Brand and design

Advertising in the IPL

Sid Talwar , Anshika Sinha
15th September 2021

“IPL is like cricket on drugs. And these drugs keep getting better. Entertainment is a drug fueled by advertisers, and IPL is the one drug loved the same by men, women, and children of all ages. Don’t get me wrong, drugs are not all bad. Some might save your life if you have COVID-19. Some might change the way you look at life. But what’s common is that all of them alter your lifestyle. And that’s exactly what advertisers spend money to do.”

Think 2020. If we were to ask what defined 2020 for you, regardless of where in the world you’re reading this from, chances are your answer would be some or the other combination of the words – Coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, and the lockdown. And rightly so. Globally, as per Google’s Year in Search Report 2020, the most searched term in 2020 was ‘Coronavirus’. Globally yes, but not in India. In fact in 2020, Indians were actually thinking ‘Twenty20’. Even in a year when the entire world had come to a standstill and people took to the internet to learn anything and everything about the novel coronavirus, the most searched term in India was the ‘Indian Premier League’ (IPL).

Such is the popularity of this sporting extravaganza! Spread over just 7-8 weeks, the IPL enjoys a viewership of 400MM+, split evenly across gender, age groups and geographic locations. Aiming to tap into this massive audience, as ~250 brands turn to the tournament as their advertising highlight of the year, we at Lightbox, spent some time diving into the nuances of advertising in the IPL.


The case for advertising in the IPL

The value of the IPL ecosystem (as estimated by Duff & Phelps) grew at a CAGR of 16% from 2014-19, and was pegged at $6.8BN as of 2019. However, similar to other businesses and the economy in general, the pandemic made a financial dent on the IPL too. Largely driven by Vivo pulling out of the title sponsorship last-minute and the league having to replace them with Dream11 at the eleventh hour at a discounted fee, additional costs involved to create a secure bio-bubble, and the lack of gate receipts as the matches continued amidst empty stands, the value of the ecosystem saw a 3.6% YoY decline in constant currency terms, and was pegged at $6.2BN as of 2020. Although, even with this drop in value, the IPL would comfortably sit amidst the top 5 most valuable startups in India, and probably the one with the highest profit margins on that list.

This value is driven by 3 major revenue streams - fees generated from sponsorships, a central pool of revenue which includes broadcast rights for the event, and match day revenues. The keenness of the broadcasters to bid for rights in fact very well validates just how big the league has become. Star India shelled out a whopping $2.55BN for broadcast rights for a period of 5 years, from 2018-22, implying a CAGR of 18.9% on an annual fee basis. While the small base in terms of total number of matches played during the tournament does have a role to play here, if we for a moment choose to ignore that, the IPL has made quite a place for itself amidst the top leagues in the world, when compared on a broadcasting rights fee/match basis.



When we look at these numbers, it certainly begs the question, why? Why are broadcasters willing to shell out such large sums of money, for a league that’s in fact played for just over 7-8 weeks every calendar year? Why are advertisers lining up their marketing dollars for the event? The answer lies in the mass appeal of the event. 48% of all TV viewers in India watched IPL 2020 live! That’s a cumulative viewership of ~405MM, culminating into ~400BN viewing minutes on TV alone! What’s even more fascinating is the demographic split of this viewership:



One number that really stands out in the infographic above is that 48% of all IPL viewers in 2021, were women. That’s well over 190MM! As we talk more about the brands which are advertising during the event, you’ll notice that most women-targeted brands seem to be shying away from the IPL. Wonder if this is a missed opportunity, and is up for grabs for the early movers?

This following is not limited to TV alone. During the tournament, the audience base for Disney + Hotstar, Sports Apps featuring live scores, commentary and match highlights, and Fantasy Sports Platforms allowing viewers to create their own teams and play along the hype see massive gains too, as smartphone users from across the country tune in to these platforms to catch the live action. As per the Nielsen and BARC Report, Disney + Hotstar saw a 99% WoW jump in users/week during the opening week of IPL 2020, while the same metric for Sports Apps and Fantasy Sports Platforms jumped by 92% and 80% respectively.

