Kevin McCullagh | Foundations laid for digital media growth in Asia

Amid the Covid-19 gloom, the APOS Virtual Series last month delivered some glimmers of hope for future growth in the Asia-Pacific media business.

Kevin McCullagh

The Asia-Pacific media industry’s big annual get-together APOS joined the online migration of business conferences  as organisers Media Partners Asia delivered a series of live discussions online with some of the biggest names in regional and global media, including Uday Shankar from Disney; Ajit Mohan from Facebook India; JB Perrette from Discovery Networks; Bob Bakish from ViacomCBS; and Hugh Marks from Nine Entertainment.

I tried not to dwell on the fact that I should have been enjoying the conference from its usual location in Bali and was instead hunched over a laptop at my kitchen table. And I tuned in to hear words of hope from the industry titans, rays of light cutting through the clouds of 2020 and illuminating the sunny uplands ahead that only they, in their lofty positions, could see.

There is a lot of blind optimism in the sports business and beyond at the moment. It is arguably the best option for leaders in the face of the total uncertainty wrought by Covid-19. Some of it rings hollow. But some of it is more convincing and is even based on data. And we heard some optimistic and convincing fragments at APOS.

One of the eye-opening takeaways for me was the massive recent growth in connectivity in Asia-Pacific. To take that out of TMT industry-speak, hundreds of millions of people in Asia-Pacific, including in developing markets, have in the last few years obtained high-speed internet connections on their mobiles and at home. And hundreds of millions more are likely to do so in the next few years.

The great significance for the sports and entertainment industries is that all these people can now get high-quality video content, including sport, on their phones and in their homes on big screens via internet connections. Just four or five years ago, this was not possible.

It is a crucial layer of foundations for the development of the Asia-Pacific sports and entertainment industries.

One of the breakout stars of this growth story is the Indian mobile telco Jio. In the last four months some of the world’s leading investors and digital media firms, including Google and Facebook, have invested $20bn in stakes in Jio, valuing the company at $60bn. By building out its 4G network and aggressively marketing its data plans, Jio has been the leading player in the growth of 4G connectivity in India. When its 4G service launched in September 2016, there were under 50 million 4G customers in India. Today, the number is more than 500 million.

One of the big beneficiaries in the coming years is expected to be the market’s leading sports and entertainment platform – Disney-owned pay-television and OTT operator Star. Star’s Hotstar Plus OTT service is a world-leader in delivering live sport to big audiences and its business has been heavily built on exclusive rights to premium cricket properties.

Media Partners Asia expects fibre-optic broadband to reach tens of millions more homes in developing markets in the coming years. In Thailand, for example, MPA expects penetration to hit 50 per cent of homes by 2025, and in Indonesia 20 per cent.

This is significant because it gives OTT players including Netflix, Amazon, and DAZN access to big screens in more living rooms – a more compelling proposition for many customers than watching on mobile. It also means increasing competition between telcos, and between telcos and pay-television players operating via the more traditional means of cable and satellite, which have plenty of life yet in many markets. This points to increasing competition for content.

Covid-19 means we may have to wait a few more years before media companies, sports properties, sports marketers, and others in the sports ecosystem can really capitalise on these opportunities. But this increase in digital connectivity is a strong fundamental for growth in the years ahead.

Read a more detailed report from the APOS 2020 Virtual Series.