Live sport, especially cricket, has turned out to be the differentiator in India’s OTT services as shown by Hotstar. Sports viewers not only come in huge numbers but are also willing to pay for content.
In late 2017, when STAR India paid an astronomical sum (Rs 16,347 crore) to acquire the five-year TV and digital rights of the Indian Premier League (IPL), it left media observers frothing at their mouths. A plethora of questions ensued: What was STAR, the country’s largest broadcaster, thinking? The IPL is not even an international fixture… Are people as interested in it after 10 years? How does STAR plan to recover the insane cost-per-match? And so on…
STAR didn’t have to wait too long to silence naysayers. In 2018, the IPL garnered over 700 million viewers on the STAR network, 22 percent of which came from Hotstar, its homegrown OTT service. In four years since Hotstar began streaming the IPL live, the league’s viewership has grown from 41 million (in 2015) to 110 million (in 2016), and from 130 million (in 2017) to 202 million (in 2018). That is a 55.3 percent rise in the last year alone.
Not only that, Hotstar even notched up a global record of 10.3 million concurrent viewers during the final between Chennai Super Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad. The year before, it had hit a peak concurrency of 4.8 million during the Indo-Pak final at the ICC Champions Trophy.
Ajit Mohan, then Hotstar CEO, said in a statement,
“I believe that IPL 11 has proved to be an inflection point for mobile as a platform becoming mainstream. The viewership numbers on Hotstar are a testimony that digital can be scaled like a mass media platform television.”
It’s worth noting that Hotstar managed to clock these enormous numbers despite IPL matches being behind the paywall (after the first 10 minutes). It establishes two things that will likely define the sports OTT segment in India going ahead - a) There is a vast addressable audience for live sports on mobile, and b) This audience is willing to pay for content.
Ahead of IPL 2018, Hotstar rolled out an All Sports Subscriptions Pack at Rs 299 per year. Subscribers could gain access to not only IPL matches, but also other sporting events including Pro Kabaddi League, English Premier League, Indian Super League, Formula One, German Bundesliga, and Grand Slams (barring the Australian Open whose rights are owned by SonyLIV). The pack gave users the flexibility to pay for only sports content as opposed to shelling out Rs 999 per year for an overall Hotstar subscription (that also includes movies, TV shows, news, and other genres). It was a smart move and it paid off.
EY estimates that the average time users spend watching IPL on Hotstar is 30-35 minutes. “While most do not watch entire matches online, growing viewership indicates the sense of comfort that users have with the digital medium,” the report states.
Even though Hotstar doesn’t reveal category-specific numbers, industry experts reckon that its exhaustive sports programming gives it a distinctive edge over the rest. Most OTT services in India - Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, JioTV, SonyLIV, and others - are essentially playing catch-up with Hotstar. So much so that Amazon Prime Video (and even Facebook) had reportedly made bids for the digital rights of IPL. Facebook’s failed bid stood at Rs 3,900 crore, signalling its intent to break into India’s rapidly growing OTT market.
The only platform that can potentially challenge Hotstar’s vast sports library is SonyLIV, owned by Sony Pictures Network (SPN). In 2018, SonyLIV acquired the streaming rights for India’s cricket tours to South Africa, England, and Australia, and the FIFA World Cup in Russia. (It also owns rights to the Australian Open, NBA, Commonwealth Games, MotoGP, UEFA, WWE, etc.)
And, cricket gave it the necessary push. App Annie estimates that SonyLIV’s “monthly active users doubled to 15.8 million in March from 7.7 million in February” after it started streaming the India-South Africa series. App installs recorded a massive 246 percent growth on Google Play Store.
Viewership soared as well. The platform witnessed a rise of 250 percent in viewership, 475 percent in hours spent, and 69 percent in average time spent during the series. “These numbers indicate India’s growing appetite for sports content on internet,” SonyLIV said in a statement.
Even as Hotstar and SonyLIV battle it out in sports streaming, services like JioTV are also in the fray. JioTV has signed a five-year deal with STAR to stream all India cricket matches on its app. This means that all Reliance Jio users - 250 million and counting - can get access to Hotstar’s cricket content for free. Reliance believes that this would take sports streaming to the masses, and make Indians actively seek out such “quality content” online.
Amazon, too, has been keenly watching India’s sports streaming market even though it doesn’t carry such content globally. At Prime Video’s India launch in 2016, Nitesh Kripalani, the then Director and Country Head of Amazon Video, told this writer,
“We know that India is a ‘sports, sports and more sports’ country. We’re evaluating various partnerships, but nothing official yet.”
While it is still early days for sports streaming - or any content streaming for that matter - in India, the battle lines have been drawn. Hotstar, SonyLIV, JioTV, and Amazon Prime Video will likely define the segment going ahead. There could also be an all-new entrant in the form of DSport (owned by Discovery). Netflix, are you listening?