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ICC targets younger audiences with digital-first, data-led broadcasting approach

Adam Nelson reports on how the International Cricket Council revamped its broadcast coverage ahead of the 2019 Cricket World Cup, focusing on storytelling to attract new audiences and break digital engagement records

Aarti Dabas, head of media rights and digital at the International Cricket Council

  • Cricket’s governing body established ICC TV in 2015, its own in-house host broadcasting and production service, to allow greater control over content output
  • ICC has focussed on engaging younger fans digitally, adding 14.4 million new followers to social accounts over the course of the Cricket World Cup and clocking up 4.6 billion online video views
  • Aarti Dabas, ICC’s head of media rights and digital, says a data-led approach has allowed for more specific tailoring of broadcasts to meet audience needs

After the 2015 Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, faced with the question of how it could grow the sport over the coming years, the International Cricket Council took a major decision.

Having previously appointed host broadcasters for its competitions on an event-by-event basis, the ICC announced that it would retain its own host broadcasting and production rights for the eight-year period from 2015 to 2023, setting up ICC TV as the global host broadcaster for all ICC events, working in partnership with UK-based production company Sunset+Vine.

The aim was to build a top-down strategy that would allow to the ICC to control and unite all of its content output, with the ultimate aim of making the sport more accessible to a wider audience. This year’s World Cup in England and Wales was the biggest test of the concept so far.

“The focus for us and the Cricket World Cup was all about storytelling,” Aarti Dabas, the ICC’s head of media rights and digital, tells SportBusiness. “Cricket is a sport that has incredible stories that develop over the course of a game and over many years. But we don’t think we’ve always been the best at telling those stories. That’s been the basis of what we’ve been trying to do with ICC TV.”

The ICC has used its broadcast coverage to foreground cricket’s stars and build heroes in the game

There was a sense within the ICC that cricket had become a walled garden, closed off to casual fans who only came to the sport once every few years for the World Cup or the Ashes, with coverage of the sport too esoteric for those not already versed in its complexities.

“One of the things that repeatedly came back to us was that, because the demographic is changing so quickly, we had to cater to new audiences,” says Ajesh Ramachandran, senior broadcast manager and executive producer at ICC TV, who was responsible for on-the-ground broadcast decisions during the World Cup. “A lot of our productions were doing great in-depth stuff, but it was aimed at a more mature audience, who are used to watching cricket and who already understand the game. So for us, the challenge was to cater to a younger audience, which is why we needed to simplify our output.”

At its most fundamental level, Ramachandran explains that the ICC’s “production philosophy” has become “geared towards explaining the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’.”

Dabas adds: “That really guides our storytelling principle. Simply elaborating on what has happened doesn’t provide a narrative, but if we can explain why something has happened, why a player has done something or why a captain has made a tactical decision, then we are starting to tell a story about the match. The other thing was to try and simplify it and keep it clean. Tell simple stories. If we are going to use analytics and statistics, they cannot be too technical, and they have to contribute to telling the story of each match, of each player, of the rivalries.”

Digital-first

Dabas compares the ICC’s audience targeting to that of an FMCG brand, “in that they know exactly who they’re targeting for their products, and how to talk to them. For us, it was getting people who had not consumed cricket before. It was as simple as that. It was going outside the bubble, you can see that we were trying to get young people and a more gender-diverse audience.”

To do that, the ICC asked itself: “Where is that audience sitting? And what do we need to do [to reach them]? The answer to the first part was straightforward and something we knew already; they are a digital audience and we need to serve them in the digital space.”

The ICC then carved up its digital rights, signing content partnerships not just with the social platforms Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but with sites recognised for their cricket content, the likes of BBC and ESPN Cricinfo in the UK, Hotstar in India, and Cricbuzz in the US.

“Different organisations in different parts of the globe, to increase the reach,” says Dabas. “Watching six-minute clips per-hour is not as good as watching live, but we wanted to target that younger audience, who are consuming less and less live, and more bite-sized content.”

Working with graphics partner Alston Elliot, the ICC has simplified its coverage to make cricket more accessible to a casual audience, here identifying players in the field and their positions

This is a large part of the reason the ICC has remained relatively unconcerned by the debate that raged over the summer, in the UK at least, about whether the World Cup should have been available on free-to-air television. Dabas acknowledges that Sky Sports making the final available for free via Channel 4 delivered the peak audience of 8.3 million who watched the game in the UK. But she also points out that the final broke the record for traffic to the BBC’s website, where 40 million people logged in to follow the action at some point during the day, eclipsing the previous record of 35.4 million set by the 2017 UK General Election.

