By Nick Harris
Live coverage of every match in the 2010 Indian Premier League cricket season will be screened free-to-air, globally, on a dedicated YouTube channel, in every TV market except America, after a landmark agreement today between the IPL and Indian arm of Google, which owns YouTube.
At face value, the agreement would appear to rip up the rule book on rights deals, making content available for nothing, and threatening to undermine a key revenue stream. But executives from Sony – whose Entertainment Television Network stable in India paid more than $1bn in 2008 for 10 years’ live rights in India, screened on platforms including Sony’s Max channel – claim to be relaxed about the deal.
Max said it had 102 million and 125 million unique viewers for the IPL in its first two seasons in 2008 and 2009, according to a report in the Thursday edition of the Indian Express. “Our cumulative reach is around 400 million,” Sneha Rajani, the executive vice president and business head of Max, told the paper.
Rajani says the deal with Google will not hurt Max, or advertising, because the target markets for Max’s coverage and the free live action on YouTube are different. “In India, the number of people having access to broadband is limited. Also, the service that is available is patchy and may not be able to support three-hours live video streaming. Besides, the number of YouTube users is also small here. So it won’t dent our loyal viewership set.”
In some ways, the IPL’s move could be savvy in the extreme, if the home TV market does remain undamaged by free competition. The IPL suffered a year-on-year decline in viewers between the first season in 2008 and the second in 2009, and could do with a popularity boost in all markets. In global terms, very few people have watched it outside the sub-continent.
According to an independent report published in August 2009, the IPL has been a TV ratings flop outside India and “faces a challenge to attract new fans”. Viewing figures showed 96 per cent of the world-wide audience was in India and figures elsewhere were so low that they barely registered. In Britain, for example, some matches attracted just a few thousand TV viewers via the now-defunct Setanta channel, lower numbers than were actually present in some grounds.
The report, by the independent global sports consultancy, Futures Sport+Entertainment, said ratings fell 20 per cent from 2008 to 2009. It said the decline may have related to “the difficulty of sustaining interest across 59 matches played over five weeks”. The report raised questions over the IPL’s long-term sustainability and the value of paying vast sums to attract big-name players such as Andrew Flintoff.
If nothing else, the YouTube move is a canny marketing ploy, and by making the IPL free around the world – the tiny market in the USA excepted – it might actually attract new fans who would otherwise continue to pay no attention. The IPL will make cash on the YouTube deal by sharing revenue rather than receiving rights fees.
In an announcement on the IPL website, Lalit Modi, chairman and commissioner of the IPL, said: “This unique initiative by IPL to partner Google India will give the league a global reach on a single distribution platform. This will allow IPL fans anywhere in the world to view the action on-demand as per their convenience, thus making the new dedicated IPL channel on YouTube the biggest virtual stadium in the world. Fan interactions with players, owners and other fans worldwide will ensure that the IPL YouTube destination becomes the most compelling and comprehensive online destinations for the league.”
The global sports industry will watch developments with interest. If the IPL can make inroads in new markets via free content, it could turn the distribution of broadcasting rights on its head. That said, if the IPL does achieve a big new audience during this experiment, it would always have the option of charging further down the line.