural, in all age groups.

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