In total, the Cricket World Cup clocked up online video views of 4.6 billion worldwide, with 3.6 billion of those coming via its own channels on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and a further billion via the platforms of the ICC’s official digital clips licensees. “I understand the debate about free-to-air,” says Dabas. “But people forget the importance that digital plays, especially when we’re talking about new audiences. That audience isn’t watching traditional linear television, and we have to attract audiences to platforms that they actually use, that they can view.”

The ICC is still collating the final viewing figures and demographic breakdowns from the World Cup, but Dabas says she is confident that the strategy paid off. “Looking at the numbers we saw on Facebook and Twitter, as well as some of the feedback we received and the responses we saw, I suspect we had a lot of younger audiences, particularly in the Indian sub-continent,” she says. “Generally the audience on those platforms is younger, millennials, so the assumption is that we did attract new audiences. To give you the comparison, our second highest event for digital engagement, the 2016 Twenty20 World Cup in India, had 400 million video views. We’ve gone from that to 3.6 billion. We added 14.4 million followers to our official social media accounts. We don’t know that all of these are new cricket fans, but we are confident that some of them will be.”

Data-driven insights

Dabas, who worked as a producer on the 2007 Cricket World Cup, says the single biggest change for 2019 was the use of data to inform production decisions. “In my previous life, I would drive live cricket productions based entirely on what I liked watching,” she says. “It was about me as a producer saying, ‘let’s talk about this because I’m interested in this.’ That gut and instinct is still important, but today we have to be driven by insight. We had a full-time analytics person in our digital team who is monitoring the chatter, receiving feedback to see what is working and what isn’t and adapting our broadcasts in real-time based on that.”

These insights come from detailed feedback from viewers – both in-game and during focus groups carried out in key territories after an event has finished, “to see how the audiences viewed the general coverage, the graphics, the commentator, the tone and tenor” – as well as ongoing analysis by the ICC of how the sport of cricket itself is evolving. An example of this, Dabas explains, is in the increased focus on fielding in coverage of one-day cricket, which was led initially by the perception that fielding was increasing in importance to the sport, and secondly by a recognition that that importance wasn’t being adequately communicated to viewers.

“The shorter format of the game is so much about fielding, and increasingly so,” she says, “but that wasn’t being reflected in the way we covered the game. We are always focused on the bat and the ball but, for newcomers to cricket, it means they are missing out on half of what is happening on the field.”

A combination of technologies allowed the ICC to more simply and accurately communicate what fielders were doing and why. Player-tracking technology, in combination with augmented reality tools, led to the creation of the field map, which shows the exact location and relative positions of every fielder.

“One constant feedback we’ve had since we introduced that is, ‘can you leave the field map on all the time, because it provides that perspective to the game,’” Dabas explains. “It shows at a glance what is happening, where the movement in the game is, and it simplifies the game for people who ask, ‘what is mid-on? What is mid-off?’ We can show them now what each position is and, importantly, why those players are there.”

The field map was inspired by video games and helped the ICC to simply explain complex aspects of the game through its coverage

The next development of this is likely to be a second-screen experience; Dabas suggests that the ICC’s official app will provide even greater levels of explanation and depth for those who want it, including the always-on field map. “Cricket is a simple sport, but it has complexities,” she says. “We can really help people learn while they watch by providing a platform that you click on something and it tells you why a decision was given as LBW and explains that rule, for example.”

The look and feel of the ICC’s content output is consistent across all platforms and that design, says Dabas, was “focused on digital and then adapted to broadcast, rather than the other way around.” She compares the change to similar transitions in the design world: “It’s like how we used to design for web first and then for mobile, but now the whole design philosophy has flipped. We have to have a production that looks as good on a mobile device as it does projected onto a big screen.” That, she says, is another factor that would have been next to impossible before the advent of ICC TV, with various stakeholders pulling in different directions.

Ramachandran explains that much of what he calls the “visual signature” for the event, particularly the on-screen graphics provided by ICC partner Alston Elliot, was directly inspired by video games – “simple, clear information, so that audiences, but particularly younger audiences who are used to how these things are done in video games, can identify what is going on in the game with just one glance.”