We recently came across a post by Parikshit Kashyap, from The Glitch, which aptly sums up the extravaganza that is the IPL


“IPL is like cricket on drugs. And these drugs keep getting better.

Entertainment is a drug fueled by advertisers, and IPL is the one drug loved the same by men, women, and children of all ages. Don’t get me wrong, drugs are not all bad. Some might save your life if you have COVID-19. Some might change the way you look at life. But what’s common is that all of them alter your lifestyle.

And that’s exactly what advertisers spend money to do.”


True to this spirit, and undeterred by the pandemic, the tally of advertisers in IPL 2020 in fact grew 7% over the 2019 edition, as 249 brands took to advertising during the league. What is truly fascinating is that 4 out of the Top 5 categories of advertisers during IPL 2020 were from the ecommerce sector, contributing to 29% of all ad volumes, compared to just 2 out of the Top 5 in the previous edition. This shift was largely driven by venture-funded upstarts, as the edition saw not just repeat brands including the likes of CRED, Dream11, PhonePe and Paytm double down on their spends during the tournament, but also first time advertisers such as Wakefit and CoinSwitch Kuber jumping on the bandwagon for a slice of the pie.



As these businesses continue to shell out large sums of money during the tournament, their flywheel also seems to be working just right. Coincidentally, heavy investments in the IPL are not just driving brand recall, but also helping few of these brands drum up investor interest for future fundraises. So much so that within weeks of BCCI’s announcement of IPL 2020 sponsors, Dream11, Unacademy and CRED had all closed large rounds of funding.

Deep-dive into advertising channels

With over 2,300 seconds of ad inventory/match on TV, and a multitude of other channels, the IPL sure is a feast for advertisers looking to experiment with channels and formats. We have taken a closer look at 4 major advertising channels, to decode the things that work well, and what brands could potentially learn, as they think about advertising in the IPL.



1. Sponsorships

When it comes to league sponsorships, the fee to be paid is by no means small. For IPL 2021, the title sponsorship for Vivo came at a hefty price tag of $58.7MM, while the official sponsors shelled out $28MM each. However, year after year, we see brands lining up their bids as the league continues to deliver on its ROI promise. While this is fairly evident in the growth in search volumes experienced by brands large or small, old or new, during the days of the event, the nuance to extracting the most out of sponsorships lies in the details.  


One way to bring out the nuances of ROI from sponsorships is to compare the brand share of voice for Vivo, which was the title sponsor of IPL 2019, and Paytm which paid a significantly smaller sum of money towards sponsorship, and took up the spot of Umpire Partners for the same event.


Over the 2 months period, there was a massive peak in mentions of Vivo – not just for #VivoIPL, but for the brand Vivo as well. However, this peak was short-lived, specifically for the brand. It happened right at the beginning of the tournament, and then died down almost immediately. Even #VivoIPL, which grew exponentially in the beginning and peaked towards the middle of the tournament, died down gradually.

On the contrary, Paytm saw an increase in mentions towards the beginning and peaked in the middle much like the other sponsors, but its brand mentions didn’t quite decline as significantly towards the end of the tournament. This is because all this while, Paytm was also running activation campaigns such as ‘Paytm on the Screen’ in parallel.

In a nutshell, especially for startups experimenting with ATL marketing in the IPL for the first time, league sponsorships are expensive, but if done well, also promise great ROIs. The key to getting league sponsorship right is to therefore understand that it’s not just a high investment game, but also requires a 3600 approach to activation. The general rule of thumb to improve ROI is that for every $ spent on sponsorships, at least an additional $ needs to go into investments in activation campaigns. 

