Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Videos, memes, BTS: How the war of content in IPL is heating up to keep at-home, online fans engaged

As the 2021 season, the second to be played behind closed doors, kicks off, action on the social media front hots up for better reach, engagement and revenues

Published: Apr 8, 2021 12:11:28 PM IST
Updated: Apr 9, 2021 11:05:39 AM IST

Videos, memes, BTS: How the war of content in IPL is heating up to keep at-home, online fans engaged(Clockwise from top left) Owner Shah Rukh Khan or star player Shakib Al Hasan, who does it best? Kolkata Knight Riders tries to find out; Danish Sait dressed as Mr Nags has India and Royal Challengers Bangalore skipper Virat Kohli in splits; Delhi Capitals gives Prithvi Shaw a shout-out on Instagram after the Vijay Hazare trophy; Punjab Kings has some fun with Ravi Bishnoi and Aussie Moises Henriques; Glimpses of camaraderie among the Sunrisers Hyderabad teammates 
Image Courtesy: Kolkata Knight Riders, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Delhi Capitals, Punjab Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad  

In March, minutes after Jasprit Bumrah announced his wedding with presenter Sanjana Ganesan on social media, Indian Premier League (IPL) team Rajasthan Royals (RR) sent a congratulatory note to the Mumbai Indians (MI) speedster with a tongue-in-cheek postscript: “We hear Maldives is great in April-May.” We don’t know if the cricketer has made a mental note as he sharpens his yorkers at the MI nets, but with its tease of a post, RR has sounded the bugle for IPL 2021’s social media play.

Five years ago, much of the IPL chatter (barring controversies like Lalit Modi’s ouster or spot-fixing) would emanate from the field—say, a Chris Gayle blitzkrieg or a lethal Lasith Malinga spell. Now, one can rattle off the number of Virat Kohli’s 50s as easily as the pairs of gloves tucked in his kitbag (11, Kohli revealed during an edition of RCB’s Bold Diaries during the last season). As cricketers fight it out on the field for the most glamorous T20 league trophy in the world, there’s an equally engaging tussle for attention on social media that has fans hooked. Will Rahul Tewatia topple spin king Shane Warne in the ‘hit the ball’ challenge, can Pat Cummins control the ping-pong paddle just as well, or whether Dinesh Karthik can cook fish better than British commentator Isa Guha are questions that draw almost as many eyeballs as the duel on the pitch. And franchises are doffing their hat to the curiosity, pumping in money and resources to generate videos, memes and behind-the-scenes glimpses that would have been unthinkable some seasons ago. As Vaibhav Dhar, the marketing head for Delhi Capitals (DC), puts it succinctly, “In IPL, the war of content is real.”

DC’s digital media budget has increased three-fold, while it has more than doubled for RR and Punjab Kings; Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and Sunrisers Hyderabad (SRH) have put in around 40 percent more in their digital purse, all channelling much of the spending towards better equipment and people. During a typical season, KKR's social media team, which includes a specialist to shoot on the phone, churns out over 300 videos in 60 days. “The world is changing. Earlier, the travelling entourage for social media would have one person, now we have eight to nine. Three years ago, no one would think of taking along a video editor. Now, everyone has one,” Dhar adds.

The glut for IPL content received a veritable push in 2020, as the tournament was first postponed, and then left India amid a Covid-19 surge to head to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in September. The focus shifted from matters merely cricketing to allowing fans a peek into the lives of players, both at their homes during the lockdown and the hotels and dressing rooms they were inhabiting in a bio-bubble. What started with podcasts, video series and webinars during the early lockdown months—with stalwarts like Rahul Dravid speaking on mental health for RR, or KKR’s Eoin Morgan giving a lowdown on the on-ground Covid situation in the UK, for instance—transformed into peeks of practice or team bonding sessions once the players gathered in the UAE. Cricket fandom bonded big time as their heroes were humanised through glimpses of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) players acing a quiz on TV series Friends, or MI’s Hardik Pandya and Suryakumar Yadav belting out a cover of ‘Badan pe sitaare lapete huye’.

"Fans have always been a key part of our campaign. We felt it was imperative that we keep them engaged this season too in spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic. For example, the 'Virtual Wankhede' proposition meant that select fans could watch MI matches together connected virtually. We also designed MI Live, a live pre, mid and post-match show inviting fans to share their thoughts. It had engagement rates almost 200 percent higher than the second-highest generic publisher-driven digital shows around the IPL," says a Mumbai Indians spokesperson. 

Adds Srinath Bhashyam, general manager of SRH, “Because players couldn’t play for months due to the pandemic and missed the connect with fans, they were more forthcoming with interactions and opening up about their lives. Staying together also forged bonds between seniors and juniors. Such interactions gave us more opportunities to create quality content.”

