This Saturday, millions of cricket fans will be glued to their television sets and smartphones to catch the start of the much-delayed Indian Premier League’s opening Twenty20 match. Or so hopes Walt Disney-owned Star TV which has spent the past several months, and piles of money, to prepare to broadcast the country’s hottest sporting event in what is once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
The popular franchise-based Indian Twenty20 league, which was delayed from its original start in India in March due to Covid-19, will now kick-off in the United Arab Emirates from Sept. 19.
Star, which has the global broadcast and digital rights for the world’s richest premier league, has a unique challenge on its hands this season. While over the years it’s no doubt perfected the art, and science, of capturing a player’s perfect shot or the anguish at dropping what would have been an easy catch, it has to do all that this time around in a socially distanced and safe manner, day in and day out. And this extends to the field, in the production rooms, the hotels, the elevators and it has to ensure that the strict protocol it has developed is followed by all round the clock.
It’s a daunting task, and one that is giving sleepless nights to Uday Shankar, president, the Walt Disney Company APAC, and Chairman, Star and Disney India.
“We’re doing everything that common sense and science tells you to do,” Shankar says. “But beyond that there’s always a risk. It’s a virus that no one can see, not enough is understood of its behavior, it just needs one tiny leak somewhere, an unintended contact.” The mere possibility of such an event is giving him sleepless nights, says Shankar.
The company has 400 crew members working between Mumbai, where its production is headquartered, and in the UAE, with another 75 working from home. (Shankar says he’s humbled by the fact that at a time when most people want to “huddle with their families,” Star’s employees all readily came to put together the IPL.)
To get started, Star set up a panel of doctors to help it come up with the protocol that is now in place. For one, all employees have to be tested for Covid-19 before they can report to work. In a first, all employees working on the IPL out of Mumbai will stay at a hotel booked out by Star and will travel to work in vehicles hired by the company for this. Once at work, they take specific elevators to get to their respective work floors and are not allowed access to any other floor.
Similarly, for the crew in the UAE, Star has created zones for different teams, or mini-clusters, based on the work they need to do, the idea being that employees of a particular team stick within their zone. To do that, Star had to map out, for instance, the day of a cameraman or a commentator to understand what are the spaces he must visit and the people he’ll need to interact with to do his job. Employees of different zones will also be staying at different hotels. Everyone will be tested frequently, and all hotels have a separate floor to isolate anyone who may need it.
All the extra precautions have obviously bumped up the cost of producing the IPL by at least 35%.
But with revenue from advertising and subscriptions—the live stream will be available only to subscribers on both TV and Disney’s streaming platform Disney+ Hotstar—expected to pour in, Star thinks the money was well spent. Advertising revenues are reportedly expected to cross the 20 billion rupees that Star hauled in with the IPL last year.
Sponsorships had a wobbly start after the league’s main sponsor Chinese smartphone marker Vivo pulled out in the wake of border clashes between India and China and a rising anti-China wave in the country. It was replaced by fantasy gaming company Dream11 replaced which paid 2.22 billion rupees, or $29 million, half what Vivo had paid annually for the rights.
Girish Menon, partner, media and entertainment, at consultancy KPMG in India, says advertisers are finally willing to start spending not only to target the pent-up demand among consumers but also to encourage them to spend with several Indian festivals coming up next month onward.
“We will see a lot more realignment [of ad spend] toward TV and digital, and within these to top players, and to content that drives maximize viewership, and the IPL is at the top of the pile for that,” says Menon.
Ashish Bhasin, chief executive APAC and India chairman at media and marketing agency Dentsu Aegis Network, calls the IPL “the single biggest” TV property in India which is unique in its appeal across the country and across genders and age groups. “It’s never difficult to sell the IPL,” he says and with many people still at home because of the ongoing pandemic, he expects it to attract a record viewership.
Indeed, the IPL returns at a time when the number of Covid-19 cases have crossed 5 million in India, the second-highest number of people infected after the U.S. The government hasn’t allowed any sporting events for fear of a further spread of infections. As a result, viewers are ready for some sport and that, says Menon, probably means that the IPL will earn more this year than in previous years.
An aside, when Disney bought Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox in June 2018, Star India provided close to a third of the valuation for that deal says a media analyst who declined to be named because he is not authorized to comment. The IPL’s success is critical to help maintain that valuation and comes at a time when Disney reported mixed results for its second quarter.
“But the big, big risk in all of this is what happens if you find a case during the tournament,” says Menon. (In late August, 13 members of the Chennai franchise, including two players, had tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in the UAE and had to be placed into isolation.) While that can be worked around during camp, says Menon, but in case it happens during the tournament, there are a lot of “unknown elements” including whether the match gets canceled and who gets the points and what happens to the advertisers. “That’s the real tricky part that everyone’s wary about,” he says.
For now, all eyes are geared toward what Disney’s Shankar calls “a very special IPL” especially since it’s the “very first at scale positive stimulus” for people “in the midst of all the cynicism, fear and paranoia.” He adds, “People can’t stop living, and the IPL is a very, very powerful message [reminding people of that] through those vuvuzellas.”