However, the story is different, when it comes to franchise sponsorships. With each IPL franchise carrying the logos for 6-7 brands on their team jerseys and helmets, as multiple brands scramble for real estate, it becomes increasingly tough to break the clutter and get noticed. While in some cases primary brands on the jerseys do get noticed (more so, if they’ve been long-standing sponsors for the same franchise), secondary associations hardly seem to make a mark. The case for franchise sponsorships further weakens, especially for new/unknown brands, when we look at the price tag that comes along with it.


Therefore, even though franchise sponsorships are significantly cheaper than league sponsorships, they probably wouldn’t work as well for relatively new/unknown brands.


2. TV Broadcast

With a prime-time slot and 400MM+ viewership, advertising on TV during the IPL has almost become the Holy Grail for most consumer brands. Although, when it comes to advertising on TV, the largest question that has often-times gone unanswered is whether celebrity endorsements is the magic wand that brands should be looking to swing.

With every passing season of the IPL, we are seeing an increasing number of brands shelling out top $ and signing celebrities as endorsers and brand ambassadors. However, the benefits of such signings aren’t as straightforward, and continue to remain subjective. The Indian Institute of Human Behavior (IIHB) conducted a survey amongst viewers 10 days into IPL 2021, and the survey results further reinforce this subjectivity.



The tables below pretty much depict the same story. Even during IPL 2021, there were a long list of brands that did exceedingly well on brand recall, without a celebrity endorser. At the same time, there was a similar list of brands that signed on top-notch celebrities, yet failed to move the needle on brand recall.



We would still argue that probably having a face to the brand helps young brands establish trust and build equity within their target audience. The decision making in that case, then narrows down to how one should think about choosing the right celebrity-fit for the brand. When it comes to making this decision, we often see brands pour in their marketing budgets towards signing the most popular celebrities with the largest following, in an attempt to amplify their reach. However, not all brands endorsed by these celebrities enjoy the same level of recall, or even association for that matter.

Here again, IPL 2021 was a classic example. According to the IIHB study, MS Dhoni stood out as the celebrity with the highest recall as multiple brands partnered with the Former Indian skipper to lend credibility to their brand. However, from amongst all the brands he was endorsing during the tournament, Dream11 walked away with the highest association at 79%, while IPL/Star TV, Indigo Paints, Orient Fans and SunFeast Yippee lagged far behind with an association of 9%, 8%, 6% and 2% respectively. What this essentially means is that a lion’s share of Dhoni’s brand goodness got hijacked by Dream11, on account of one simple reason – they outspent all other brands, and that too by a margin. Does this mean that perhaps Orient Fans and SunFeast Yippee would have gained more recognition and recall with another celebrity, with the same spends? Absolutely!  It is therefore imperative for brands to keep this in mind, as they look at choosing the right celebrity for their ad campaign.

The intricacies behind celebrity endorsements get further complicated, when it comes to categories like EdTech. Perhaps all categories are not created equal. Brands in EdTech and to some extent even healthcare are subject to a lot more scrutiny than the others.

In summary, TV advertising during the IPL is certainly promising, especially for mass-market consumer brands. However, with everyone fighting for the consumer’s attention within this short window of 7-8 weeks, brands need to set aside a certain minimum spend to be able to break the clutter, and generate even base-level ROIs. The decision around celebrity endorsements is a lot more subjective – right from deciding whether or not, to picking the right celebrity, getting the content right, and building the entire campaign around it. Amplified reach and a face to the brand certainly helps young brands establish trust and equity.


3. OTT Platforms (Disney + Hotstar)

A reach of 260MM+, and the option to experiment with innovative ad formats to drive engagement has drawn brands from across categories to make the most out of advertising on Disney + Hotstar as well. The results have been more than promising, to say the least (data in the infographic shown for IPL 2019).