Pushing out content online has also moved the needle for Punjab Kings (formerly Kings XI Punjab). “Close to 80 to 85 percent of our marketing budget is allocated to digital marketing. Of that, we are putting in a lot more money in creating video content,” says Raghu Venkatraman, head of digital and marketing. In a season that saw a series where coach and spin legend Anil Kumble turn into a match analyst before and after, the franchise clocked a 5.5x rise in videos and 3x rise in content interactions compared to 2019.

That a robust digital media strategy would give teams valuable equity in the years ahead and amp up engagement with fans was evident to RR as they returned to the IPL fold in 2018, after serving a two-year ban over corruption charges. “Instead of trying to grow the number of followers, we tried to focus on creating quality content that would automatically bring back fans onto our social media channels,” says Jake Lush McCrum, the COO.

In 2019, RR roped in digital media agency Interactive Avenues and, together with its in-house crew, set about lending a personality to the brand on social media—honest, cheeky, but also with an ability to stomach a joke at itself. Consider RR’s biryani banter with SRH, calling for a large biryani order on Zomato after they won a game against the Hyderabad team; SRH trolled them back after winning the return leg, asking for the order to be cancelled as their opponents found it to be too spicy. “Daal baati should do just fine,” it wrote, invoking the culinary obsession of the state.

“We don’t want to be followed just by RR fans, but all cricket and IPL fans, because of our content. We noticed such banter with other teams brought us a lot of followers. SRH fans began to follow us after the biryani episode and RCB fans too when we offered free safari passes to Virat and AB [de Villiers] ahead of their game with us,” says Atishay Agarwal, head of content for RR. As a result, RR, once minnows in the social media game, had a 950 percent rise in video views (at 350 million), and added 1.1 million followers on social media in 2020, compared to 219,000 in 2019. McCrum wants to channel their entire social media fanbase to the app, which then helps the franchise parse their likes and dislikes, customise content that, in turn, benefits their marketing partners too. “The most important thing for the future for me is the transition of fans from third-party to first-party data,” he says.

Videos, memes, BTS: How the war of content in IPL is heating up to keep at-home, online fans engagedMany IPL franchises like Sunrisers Hyderabad (left), Kolkata Knight Riders and Delhi Capitals (top and bottom right) latched on to the trending Bernie Sanders memes for greater traction
Image Courtesy: Kolkata Knight Riders, Delhi Capitals, Punjab Kings and Sunrisers Hyderabad   

Hitesh Rajwani, founder and CEO of Social Samosa, lauds RR’s strategy of deploying benevolent ribbing, especially on Twitter, for stoking engagement. “They’ve picked up battles with other teams and engaged in gimmicks like the biryani banter, which blend well in the social media universe,” he says. It’s also one of the reasons why RR, despite a poor showing on the field, picked up a record following during the 2020 season.

But that seems more of an exception than the rule. “Usually on-field performances relate directly to the social media performance. The team that wins the most, gets more leverage also from TV and media, so sports fans would want to follow that team first. Five-time champions Mumbai Indians is one of the most followed teams on social media with 6.6 million followers on Instagram, the highest, 6.3 million on Twitter, second next to Chennai Super Kings (CSK), and 13 million on Facebook, highest after KKR [as of March 31],” says Rajwani.

Much of the social media play is chiselled by a motley crew of in-house content teams working in tandem with external agencies, who manage the digital footprint with a two-pronged focus—season and off-season. “While the season is high-octane, with fans spending time on social media, the task really is to plan for the off-season. This is where the in-house content team and we operate like a hub-and-spoke model, where we constantly bank content for off-season. So, the in-house team is more in control of the content during the season, while we keep the community engaged during the off-season,” says Namrata Parekh, co-founder and director of digital media agency Meraki Sport and Entertainment, which has been working with KKR since last season. Adds Achint Gupta, head of media and content for KKR, “During the season, it is all about hardcore cricket content—how the matches are unfolding and how the players are performing, but once the season ends, the fun aspect of the content takes over.”

For the Kolkata-based team, Meraki divides content into three buckets—hygiene (for everyday posts), hub (content tailored to thematic spikes like auctions and new signings) and hero (large pieces that warrant an independent plan, like the season’s campaign #TuFanNahiToofanHai). But, while that sets the overarching theme, the flow of content remains fluid. That the flexibility has worked is evident from the fact that the franchise has doubled its video views since 2019, and recorded approximately 2 billion impressions on its social media platforms in 2020 alone.

Though digital remains an unpredictable beast, there is a broad pattern in raw and unstructured content doing well. A video of Punjab Kings player Ravi Bishnoi practising on his terrace with his mother during the lockdown went viral, as did one after a CSK-RR match with spinner Imran Tahir teaching a few tricks of the trade to newbie Riyaan Parag. “I was at the boundary end and Jake [Lush McCrum], who was up in the stands, shouted out and asked me to have a look. A conversation between two opponents on the field, captured by chance, did so well,” says Agarwal of RR.