Working with broadcasters

One way in which the ICC is helping new fans to learn while they watch is by encouraging its commentators to take on the role of educator – coming back again to answering the question of ‘why’ over ‘what’.

“Quite a lot of the time, cricket commentary is focused on what is happening,” Ramachandran says. “‘Smith has hit a four through the cover,’ or ‘Kohli has caught him at slip.’ For this World Cup, we actively engaged both our in-house commentators for the ICC TV world feed as well as those of our broadcast partners and said to them, yes, calling the game is valuable, but we also need to talk about, what is the significance of what just happened? Why is it happening?”

This kind of collaboration with broadcasters has been crucial to the success of ICC TV. Sky Sports in particular has strongly backed the project, taking not only the ICC’s world feed but also its commentary for numerous games across this summer’s World Cup, adding only its own pre and post-game sections, handling the entire production only for England games and other tier-one fixtures, such as those involving Australia, India and Pakistan.

“It’s not a mandate that they have to take our commentary, and for the bigger games they use their own, but we work with them so well and they trust us so much that they’re taking our commentary,” says Dabas. This has helped to further the ICC’s goals of having a uniform look and feel across all of its events and output. “The top-and-tail is Sky’s, because obviously they have to make it relevant to the local audience, which is something we encourage. Sky knows the UK audience better than the ICC does; Star knows an Indian audience better than the ICC does.”

The world feed is, again, designed to be as simple as possible, both for accessibility to a wider audience and to give broadcasters scope to apply their own local spin. “You have to speak in a language and a tone that everybody understands,” Dabas says. “I don’t just mean English or Hindi; I mean the visual language as well. We keep it absolutely simple in order to reach a 10-year-old or a sixty-year-old; everyone should be able to watch it and feel a connection to the game.”

In order to build a broadcasting strategy that would be globally relevant but tailorable for local audiences, the ICC invited its major broadcast partners to a workshop at its headquarters in Dubai ahead of the World Cup, including not just Sky and Star, but US cricket-specialist channel Willow and Australia’s Fox Sports, as well as ICC technical partners like HawkEye and Alston Elliot.

“We actually went through with all of our partners, ‘okay, what does the World Cup mean to you?’,” Dabas says. “We discussed the World Cup strategy, we discussed the messaging, we discussed the running orders. What does innovation mean to you? How can we help you drive innovation?”

Coverage at this year’s Cricket World Cup focused on telling stories around players and teams, taking a “cleaner, simpler” approach to presenting statistics and analytics

The ICC held joint marketing meetings with its broadcasters to ensure that the messaging and positioning of the tournament was not only consistent, but also fitted with the broadcasters’ own strategies around the sport. “In the UK, for instance, we were involved right from the start so that the marketing plan was run as a collaboration between Sky, the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] and the ICC,” she says. “But we also understand that for Sky it was not just about the World Cup, but that they had a whole ‘summer of cricket’ because of the Ashes, so we worked with them on that to provide a marketing platform for the whole sport of cricket.”

The ICC has taken inspiration from other sports’ broadcasting strategies, particularly those which are attempting to tell a story over a few hours at a time, Dabas says. Formula One and tennis have become key touchstones for the ICC – an ironic twist, given that all three sports were in competition on the day of the Cricket World Cup final, when the UK was also hosting the British Grand Prix and the Wimbledon men’s final.

“They’re sports that are quite similar to cricket in that they’re trying to build a story as the match or race develops, they have to adjust their approach as it progresses,” Dabas says. “They are also both very technical sports with a lot of numbers, which have to try and cater to a core fan while remaining accessible to casual audience. We exchange ideas on how to present statistics in the cleanest, most understandable way, and also how to promote heroes in the sports, putting things into a wider context.”

A Twitter exchange between the ICC and Wimbledon on the day of the finals demonstrated the collegiate spirit between the two. “Hello @ICC – how are you coping at your end?”, asked Wimbledon. “Things are a bit hectic right now, we’ll get back to you,” came the response.

Similarly, the World Cup final was screened at Silverstone during the Grand Prix so that F1 fans didn’t have to miss out on the action at either. “You help each other because at the end of the day, people are mature enough to understand that you’re not really competing, you’re helping each other grow,” Dabas says. “If you’re creating a passion for sports, you’re growing sport in general, and that can only help your sport as well.”

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