How COVID-19 can change the economics of professional leagues | More sports News

The ecosystem of sports has met a harsh reality. Plans A, B and C have been laid threadbare, not because of overuse but due to an impact for which provisions were never outlined in production models. A pandemic has attacked the anatomy of every sector, including sports, which is now trying to wriggle itself out by learning to live with the coronavirus — for this year at least.

While the players have started coming out under strict COVID-19 protocols, heads are getting together to analyse the impact, evaluate the losses and find ways to work around the traditional supply chain of product originator, production, distributor and the consumer to tide over this crisis.

The consensus until now is that the costs will have to come down, which will require looking at every bill generated in the past seasons, especially true for professional sports. Leagues that depend on season-by-season evaluation to decide how much they can expand, or not, in the coming year. America’s National Football League (NFL), for example, generates the most revenue among professional leagues — to the tune of over $12,000 million.

In the Indian context, barring cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL), most other leagues are a work in progress — be it football, kabaddi, badminton, table tennis, etc. But like any league in the world, these too are dependent mostly on broadcast deals or revenue from media rights. The NBA’s existing TV rights stand at $24 billion for a nine-year contract. The Premier League’s three-year broadcast deal, signed last year, is for $12 billion.

For media rights of the IPL, Star Sports shelled out $2.55 billion (Rs 16,347.5 crore) for the ongoing five-year deal with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

CUTTING CORNERS

All that is possibly in for a change. The leagues, though, are first looking at cutting their in-house costs before reaching out to other stakeholders with maybe ‘force majeure’ clauses in a modified contract.

“If my revenues are going down by a certain percentage points, then my costs should go down higher, so that my losses could either be the same as the previous levels or they could even reduce,”
Hiren Mody, the Group Vice President of Ultimate Table Tennis (UTT) and the Indian Super League club Chennaiyin FC told TimesofIndia.com.

“We (UTT) used to go to three venues in season one, then we went to two venues, last year we were at a single venue and this year also we had planned for a single venue. How that helps us in terms of reduction of cost is that the production cost goes down. If I do three cities, I need two kits, two sets of tools. Now that comes down to one setup and one set of kit. It’s a significant cost reduction,” Mody added.

The Premier Badminton League (PBL) is similarly auditing every line of its expense. Going a step ahead in order to preempt, it is even thinking of offering a lower-end sponsorship model to sustain and ensure they can pull off the coming season, which only begins in January next year.

“For the last one month, what we’re doing is that we are going through every expense,” said
Prasad Mangipudi, Executive Director of the PBL told TimesofIndia.com. “Last year, we bought 14,000 square feet of carpet. So do we need 14,000 square feet of carpet?

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“That is the starting step, the lowest cost possible,” Mangipudi adds. “Then we have to see whether we can actually still go ahead with the gap (in cost and revenue), how do we plug it, maybe create a more lower-end category of sponsorship. In the past, the lowest value of the sponsorship at the league level was, I think, Rs 1.75 crore. So maybe create a new package of Rs 45 lakh with less access on offer,” said the PBL boss.

Besides this, if required, PBL also plans to reach out to its contracted players and see if they are ready to accept a low-cost contract for the coming season as an exception.

“Go to the players, go to BAI (Badminton Association of India) and see what all we can save. For example, in the past we were giving an X amount as the highest amount for each player. So this year, I think, we will go and talk to them and say ‘everybody knows the situation right now, so we are proposing a lower amount for this year alone’,” Prasad said.

IS LIVE SPORTS VIEWING IN FOR A CHANGE?


As the figures in NBA, Premier League and IPL suggest, broadcast deals have always been the major chunk among the three sources of income for professional leagues, with sponsorship/advertising and match-day sales being the other two.

CEO of JSW Sports,
Mustafa Ghouse, however, said that the cricket landscape and reach in India makes it a bit of an exception in the revenue estimates.

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“Ticket sales, etc, is a bigger portion of your revenue stream in cricket. In a sport like kabaddi, it is not that big an impact because stadiums are small, your pricing is not that expensive because you are catering to a different audience,” Ghouse said. “So it really varies from sport to sport. But I think television revenue continues to remain the largest percentage of income for all teams across all leagues.”

