Why Star Sports needs to 'believe' in quality content

When ESPN debuted its first SportsCenter telecast with anchors Lee Leonard and George Grande, the first words spoken were from Leonard who informed viewers: “If you love sports...if you really love sports, you'll think you've died and gone to sports heaven.”

And for most part – they were bang on. They covered everything – regional sports, weird sports, sports you hadn’t heard of and all this was in addition to mainstream sports.

So when Star Sports decided to up its offering from two channels to the current six channels (including two HD channels) the feeling was that the Indian sports fan would also be taking a trip to sports heaven.

Earlier, the network would struggle to show sports because they simply didn't have the channels to showcase them. But now, they had the bandwidth to show all they wanted – as many times as they wanted. It seemed too good to be true.

And perhaps it was. If you switch on the channel on a random day – you are likely to watch some live sport or reruns of a recent match.

If you are unlucky enough to miss them – then you run into Perfect Pujara, Swinging Shami, Outstanding Ojha, Allrounder Ashwin, Emergence of Rohit, Virat the go-getter... over and over again.

If you are still unluckier – then you move into Masterclass territory - Rahul Dravid, Wasim Akram, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Shane Warne are all there to take you through cricket’s intricacies. But how many times can you watch them before you say ‘enough’?

 Why Star Sports needs to believe in quality content

A company logo of Star TV is seen at its headquarters. Reuters

Fans have been so irked by the programming on Star’s sports channels that parody accounts have sprung up on Twitter, the Star Sports 1 Wikipedia page is also pretty critical. Anger has also been directed at how some of the best matches are moved on to the HD channels or shown solely on the website.

Star’s argument to the HD and money argument is simple. They have the rights for IBL (Badminton), Hockey India League, IMG-Reliance Football League, Cricket, World Cup 2014, EPL, La Liga, Cricket World Cup, India cricket rights, Ranji cricket, Olympics 2014 and 2016, Tennis: Australia Open and Wimbledon and F1. Now, to acquire all these rights they have had to spend money – big money.

In November, Star Network, the media and entertainment firm owned by Rupert Murdoch, also said it will invest more than Rs 20,000 crore to expand its sports coverage in India. So basically put, they need a return on the investment. And to that end, there’s nothing wrong in asking people to pay up – but what are they paying for?

Star Sports has gone ahead and decided to make a massive bet on the most popular content – which in sports terms in India means cricket. But even then they aren’t trying to make the Ranji coverage any better. They pick one match to show and if that match happens to be a dud then so be it.

Now, wouldn't it be better to have at least a team at all the grounds; to at least have highlights -- maybe even interviews. The reason college basketball is so popular in the US is because people love to have the opportunity to see a star before he’s made it big; they love the chance of spotting him; they love saying ‘I saw him first.’

In India, there is no chance of doing that.

Star doesn't need to look for a niche audience – there is no money there. But then at least make the cricket really worth it. Back it up with quality – build content around the games. The reruns save money (they call it sunken costs, something that’s already paid for) – the channel doesn't need to spend anything and they are perfect fillers. While they do the job for the channel, they simply don’t work for the viewers.

Between all the live programming and reruns, Star needs to spice up things by introducing India to sports documentaries (most of which are not released in India), by showing more regional sport, by reviving legends (not just cricketers) for a whole new generation. That’s how Sky Sports and BBC do it in the UK, that’s how ESPN does it in the US and that’s how Star need to do it in India.

ESPN has the rights to virtually everything in American Sport. It creates the stars, hypes up the events and rivalries and uses its reach across multiple platforms to make it an event; an event that everyone wants to be part of.

And people don’t mind paying for that. According to an article in The Atlantic: “ESPN’s cable channels collect more than $5 a month from each of the nearly 100 million American households that subscribe to pay-TV, more than any other channel by far. That comes to about $6.5 billion in revenue, without even considering advertising. With an estimated value between $40 billion and $60 billion, ESPN is at least 20 times bigger than the New York Times Company, or five times bigger than News Corp. As a single asset, ESPN could be worth as much as all the other parts of its majority owner, the Walt Disney Company, combined.”

Star Sports wants to be in the same position in India and it can – live coverage will drive the business. It has all the rights and viewers can’t go anywhere else but it needs to use the exclusive access it has in a better way.

It needs to hook India to sports by showing them quality – the bottom line in the eyes of Star is money. But you win by giving fans what they want. If you do that – you establish value and then sponsors/advertisers will flock to the channel. It’ll be good business and good money too.

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2013 14:39:39 IST