How Disney Star’s 2023 IPL coverage smashed viewership records and reset the boundaries

The 16th edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) draws to a close this weekend, with Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s Chennai Super Kings awaiting the winner of the Gujarat Titans playoff game against the Mumbai Indians on Friday.

Even before the final, however, the 2023 tournament is already being hailed as the most watched in the history of the Twenty20 cricket competition. Indian pay-TV network Disney Star revealed exclusively to SportsPro that live broadcasts over the first 66 matches of this season’s IPL reached 482 million viewers, meaning the previous high of 478 million set during the 2019 season had already been broken with eight games to play.

The record viewership for the 2023 season comes after Disney Star spent I₹23,575 crore (US$3.02 billion) to retain the IPL’s domestic TV broadcast rights, with Viacom18 securing digital coverage from this campaign in return for a similar fee.

Disney Star’s audience figures will have been driven in part by its decision to show select games free-to-air (FTA) for the first time, while it has also introduced new initiatives like ‘Rivalry Week’, which featured marquee matchups during week six of the tournament.

Ahead of the final, SportsPro caught up with Sanjog Gupta, Disney Star’s head of sports, to get his reaction to this season’s audience figures. 

What key trends are you witnessing when it comes to viewership and engagement around IPL programming across your TV channels?

IPL 2023 has shattered all previous viewership records on TV (482 million for first 66 matches). That’s around half the TV viewing universe in India. Even in terms of consumption, we’re seeing record numbers with more than 350 billion minutes of watch time. We have also seen 40 of the first 66 matches each registering peak concurrents of more than 30 million with a high of 56 million. This has made IPL 2023 an historic IPL on television across facets of reach, viewing time and frequency.

These viewing figures reiterate the tremendous power of cricket and IPL, presented on a platform of choice which offers an immersive and lean-back viewing experience, driven by one of India’s most revered storytelling brands and fuelled by a fan-focused, 360-degree marketing campaign.

Virat Kohli was one of the star performers during the IPL this season

Star Sports’ IPL megacast in nine languages and 13 feeds strives to uniquely cater to multiple audience segments and fan cohorts. Our coverage of IPL in Hindi has contributed most significantly to this growth and comprises almost two-thirds of the viewership. Our ‘Better Together’ campaign, which built the event as a unifier in times of increased individualism, fuelled familial and community viewing, which can be seen in the growth in viewership of kids below the age of 14 (roughly 60 per cent compared to 2022), who have been enjoying the IPL with their families.

We also sought to redefine the traditional TV experience by offering fans at home access to instant replays, key moments, live statistics and highlights on the press of a button on their remotes. This has fuelled the addition of 11 million subscribers during IPL 2023, boosting the penetration of Star Sports to an all-time high.

What drove your decision to show more IPL matches on free-to-air this season?

It is our constant endeavour to recruit new viewers and grow fandom for cricket. According to the Broadcast Audience Researching Council (BARC), the estimated number of FTA households is around 40 million in India. We saw, in the FTA audience, an opportunity to recruit new audiences for IPL 2023 since the tournament had aired only on pay-TV until now.

These viewing figures reiterate the tremendous power of cricket and IPL.

Sanjog Gupta, Head of Sports, Disney Star

As part of our sampling strategy, we broadcast just over ten per cent of the total IPL matches on our FTA channel. The primary objective was to allow FTA viewers to sample IPL and then on the back of a high decibel marketing campaign which targets these users, drive consideration to watch the full tournament, available only on the Star Sports pay-TV platform.

What impact has the ‘Rivalry Week’ initiative had on overall ratings and viewership?

IPL, for eight weeks, is a daily affair. With matches every night, we believe there is a tendency for a certain sense of monotony and viewer fatigue to set in. Our study of viewership data and qualitative consumer surveys suggested that there is a dip in interest levels between weeks four and seven, which form the belly of the league.