JSW Sports has a presence in the top three sports leagues in India through its teams Bengaluru FC (ISL), Delhi Capitals (IPL) and Haryana Steelers (PKL).

But looking at the COVID-19 situation, the question to ask is – whether there’s going to be a shift in thought among both league owners and the consumers about how live sports is watched in the future?

La Liga, for example, has been broadcasting games live on Facebook, which depends a lot on Internet penetration that undoubtedly become better in India, but with many still consuming daily Internet packages, it’s bound to exhaust sometime while watching a full 90-minute game.

However, there have been examples like that of Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom. The Premier League entered into a maiden live-streaming deal with Amazon, which led to an increase in the number of subscribers by 35% in the fourth quarter of last year. But in India, it can only possibly happen for a popular sport like cricket (IPL). Having said that, it won’t stop leagues from looking at such models.

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“We can never guarantee immunity from all disasters; however, we can invest heavily to prepare for anything that arises in the future, while continuing to innovate to take the sport and the league to the next level in terms of quality of product and fan engagement,”
Jake Lush McCrum, COO of the IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals told TimesofIndia.com.

But he also suggested that spectators will continue to be part of the occasion at the stadium, with slight modifications.

“There will be a time when the stadiums will be reinvented innovatively, so the viewing of a game will change in the stadium, more powered by technology. A number of measures are being spoken of, like distanced seating, reducing capacity, bringing in more technology to provide enhanced fan engagement features (for those there and at home) and much more,” McCrum added.

Fan engagement could undoubtedly drive how the change in viewership is targeted, which could mean more thrust on digital avenues.

“We will now move our entire focus to engaging on digital, which is not going to be very costly, but it’s going to be very effective,” said UTT’s Mody.

“In India, UTT has been on Star Sports and also live on OTT platforms like Hotstar and Jio TV. But the global broadcast happens on two platforms, one is Facebook, where we have had 1 to 2 million people watching it, and the ITTF TV, which is the international federation’s (ITTF) live-streaming platform. So the engagement does increase.”

“Now, in the post-COVID scenario, what leagues have to ask is – how are we going to reach out to those millions who have suddenly changed the way they are watching? That real estate on your phone is now even more critical in terms of costs.”

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Prasad concurs, though he believes broadcasters are as much in need of live action as the starved viewers.

“Any sports channel requires live action. While they may negotiate hard with us on the broadcast rates, they require live action to keep the audience sticky. Yes, I think there could be a drop in revenue from the broadcast, but we may make up (for it) on the digital front,” the PBL chief said.

ENGAGEMENT VS REACH


Though the consumption of sports is making a big move towards digital, the size and numbers involved in TV broadcast can’t be ignored, a complete absence of which may cause major cracks in the whole structure. That could mean ‘force majeure’ clauses being agreed upon to take care of league owners and broadcasters in a situation like a pandemic.

As Mody suggested, playing at a single venue can save you a lot of logistical costs of moving the paraphernalia from one city to another.

Having said that, sponsors won’t be willing to compromise on their presence, whatever the platform. So how to accommodate that if the leagues decide to move a percentage of their broadcast investment to digital?

“We’ll have to find out ways in which we can constantly engage with fans so that going forward we can offer good content as an additional deliverable to sponsors,” says the UTT and Chennaiyin FC vice president. “Either I give sponsors the reach, which is a million people, or I give them engagement. So if I’m going to engage a good amount of digital audience, then I think brands will see value in it. I can put that as a sweetener. Leagues will move in that direction.”

Prasad brings in an important inference here: the popularity of the sport and its players. Keeping cricket as an exception, the popularity of a sport may also decide how much a sponsor’s interest will remain in a particular league, at least for the next season when all stakeholders will be looking to keep their costs at the bare minimum.

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“Badminton is still reasonably popular. We (PBL) still have the big names in the industry; and because the Olympics got postponed,
(PV) Sindhu remains the reigning women’s singles Olympic runner-up for another year. Similarly, because the Badminton World Championships got postponed, she will remain the world champion for another year. Plus, we have a decent number of players who are popular in the game,” said Prasad.