DC had a similar experience with an Instagram Reel of captain Shreyas Iyer in changing attires through frame transitions. “It got featured on Instagram’s global page and had over 2.8 crore views. If you come to think of it, we hadn’t even planned it, and made it on the go,” says DC’s Dhar.

Iyer is a natural on social media and has taken to it like fish to water, so have youngsters like KKR’s Shubman Gill, Kamlesh Nagarkoti or Shivam Mavi. Even senior players like DC’s R Ashwin and Shikhar Dhawan, and SRH’s David Warner have carved a niche for themselves with engaging content, and have proved there is no such thing as a geriatric divide. “For KKR, Andre Russell, 32, and Dinesh Karthik, 35, are among the most social media-savvy players along with Gill,” says Gupta.

And players like Sanju Samson are learning to live with the constant chase of the camera, even though the RR captain wasn’t comfortable with it earlier. “On the ground, I don’t enjoy the camera following me much. But through the IPL seasons, I’ve gotten used to it, and have begun to enjoy it,” says Samson.

The pursuit of quality digital content has propelled RCB to bring on board the multi-hyphenate Danish Sait—RJ, comedian, TV host, actor and writer—in an avatar of Mr Nags, a loveable jester and host of the RCB Insider. Modelled on Star TV’s Apple Singh, played by actor Satya Mishra during the 1999 cricket World Cup, Nags, the only travelling comedian with an IPL team, attempts to bring forth the “irrelevant and the irreverent with the cricketers in a make-believe world”, says Sait, a departure from the taut, charged-up match atmosphere. In February, RCB became the first IPL team to hit 2 million followers on YouTube, and much of it can be attributed to its video team, which, adds Sait, works well because it is managed by creative people who are allowed the freedom of ideas.

Not just for the song and dance, but their burgeoning social media presence has brought IPL teams marketing tie-ups, and sponsorship conversations are increasingly veering towards digital outreach as a key part of the deliverables. RR broke the clutter last season with its video featuring international stars like Jos Buttler and David Miller talking about periods, in association with its principal sponsor Niine, a menstrual hygiene startup. It earned headlines and was one of the key initiatives that brought Niine a 3 percent pan-India market share. Says Dhar of DC, “Four to five years ago, all the brands were interested in was where am I on the jersey. Now that ecosystem has changed. They still ask those questions, but now a major part of the sponsorship commitment is what sort of video coverage am I getting. The world in terms of content is revolving around interactions and videos.”

Videos, memes, BTS: How the war of content in IPL is heating up to keep at-home, online fans engagedRajasthan Royals' video that had international cricketers like Jos Buttler discussing periods tied in well with its marketing tie-up with menstrual hygiene startup Niine as the principal sponsor
Image Courtesy: Rajasthan Royals

Hence, a social media strategy is often tied in with the overall marketing objective of a franchise. It could range from going deeper into a market, to strengthening connections with existing fans, or growing the fan base or honing a niche to build a brand positioning. “Say, a franchise wants to make a deeper foray into a particular geography. For that, we start with research about the geography by studying other categories that have entered the area,” says a spokesperson of digital agency Sportz Interactive, which works with multiple IPL teams.

The teams also leverage their local connect to gain a bigger traction and a higher rate of engagement, which would rake in more endorsements. CSK puts out content in Tamil, KKR wishes its community on Doljatra (as Holi is celebrated in West Bengal), and SRH brings in references to its famed Hyderabadi culture and cuisine.

Says Bhashyam of SRH, “Foreign leagues that have existed for over 100 years have supporters with defined geographical affinities. The city takes ownership for that team, while in IPL, the fan support is sometimes based on the players that play for them. The onus is on the franchise to take ownership for the city that you're playing for and become a part of its culture.”

With the digital focus slowly shifting towards regional, in August RR became the first team to join ShareChat, a vernacular social media platform that took off once TikTok was banned. In seven months, it has developed a follower base of 700,000.

The localisation journey began for DC in 2018, with its rebranding from the earlier Delhi Daredevils, after the JSW Group stepped in as co-owners. The team that started off with the tagline ‘This is New Delhi’ recalibrated their slogan to ‘Yeh hai Nayi Dilli’ to reach out to the wider Hindi-speaking north Indian population. Says Dhar: “It was our campaign for eternity—it means we aren’t going to come out with a new hashtag every year andwon’t confuse our audience. Our reach and engagement rates have more than doubled once we started using Hindi taglines and doing more interviews in Hindi.”

As consumer behaviour patterns dictate digital content, long-form is now clipped into snackable bites while text is watered down from journalese to colloquial. “And memes continue to be the currency for any sports property right now,” says Rajwani of Social Samosa. Perhaps this explains why most of the franchises jumped on to the Bernie Sanders memewagon, and latched on to the trending US Senator who sat wrapped up in woollens and mittens at US President Joe Biden’s swearing-in.

As matches for the 2021 season are held in isolation, digital will continue to play a crucial role in connecting players to fans. And if the last season is anything to go by, the action in the backroom will be as frenzied as the one on the field.