The battle for eyeballs

Blame it on IPL fatigue, the popularity of Lionel Messi or the classic rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but the number of television viewers watching sports other than cricket in India is growing. Aasheesh Sharma writes. Most viewed sports

cricket Updated: Jun 26, 2011 02:04 IST
Aasheesh Sharma
Aasheesh Sharma
Hindustan Times

Blame it on IPL fatigue, the popularity of Lionel Messi or the classic rivalry between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, but the number of television viewers watching sports other than cricket in India is growing.

According to TAM Sports, 155 million Indians watched football on television in 2010, up from 124 million in 2009 and 83 million in 2008. Over 2008-2010, the number of viewers watching cricket in India rose from 122 million to 176 million. Football almost kept pace with it. (See graphic)

According to TAM sports, over the past three years, tennis, too, managed to grab eyeballs, with the number of viewers rising from 70 million in 2008, to 95 million in the year 2010.

The showcase event of 2011 as far as football is concerned, says former Indian skipper Bhaichung Bhutia, was the UEFA final between Barcelona and Manchester United Football Club. "Football has always been big in India," says Bhutia. "And when you have the biggest club in the world pitted against the likes of Messi, Villa and Co, there's bound to be an explosion of interest."

And the interest will only heighten with Messi set to tour India in August and play at Kolkata's Salt Lake stadium. Says Ten Sports CEO Ajay Pande, "One reason for the high viewership numbers in India is our channel dedicated almost entirely to football where the sport is shown 90% of the time, round the clock." For the record, the Barca-ManU slugfest on Ten Action notched up a peak TRP rating of 2.35 even at 2 am in the night, which is comparable to cricket matches featuring India.

Football finds favour not just with viewers and broadcasters but advertisers too. Industry estimates say between 10-15 % of sports advertising budgets in India are dedicated to the game. Bangalore-based media buyer Velu, head media operations at Opus CDM, says Epson's association as official time partners with the Manchester United Football Club has brought the brand never-before visibility.

Beyond actual numbers, a good parameter to measure fans' involvement is the time spent glued to television during a match. Jiniti Shah, vice president of aMap, India's only overnight television audience measurement agency, is a hardened tennis buff. Shah keeps up with live coverage even when matches start in the wee hours. "When we look at loyalty for a sport, we mean the target group which is attached to it. For instance, there is a section of our urban population loyal to tennis and events such as the Wimbledon and the French Open."

The 145-minute French Open 2011 final, where Nadal beat Federer, generated viewer involvement of 25% among men aged 25 or more in the SEC classification A, according to aMap numbers. "The average time spent watching the match was 35 minutes which is 11 minutes more than the final in 2010, where it was just 24 minutes. So the loyalty index roses by 45%," says Shah. In 2009 and 2008, the time spent on the French Open final was just 19 minutes.

A big reason for the popularity of the ongoing Wimbledon championships or the recently concluded French Open, says TAM Media Research CEO LV Krishnan, are match timings. "Matches beamed from France and England are close to the Indian prime time. No wonder Indian audiences lap them up."

Over the past decade, the rise of tennis in India has coincided with the popularity of players. "Hundreds of girls took up tennis to emulate Sania, who became a national icon and then Somdev struck gold at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games," says Ranbir Chauhan, director, development, All India Tennis Association.

Beyond Grand Slams, featuring the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer, most broadcasters show precious little of Indian tennis events say critics. This will soon change, says Chauhan. "The bigger Futures events are already being telecast on DD Sports. We will soon host nine international tournaments for juniors and try and telecast events with prize money of 10,000 dollars or more."

Among the big-ticket non-cricket events likely to excite sports lovers is the Formula One circus, coming to India for the first time in October. Interest in motorsports in the country has been growing since Narain Karthikeyan broke into the top league and then Karun Chandhok followed suit. Since 2008, the number of viewers watching car and bike racing on television also grew from 59 million to 111 million in 2009 and 118 million in 2010. "F1 is becoming bigger every year," says Chandhok. "With a larger Indian presence on the F1 grid and the India GP in October, it is good to see progress in a sport other than cricket."

The impressive showing of Indian athletes in Commonwealth Games could also be another factor driving us towards non-cricket sports, says shooting champ Gagan Narang, the first Indian athlete to qualify for the London Olympics. "One doesn't have to read the ratings to know that a lot of Indians rooted for us during the Commonwealth and the Asian Games. It was a matter of sharing pride. However, I believe, broadcast values of Olympic events can be made even more appealing," adds Narang.

With the London Olympics 2012, Formula One and the Olympic football qualifiers slated for broadcast, would you still rather watch India beat the pulp out of cricket minnows?

First Published: Jun 25, 2011 23:29 IST