Indian television viewers tuning into the opening game of the Indian Premier League’s 11th season on Saturday evening are in for a change. Well, many changes.

For one, Navjot Sidhu won’t be there in the pre and post-match shows. Neither will there be any cheerleaders with pom poms dancing to Bollywood numbers in the studio. And while there may be celebrity guests from the world of cinema from time to time, the conversations will be centred around the sport.

Star Sports, the IPL’s new broadcaster for the next five seasons, has promised that the focus of its coverage will solely be on the cricket.

On the eve of the IPL 2018 opener, Star Sports on Friday launched a new show called “The Dugout”, where its panel of experts will offer in-depth analysis during live matches, aided by technologies such as augmented reality.

The Dugout is essentially an alternative to the world feed of IPL, which is also produced by Star but where commentary is under the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s control. In The Dugout, there won’t be ball-by-ball commentary like in the world feed, but rather a conversation between its panel of experts, including the likes of Anil Kumble, Kumar Sangakkara, Damien Fleming, Dean Jones, Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan, Michael Clarke, Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Smith.

From left: Damien Fleming, Anil Kumble, Scott Styris and Brad Hogg will be part of Star Sports' The Dugout (Image: Star Sports)
From left: Damien Fleming, Anil Kumble, Scott Styris and Brad Hogg will be part of Star Sports' The Dugout (Image: Star Sports)

“The conversation will be a recreation of the one that could be happening in a team dugout during the match,” a Star India spokesperson said. “One of the experts will talk from the players’ point of view, another one will be an analyst. You may have someone assuming the coach’s position. The discussion will be around what the teams should do in a given situation during the match.”

Going all out

While the world feed is an aggregator that caters to viewers across demographics, The Dugout is an attempt by Star to engage the connoisseurs of the sport. The focus will be more on analysis, strategy, and story-telling, rather than DLF Maximums and Vitara Brezza Glam Shots. Experts in The Dugout will also be analysing the match in between overs, which means fewer and shorter advertisement breaks.

The Dugout is the latest in a long list of innovations that Star Sports has introduced to the IPL coverage ever since it acquired the media rights for the first time last September for a sum of Rs 16,347.50 crore.

In January, the broadcaster organised and televised a player retention ceremony, where the owners of each IPL franchise announced which player(s) they are retaining from the previous season live on air. This was never done before by the previous rights holder, Sony Pictures Networks.

Star Sports televised the player retention ceremony earlier this year (Image: Star Sports)
Star Sports televised the player retention ceremony earlier this year (Image: Star Sports)

Later in January, Star broadcasted the two-day player auction and claimed that 46.5 million people tuned in to watch it, more than six times the number Sony had managed in 2017. Before the auction, Star Sports did shows with former cricketers such as Kumble and Jones analysing what each franchise’s auction strategy would be. After the auction, the panel of experts did a SWOT analysis of each squad.

That was only the end of January. To fill up the two following months prior to the IPL season opener, Star signed up with a couple of franchises to announce their new captain live on air. The broadcaster then announced that it was going to dedicate two hours every day to IPL-related programming until the start of the season.

In March, Star Sports launched the “Game Plan in your City” fan engagement initiative, in which it hosted shows in all the eight cities where the IPL franchises are based and had fans interact with its panel of experts. It then launched the IPL anthem for the 11th season, along with a national promotional campaign called “Best vs Best”, featuring a series of ads in six languages.

Clearly, Star Sports means business. The IPL has always recorded a growth in viewership and, thereby, advertisement revenue year on year but that isn’t enough for Star. Not after investing more than Rs 16,000 crore.

“We want to grow viewership dramatically,” the Star India spokesperson said. “And for that, we need every core cricket fan to also tune into the IPL.” By core cricket fan, Star is referring to someone who watches and follows international cricket but ignores the IPL.

Overcoming the barrier

Research conducted by Star after it won the IPL rights suggested that one big inhibitor for a lot of these core cricket fans to not watch the IPL was that they just did not consider it to be serious cricket, or seriously competitive cricket. “They have this mental barrier of IPL being more entertainment and less sport,” the spokesperson said.

With a three-month build-up and shows focusing on the cricket, Star is trying to convince the IPL non-believers that the tournament is actually worth their time. It is trying to win over fans who believe the IPL is nothing more than a tamasha masquerading as a cricket tournament, fuelled by cheerleaders, Bollywood and – as it was proved five years ago – corruption.

Star Sports launched the “Game Plan in your City” fan engagement initiative (Image: Star Sports)
Star Sports launched the “Game Plan in your City” fan engagement initiative (Image: Star Sports)

To do this, Star has rolled out the big guns by hiring reputed pundits and analysts for the new Dugout show. There will also be a separate pre-match show, but it will be positioned very differently to Sony’s Extraaa Innings T20.

“We will not have a Thoko Meter,” said the Star spokesperson, referring to an on-screen counter that Sony ran during its pre- and post-match shows tallying the number of times Sidhu dished out a one-liner. “We will not have cheerleaders in the studio. We will not have Bollywood songs playing and commentators dancing to it.

“But we will be entertaining. We will have Kevin Pietersen and Michael Clarke going at each other with a bit of banter. We will have Bollywood stars come in as well, but they will come in as fans of the game,” the spokesperson added.

Play

In order to change people’s perception of the IPL, Star Sports also aims to show more behind-the-scenes operations of franchises, in a bid to show how much effort the players and staff put in day-in and day-out.

“We don’t want to make it too serious, we still want to be entertaining,” the Star Spokesperson reiterated. “But entertaining does not necessarily mean entertainment. Sport itself is entertaining, and we want to widen the definition of what has typically been the IPL brand of entertainment so far – dancing cheerleaders and Bollywood.”

For Star Sports, the competition is not Australia’s Big Bash League or the Caribbean Premier League, or any other domestic Twenty20 tournament. The broadcaster’s aim is to put the tournament on par with a marquee event such as the World Cup. In fact, Star believes the IPL is a tougher competition than the World Cup.

“This is potentially the toughest cricket tournament in the world where you are required to play 14 games over six weeks, which you won’t get in any other tournament,” the Star spokesperson said. “And every game that you play, you will come up against at least three or four world-class players. If MS Dhoni has to win IPL, he has to get past Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Ravi Ashwin, Gautam Gambhir, all world-beaters. There is no Ireland, Scotland, UAE, or Afghanistan.”

Ambitious plans, but can Star pull it off? If what they have done in these last six months is anything to go by, don’t count them out just yet. Whether Star is successful in getting the IPL’s stature up to World Cup levels, only time will tell, but one thing’s for certain: the coverage of the tournament is bound to be a stark contrast – so far, it would appear for the better – from what fans have seen for the last 10 years.