The star value in kabaddi and table tennis, for that instance, isn’t the same, which could prove to be a factor.

Plus, the PBL executive director had already mentioned creating “lower-end sponsorship model” to sustain things.

WILL THE GOVERNMENT PITCH IN?

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The leadership at JSW Sports, which has the likes of Mahesh Bhupathi and Sourav Ganguly in its advisory boards, has experienced heads at its disposal to suggest means to get through this tough period. Former professional tennis player Bhupathi had also founded the erstwhile International Tennis Premier League and former India captain Ganguly is currently the president of the BCCI. That’s three levels of experience — as a player, a league owner and as an administrator.

“It always helps to have such experienced individuals on your advisory panel,” said CEO Ghouse. “But at the same time, this is an alien situation for each one of us, where for two months we’ve all been in a lockdown. So we’re all leaning in on each other to find what the best plans are for athletes and for our teams.”

But what all these leagues will need is support from the Government of India.

The Sport Ministry has already stepped up to waive off rentals and make all services, excluding food, inside its stadiums free for the National Sports Federations and International Olympic Committee. But will the same be done for privately-owned leagues?

“If they waive off Rs 60-75 lakh to Rs 1 crore, that’s a reasonable sum, which we can pass on to the teams,” said Prasad.

“Beyond this, for example, I can go to Khelo India and see if they can give me a budget and can become a PBL sponsor. It’s a sports product. Can the government’s CSR money come into Olympic sports leagues, at least for a couple of years’ time? Or may be a GST waiver. When all the franchises pay license fee, there is a huge GST of 28%,” he added.

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THE PLAYER MANAGEMENT BUSINESS


At a debate hosted by a FIFA-backed research center on May 13, possible defaults on payments from player deals made before the lockdown were cited as concerns. That also brings into focus the rich market of transfers, endorsements and player management.

One such company in India, IOS Sports & Entertainment, is involved in the business of player management, with names like boxing legends MC Mary Kom and Vijender Singh, sprinter Hima Das and TT star Manika Batra among others under its umbrella.

With revenues generated from the physical appearance of players non-existent during lockdown, the company has shifted to increasing online engagement.

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“We’re lucky to have some big sports stars who have a large following on their social-digital profiles, where we are doing these influencer-based activities for different brands. So still some kind of revenue is coming in,” said the company’s CEO and Managing Director, Neerav Tomar.

“Even before the pandemic, the digital space was increasing a lot in terms of advertisers wanting to move to the customers directly through social influencers, which has been happening like per tweet or per Instagram post. There is a fee which is already fixed. That has not gone down, rather it has gone up with people sitting in their houses.”

“Coming to the physical appearances, it has naturally significantly decreased. So what we’re trying to push is to have our sports stars go live online to brands for their employees or to do some kind of webinars, motivational talks.”

Still, the revenues have taken a big hit, as the endorsement deals with advertisers have come to a naught.

“I would say there’s between 15% to 20% increment in influencer-based activities on social media. In terms of appearance fee, earlier you were asking for a live appearance and now you are asking for a virtual appearance, so there is a 50% downfall in that. And because of loss of advertising space, there is no endorsement money,” he explained.

JSW Sport is also involved in the business of athlete support and management. In addition, they have a wing that scouts young talent which can be harnessed and those players turned into international-level players. They have stopped that activity completely at the moment.

“From a scouting perspective, yes, we are not really looking at adding on more athletes,” said CEO Ghouse.

Tomar stresses on the importance of innovation at the level of athlete management.

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“The new model is you have to re-invent, innovate to survive, like how we have launched our digital influencer wing called ‘Influrate’, that is something we look at for ‘survival revenue’ and money. We are also looking at licensing opportunities for e-gaming, maybe a
Vijender Singh boxing game or a Mary Kom boxing game,” the IOS chief added.

To sum up the exhaustive details from above, there seems to be a four-way formula that the leagues may look at to stay afloat this season:

1. Cut costs to lowest possible levels without compromising on quality

2. See how much revenue can be protected

3. Strike a balance between fan engagement and reach

4. Approach the government and see what concessions can be sought

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