Typically, ratings decline after the first two-to-three weeks, flatten and then rise again towards the end of the tournament. To address these dips in interest, we worked closely with the BCCI to develop the Rivalry Week, which serves as an aperture to boost interest in the league and allows us to both recruit new audiences as well as re-invite lapsed viewers.

Rivalry is inherent to sport and we felt this was a strong proposition to leverage. With a combination of scheduling initiatives, enhanced programming and high decibel marketing, we were able to create a spike in interest in week six of IPL 2023, which was branded Rivalry Week. We added 21 million new viewers to the tournament, which is the highest ever recruitment of new viewers for the sixth week of any IPL edition.

Ratings for week six also grew 44 per cent compared to the same period last year, while seven matches delivered peak concurrency of more than 30 million. We also branded week seven of the tournament as Race to Playoffs to continue the momentum of the Rivalry Week. A lot of credit is due to BCCI and IPL teams for the race to playoffs to be alive until the last match of the league stage which has also aided the continued interest in the tournament.

How else have you looked to increase IPL viewership and fan engagement this season?

Our strategy for the IPL was built on the foundational pillars of ‘Big’, ‘Community’ and ‘TV Redefined’, with a single-minded focus on fans. As part of our ‘Big’ endeavour, we had the biggest selection of IPL stars on the network, which included heroes of the IPL as well as stars from beyond the world of sports. Coverage of the ‘spectacle’ was mounted at a scale which adequately expressed the “bigness” of the occasion, which was made possible by world-class on-air and off-air crews.

As part of our ‘Community’ initiatives, we drove the concept of micro-screenings and watch parties across the country with our talent visiting several screening and thousands of fans joining in the experience. We wanted to combine the experience of a stadium with the comforts and familiarity of people’s neighbourhoods. We also wanted to enhance the experience of watching the game in restaurants or pubs.

We launched a custom live feed with subtitles for commentary for the first time in India. Our Incredible Premier League School Quiz sought to ignite interest in the IPL among school students. The pan-India initiative saw more than 10,000 schools with more than two lakh students participate, driving significant chatter in the student community.

We also wanted to redefine what traditional TV meant for the consumer. This included making the live broadcast itself more immersive and driving stronger linkages between native digital and TV content. From #AskStar, which allowed viewers to ask questions of commentators during the live match broadcast, to ‘Star Sports Creator Days’, which brought together some of the best content creators on YouTube and Meta with our talent in the studios, we tried to create a flywheel of engagement between TV and mobile screens.

These are just a few initiatives which were launched as part of the overarching strategy to drive growth for IPL 2023.

What impact has the increased viewership had on advertiser interest and revenue around IPL programming?

Ad revenues around the world and across platforms had faced strong headwinds since October last year. This was on account of multiple external factors including macro-economic conditions, the conflict in Ukraine and the funding winter. These have been affecting the M&E ecosystem in India as well.

However, there are several categories of advertisers who continued to apportion significant A&M budgets for IPL as it serves as an ideal vehicle to reach consumers at scale and build brand salience. These categories include gaming and fantasy, beverages, FMCG, telecom and multiple seasonal categories.

We definitely saw a lift in ad revenues on the back of record viewership with four new sponsors and 30 brands coming on board since the IPL started. In fact, our sell-through rates are at their highest levels in the last two weeks of the tournament.

Looking ahead, how much room for growth is there in IPL viewership? Are you expecting your numbers to get even bigger next season?

We are always striving for growth. For sports, this includes widening of access, deepening of engagement, enhancement of monetisation and growth in affinity for our brand. None of this is possible without a deep commitment to serving fans. And these principles apply equally to IPL.

However, one must remember that IPL is a highly scaled property, which we have managed to grow even further. Growing IPL beyond this is definitely possible but it will require new impetus from our side, renewed efforts to drive local fandom by the IPL franchises, and significant interventions from the side of the BCCI, which under its current leadership is also committed to growth.