Sports production needs to take innovations from cricket and lessons from the advertising world by putting consumers first, says Reliance Sport CEO Sundar Raman.
As this summer’s Cricket World Cup in England is in full flow, future developments in live television coverage are once again in sharp focus because many of the most recent broadcasting improvements have come from the sport of cricket.
Umpirecams, lights on cricket stumps, live in-game interviews with mic’d up players, constant on-screen shots of happy fans in the stadium and much more have been innovations born from top class cricket matches and mostly the Indian Premier League (IPL). The rest of the sporting world has looked on in awe for more than a decade, while also stealing or adapting some of those ideas.
Sundar Raman was at the heart of many of those ground-breaking modernisations within cricket as the COO of the IPL for seven years. Nowadays, Raman looks after sporting properties owned by India’s largest conglomerate Reliance Industries Limited, such as the Indian Super League, the IPL’s Mumbai Indians and the Tata Open ATP tennis tournament. As CEO of Reliance Sport, he is also an evangelist for the growth of Indian sportsmen and women.
“Sports broadcasting has focused on quality coverage for the big screen, but now the primary focus should switch to the small screen”
Those roles allow Raman to still be connected to live TV and he appreciates the huge differences in the coverage since his involvement in the IPL began in 2008. He believes there are still significant challenges in the near future for live sport including a move to a mobile-first strategy for broadcasters.
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“For a long time, sports broadcasting has been focused on getting the best quality coverage for the big screen, but the time has come where the primary focus should switch to the small screen,” he says.
“In Asia, the mobile is already the primary device for sports fans and so we must work towards changing the landscape of viewing to a vertical. Not all sports are appropriate – including football - but what about vertical viewing for baseball or cricket or golf. You could do vertical-first productions.”
Although not a new idea in television, Raman hopes that a mobile-first strategy is just the kind of innovation that cricket broadcasters will soon adopt. But he also believes that another long-discussed pathway for TV sport is now a must-do - mobile-first productions which means dispensing with many on-screen images like advertising crawls or too many graphics. Instead, he wants to give the viewer more choice.
“Why shouldn’t viewers be able to click on a drop-down box at my will while they’re watching a live game?” says Raman. “Most of us only really need the score graphics on screen, but there is a vast amount of data available that the TV director is usually in charge of. Yet if the viewer can access all this material on demand, then it gives them control and, they can find out much more than they are usually given. We can build stories and narratives for the viewers because the broadcaster always has more information than the viewer does. We just need to give them access.”
But different markets will require different speeds of development for data and viewer control, he believes. “For example, the level of data that is gathered in US sport is much higher than what is gained in Asia. Our audience is not brought up on that level of data and we have to escalate all the information slowly and at the discretion of the viewer.”
In terms of how to deliver all this live action, Raman is platform agnostic. “Sport needs to be where the fans are, there is no choice on that. It can be TicToc or Facebook. Plus, you have to integrate with social media – that’s how we would do market research with fans of the IPL, finding out what they liked about our broadcasts.”
His philosophies about the future of live TV production grow out of the impact of his original career as an advertising executive at the renowned agency J Walter Thompson and then with Mindshare India, part of WPP’s Group M.
“I was in advertising for many years and the fundamental understanding from that industry is that everything is consumer-first. That means for live TV, you must deliver an experience that is worthy of a consumer viewing it, you have to consider anything that enhances what the consumer is watching.” A large part of that philosophy for Raman is about celebrating the fans inside the stadium, showing them on screen and particularly those groups of people who the IPL wanted to target as new fans.
“We showed families, children and women at IPL games having a great time. I wanted our IPL television directors to honour these people, show them on screen much more than before. I’d rather see a fan celebrating than have shots of more commentators talking. I experimented with this in IPL and then took it to other sports. It’s now normal to focus more on fans,” he says.
Coordinating the TV coverage with the in-stadium entertainment is also a must for Raman. “At the IPL, we would always synchronise what was happening on the entertainment stage in the ground with the pictures that the TV director was going to show.” Yet, he understands that this synchronisation appears to set two opposing strategies.
“In my time of running live sport and big events, I always set contradictory objectives for the events and broadcast teams. The head of events would get a brief to say ‘make the in-stadium experience so good that any fan would want to be there’, but then the head of TV production would be told that the fan should watch and realise that he or she doesn’t really need to be at the game at all. What this does is create a silo of excellence between the two forces that means they stretch each other. The event guy wants an unmatchable experience of being at the game and the TV director wants the fan at home to feel like they are as good as in the stadium.”
In terms of other sports that are the most successful with this strategy, Raman points to the NBA in America where basketball stadiums are akin to rock concerts during games and there are also plenty of innovations for TV viewers on all kinds of platforms.
“The actual game time in the NBA only 48 minutes, but most matches last about two hours and neither the fans in the stadium nor those at home watching on television feel a minute of boredom. There is always something happening to engage both audiences – not just commentary and data, but a kisscam or a dancecam. All sporting events and federations should make fans the most important link in the chain.”
“The next billion viewers for all kinds of live sports will come from India and the next billion in money terms as well”
Of the new apps available, Raman thinks that the catch-up services are the most interesting.
“Imagine sport on a device that allows you to miss the opening few minutes of a game and then an app that gives you a summary in 60 seconds, so you can then start to watch the live feed from there. That kind of dynamic package is a priceless benefit for the fan,” he says. “Catch up like this will enhance the overall reach and consumption of a sport. These days, not everyone can or does watch the whole game and catch up will enlarge the audience and, therefore, the revenues.”
Raman also supports the view that India will deliver the next big lift for live sports. “In Asia, we tend to steal with pride, but we love innovation. Plus, I think the next billion viewers for all kinds of live sports will come from India and the next billion in money terms as well.
“My job at Reliance is to learn from established people in TV. We want more expertise in our entire eco-system in India from cameramen to sportsmen and women. Technicians are so valuable. If a cameraman misses a significant piece of action then you’ve lost a piece of sporting history,” he says.
“Sports need to connect with the fans. Many sports are doing something unique with their live events, so there is no holy grail here for everyone. But, in my opinion, whoever connects strongest with fans both at the event and on TV and gets to mobile first will have a significant advantage over the rest
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