During my stint as an executive producer with ESPN Star Sports, we started the Super Selector programme, with Naseeruddin Shah as the presenter, which was one of the first Fantasy Sports platforms ever seen in India. Despite its imminent success in terms of increasing our viewership, and its soaring popularity among sports fans, at that point, there were limited means to monetise or scale it. But the scenario began to change with increasing mobile phone and Internet penetration.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when mobile phones first entered the Indian market, only a well-educated person with a certain amount of income was able to afford them. A decade later, mobile phones became ubiquitous, with everybody carrying one in their pockets.
With high-speed, low-cost Internet, rising smartphone penetration, and broadcast of sports on OTT platforms, a perfect ecosystem was created for sports viewers to engage more with sports on the move. It led to a dramatic increase in the popularity of Fantasy Sports (FS), especially among sports fans, as it allowed people to have a more intimate relationship with sports.
Today, India has become the world’s largest and fastest growing FS market with a user base of over 16 crores. Moreover, the FS industry in India has a market size worth Rs 34,600 crores and is likely to reach an estimated Rs 1,65,000 crores by FY25, clocking a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 38 percent.
If we take our eyes off the numbers for a moment and look at the social aspects, perhaps, the biggest success of FS has been that it has bridged the geographical barriers between sports fans across India. There was a time when most industry experts deemed that FS would find the majority of success in urban cities. But the story has turned out to be different.
FS has helped in building the nation’s social fabric around sports as fans in tier-2 and tier-3 cities are equally invested in a sporting event as much as fans in a metropolitan city. The advent and success of league-style sporting events in India, which have been further fuelled by the rising popularity of FS, have further allowed sports viewers across different regions in India to get more skin in the game.
Whether an FS user is participating as a means to gain bragging rights among a group of peers or family members, he/she has increased stakes in the match. FS users spend time researching statistics, teams’ strengths and weaknesses, playing conditions, and various other real-life sports-related factors to create a more competent team to increase their chances of winning. Hence, automatically, a consumer’s interest rate in a particular sporting event goes up. Research by Millward Brown had stated that FS users watch 60 percent more sports as compared to sports fans.
An FS user listening to a cricket match commentary on a radio set at a sweet shop in a small village in Moradabad can be competing against an FS user watching the same match on a smart TV at a multinational corporation building in Mumbai. They are connected by their common love of sports — and their desire to win in a contest. Scoring higher points for their team’s performance provides each user with a sense of validation, and thrill.
This is the beauty of FS — it is transcending boundaries — connecting fans across the nation. These fans further connect on social media and WhatsApp groups and engage in friendly banter over their selected teams.
But as we talk about the growth of FS in India, we tend to forget that we are still at an early stage and have barely scratched the surface of its reach. One of the next steps in its growth would be to further extend its reach in the regional markets by tapping into the local languages.
Also, there is an inherent need to rectify public perception. People need to be made aware of how FS is helping the sporting ecosystem not just in India, but all around the world, with NFL and NBA being some prime examples. In India, FS has helped in the rise of sports leagues, with IPL, PKL, etc, partnering with FS platforms for increasing viewership and create a sustainable fan base.
In addition to offering a deeper relationship with the sport, FS has also given back in other ways to the sports industry via sponsorships and grassroots initiatives and is creating a value chain that begins with increased and sustained development of sports in the country.
The author is the Director-General of Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports (FIFS), a self-regulatory body committed to protect users’ interest and promote standardised best practices.
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