The Indian Premier League, whose 10th season began on April 5, crossed the billion mark in television viewership last year. The 2016 edition of the Indian domestic Twenty20 league had a viewership of 1.02 billion across five television channels, according to figures released by the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India. Out of this, the overall reach of the tournament, which is the number of unique viewers, stood at 361 million, according to Sony Pictures Networks, which owns broadcast rights for the IPL until the 2017 season. Expect both those numbers, viewer impressions and reach, to swell for this season.

However, television isn’t the only medium on which IPL matches are being shown in India. Not since 2015, when Star India won the digital and media rights for the tournament. In its first season, as many as 41 million people watched IPL 8 on Star’s over-the-top (OTT) content platform, Hotstar, which has a website and an app. The following year, for IPL 9, the figure crossed the 100 million mark on Hotstar and its partners, according to the company’s own figures. Around 77 million of those viewers were on Hotstar itself. This is in spite of there being a mandatory five-minute delay in Hotstar’s feed compared with television.

Hotstar’s target for the ongoing IPL 10 is 100 million on its own platform and 130 million overall. If these numbers are to be believed, and if Hotstar reaches its target, 41 million to 130 million in two years is a significant jump, especially considering that the platform is barely two years old. Hotstar was launched during the 2015 cricket World Cup and drew a record 340 million overall views, not unique, during that tournament.

The BARC does not have the overall television viewership figures for IPL before the 2016 season. However, last year, IPL 9 saw an unexpected drop in viewership on a week-by-week basis. From 147.23 million in the first week of IPL 9, viewership dropped to 130.38 million during the playoffs week. While that does not necessarily mean that viewers switched from television to OTT during that period, digital’s rise in the last two years could be a game-changer in live sports coverage in India.

Flexible access

Television technology continues to advance, from high-definition (HD) to 4K resolution. Watching a game on a six-inch smartphone screen does not have the same feel as sitting back on the couch and watching it on a 50-inch HD TV. OTT platforms would be irrelevant if people had access to TV everywhere. But that’s not the case. The flexibility of having the option to catch a live match on your phone when you’re on the move is what OTT platforms can offer, and TV can’t. OTT platforms provide flexible access, anytime and anywhere. All you need is a smartphone and a good internet connection.

Watching sports is a “lean-back consumption method”, said Harish Krishnamachar, founding partner of Sportoid Sports Solutions, a sports management company. “Unless you’re playing a sport or a game on electronic devices, you’re not leaning forward. You might be leaning back and having a glass of your preferred beverage, you’re basically relaxing and watching sport.”

OTT, on the other hand, is a “lean-forward and individual consumption method”, he said. “You’ve got your phone, tablet and you’re looking at it. To me, looking at it as a consumer, it’s not the most conducive. But having said that, I was driving down from Dharamsala after attending the first two days of the India-Australia Test match [last month] and I had Hotstar on, because I wanted to get updates and see what was happening. It was a riveting day three, which I could not watch in the stadium. But if people have the choice of a large TV with their preferred beverage, that’s what they would use.”

OTT players offer the flexibility of catching a live match on your phone when you’re on the move (Reuters)

But in today’s social dynamics, either because of long office hours or commute time, a working person in a city would be at home only from 9 pm to 8 am on average, said Thomas Abraham, co-founder of Sportzpower, a sports media and marketing company. “Outside that whole period, what is your consumption platform? It has to be OTT.”

The major drivers for consumption on OTT platforms would be live sports and news, Abraham added. “Live sport is a natural player for OTT. There isn’t that big a pull for traditional television shows on OTT. Even if it is a show as popular as Game of Thrones, you would prefer to watch it at home after work.” But not live sport, which loses its currency once the match is over.

Sports on OTT works because a lot of sports channels are paid, said Vinayan Verenkar, head of digital video (OTT) at Network18. “If you want to add Star Sports to your monthly subscription of [direct-to-home satellite TV provider] Tata Sky, there is an additional fee for that. On Hotstar, you can have the app installed and watch live sports anywhere. That’s the flexibility and accessibility Hotstar has provided.”

Smartphones and youth

There are as many as 38 OTT players in India at the moment, Verenkar said. The rise of OTT in India has been fuelled by a boom in the country’s smartphone market. In 2016, the number of smartphone users in India crossed the 300 million mark, which is just a fourth of the country’s population, but almost as much as that of the United States. The number of mobile internet users in India will cross the 500 million mark in 2017, according to a study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

In terms of internet speed, however, India is still lags behind the rest of the world. The average internet speed in the country in the third quarter of 2016 was 4.1 Mbps, which is the lowest in the Asia Pacific region, according to the “State of the Internet” report by NASSCOM-Akamai. However, this is fast changing. Reliance Jio’s monthly average mobile broadband speed in February was 16.48 Mbps, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. Idea Cellular came in second at 8.33 Mbps and Airtel third at 7.66 Mbps.

Videos are expected to drive 72% of all internet traffic in India by 2018, up from 45% in 2013, according to a study by Deloitte. “This traffic would include online streaming services like YouTube, VoD [Video on Demand] services such as Netflix and mobile TV services like nexGTv, Ditto and TataSky etc,” the report said. “As most of Indian internet users will access the internet through mobile devices, a large part of the video traffic is expected to flow through mobile devices,” it added. The global audio and video traffic combined is expected to reach 82% of all internet traffic by 2018, according to a study by Cisco.

OTT platforms in India are targeting a younger demographic. Around 75% of internet users in India are in the age group of less than 35 years. More than 50% of the smartphone app users in India are aged between 18 and 24, and 29% between 25 and 35. More than 80% of IPL viewers on Hotstar last season were less than 35 years old, the company said. Hotstar also has a term for its target IPL audience – the “affluent metro youth”, which are cricket fans over the age of 15 who live in the largest six cities in the country. Hotstar claimed that it was the primary screen for IPL in this category, with 49 million viewers during the first 59 matches of IPL 2016, compared with television’s reach of 29 million.

There is no way to verify Hotstar’s figures, but Krishnamachar said he would struggle to accept them on face value, adding that time spent watching the match would be a more important metric than views. “We don’t know if these are duplicated or non-duplicated figures, are they comparing apples and apples?” he said. “Assuming they are, my sense is that the differentiator is going to be how much time do you spend on an OTT platform versus how much time do you spend in front of a TV. My hypothesis is that the OTT platforms will have less time spent on them overall, but more time spent on them while people are on the move.”

While that is true, the difference isn’t much. Hotstar said that the average time spent on its platform per user ranges from 30-35 minutes for an IPL match. This is not very far off from Sony’s average viewership time for IPL 2015, which stood at just over 46 minutes.

How do Hotstar’s viewership figures translate into advertising revenue? Are advertisers being attracted towards digital? How does that in turn affect the value of the digital rights? Are digital rights as lucrative as broadcast rights?

All this in Part 2 of the story, which you can read here.