What truly stands out for Disney + Hotstar, is the availability of multiple creative formats and targeting options that brands can turn to, without having to commit massive budgets, thereby making it an advertiser’s delight. There are 5 major formats available for advertisers to choose from:

  • Mid-roll Video Ads: 10-30s non-skippable ads played during the breaks in between live streaming of matches. These ads work really well in delivering the brand message because they are long enough to narrate the entire story, and are delivered to a super engaged audience. However, mid-roll video ads typically see low CTRs (0.2% - 0.5%) as viewers are unlikely to switch context while the game is on
  • Pre-roll Video Ads: 5-10s non-skippable ads played before the live streaming of a game begins. While these ads aren’t as high impact for messaging, they experience much higher CTRs (2-4%) than mid-roll ads as the match is yet to begin
  • Branded Cards: Simple banners that carry the brand logo and message, and are placed right below the live streaming window in the social live feed
  • Features (Squeeze-ups): Non-clickable squeeze-ups at key moments of the match such as super 4s/6s | Fall of Wickets | Super Saves etc., and are high-visibility assets that are sponsored at a league level
  • Native Ownership: These offer brand presence during the score display in the form of Scorecards, and as 1st view display on all app pages in the form of Billboards

Brands across the board have used a combination of these formats to generate disproportionate returns on ad spends over the course of the tournament. A few examples of the ways in which brands have used these assets to their advantage is highlighted in the table below:

Here again, what seems to have worked best for brands is a customized campaign for Disney + Hotstar, which truly unlocks the potential of the channels at the advertisers’ disposal. As per the Hotstar India Watch Report 2019, one brand which leveraged the platform really well to achieve its objectives during IPL 2019 was Swiggy.


Case Study: Swiggy X Disney + Hotstar @ IPL 2019:

Campaign Objective

Swiggy used the platform to create a deeper bond with the cricket crazy fans, tap into new customers by building brand awareness and reach across Metros and Tier 1 cities, while also enabling food ordering via an in-app plugin, so that customers can order-in while never having to leave the streaming app.

Campaign Design

To achieve their stated objective, Swiggy used a 3-pronged campaign design, thereby leveraging multiple formats to engage with the audience base on the platform.


Campaign Performance

The company experienced significant uplift on all key brand metrics, as well as across messages and attributes. All metrics uplift were ‘above average’ with uplift in consideration being ‘excellent’ as per Kantar India and Asia norms.

There’s indeed immense learning here for all brands looking to start their advertising journey on the IPL. Disney + Hotstar seems to be a great advertising channel – both from a reach, and an ROI/effectiveness standpoint, especially for new age consumer businesses. Even for companies with low advertising budgets, it has loads to offer to help them tap into the IPL viewership and build brand awareness. As was demonstrated by Swiggy, use of innovative formats, customized integrations and contextual messaging will be key in strengthening brand recall, thereby driving higher-than-average ROI for the marketing spends on the platform.


4. Social Media

Finally, when it comes to Social Media, Twitter and Instagram clearly stand out as the platforms of choice. As is the case with advertising on TV, every season of the IPL witnesses brands creating content around the league and amplifying it via influencers, effectively flooding the internet with brand messaging. Here again, the question that seems to linger on is whether or not influencer-led campaigns is the way to go, and if brands choose to follow that path, who should they be looking at bringing onboard. To answer this question for ourselves, we did a deeper-dive into brand campaigns on both these platforms during IPL 2020.


No surprises there – IPL’s 2020 edition saw brands excel either ways – with and without influencers. While CRED led the way in turbocharging campaign reach through clutter-breaking use of influencers, brands like Swiggy and Red Bull managed to create buzz even without them. What’s especially interesting (and probably intuitive as well!) is that influencers from the sports category stood out with surprisingly high engagement and reach. Well, if you’re an advertiser looking to sign-on influencers on Twitter to amplify your brand’s reach, now you know who to go to!


One brand that certainly taught all of us a thing or two, when it comes to truly unlocking the potential of influencer-led campaigns on Twitter was CRED. Interestingly enough (was this planned? or a sheer coincidence?), the brand dropped its 1st ever tweet on the opening day of IPL 2020, disguised as a Sponsored Brand Collaboration. What followed was probably one of the most epic ad campaigns we’ve come across in recent times.




At the other end of the spectrum was Red Bull, which chose not to go down the influencer route, and excelled nonetheless. They went all-in when it came to staying active on Twitter during the days of the league, thereby making the most of their partnership with Rajasthan Royals.



The story is somewhat similar on Instagram, as brands did well whether or not they signed on influencers for their ad campaigns. As was the case with Twitter, influencers from the sports category topped the table in engagement and reach here as well, while those from the arts and entertainment category were not far behind.


Outside of direct posts, what makes Instagram truly special is the opportunity for brands to engage creatively with the audience, thereby unlocking the power of user-generated content (UGC). Dream11 cracked the Instagram advertising code just right by experimenting with AR Filters, Reels and a bunch of other formats, while also pushing for participation through contextual contests that kept the audience engaged and excited to play along.



Bringing it all together, our learnings from our deep-dive into brand campaigns tell us that while there is no straightforward answer to unlocking organic virality on Twitter, staying involved in the event sure helps. Cross-brand collaborations draw a lot of attention too. The other side is what CRED showed us – allocating marketing $$ goes a long way indeed, but only if content is novel enough to cut through the clutter. Otherwise, while the brand might win on the number of impressions garnered, it ends up losing the UGC race. On Instagram, great content thrives - especially great momental content. Creative formats go the distance too, when it comes to strengthening brand recall.


CRED: A Case Study on Advertising in the IPL

The magnitude of media spends, buzz created with their ads and all the conversation that followed, got us diving into 1st time advertiser – CRED’s IPL 2020 campaign strategy. With a comprehensive distribution strategy planned around clutter-breaking celeb-led ads, CRED got a host of things just right with their tongue-in-cheek campaign for IPL 2020.

Within no time, CRED was trending on Twitter, business numbers were through the roof, and the company even closed on an $80MM fundraise, almost doubling its valuation to $800MM, from $450MM about a year ago.

What made all the difference?

  • Use of Celebs: The ads were a stroke of creative genius. With ~250 brands advertising within a span of 7-8 weeks, it becomes increasingly difficult for a brand to stand out. CRED did just that


  • Distribution Strategy: If we ever had any doubts around whether throwing marketing $$ could amplify brand messaging on Twitter, CRED cleared that for us. Of course, quality content is key

Over the past 2 seasons, CRED has certainly set new benchmarks when it comes to advertising in the IPL. Benchmarks which perhaps not just other brands, but CRED themselves will find hard to beat in the seasons to follow.


Closing Thoughts

Drawing from our learnings from brands advertising during the league, the IPL certainly seems like an opportunity worth exploring, especially for app-first, consumer businesses. We are already seeing few of our portfolio companies garnering great ROIs on all advertising spends made during these 7-8 weeks of sporting festivities. Jotting down a few closing thoughts:

  1. As young brands look to tap into this opportunity, Disney + Hotstar is a great place to start, as it provides the opportunity for businesses with relatively smaller advertising budgets, or ones with operations in limited geographies to test the waters
  2. Even though women constitute 48% of the total viewership, women-centric brands seem to be shying away from the advertising in the IPL. This seems to be a missed opportunity up for grabs
  3. For all brands deciding to advertise on TV during the tournament, having a well-knit cross-platform strategy to amplify the brand message will certainly go a long way
  4. The choice of a celeb endorsement is largely subjective, although it does help 1st time ATL advertisers. Choice of the celeb is therefore critical, not just from a fit standpoint, but also in terms of the goodness one can benefit from
  5. Having a contextual/momental flavor to all messaging during the tournament seems to have worked well for brands
  6. A thought on search engine marketing: here again, contextual messaging seems to go a long way. Piggy-backing on the traffic rush for sponsor brands might be an interesting avenue to explore too, especially for brands with relatively smaller budgets set aside for SEM
  7. And finally, clutter is real. Content quality will therefore be key!