The upcoming IPL Closing Ceremony on May 29 is set to be headlined with performances from A R Rahman and Ranveer Singh, in addition to a video tribute to Indian cricket coinciding with the ongoing celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.
Playing her part in transforming cricket into a ‘sportainment’ spectacle is Ms. Chanda Singh, CEO of XP&D, a venture that ‘believes in changing the landscape of experiential marketing through technology and digital experiences.’
She also touched upon the scope for re-imagining sporting heroes as motivational icons, as well as the various considerations to be kept in mind while curating Indian visits from global sporting icons.
Read on for the full interview.
Writer's note: The transcript has been lightly edited for better readability.
On Activating Live Sports Experiences in India
1) When it comes to sports, beyond core on-field action, what are the various types of event-based activations (such as IPL opening/closing ceremonies, IPL auctions etc.) that are possible?
Beyond just [IPL] opening ceremonies, [IPL] closing ceremonies and [IPL] auctions, there’s a lot of on-ground activation that’s possible – with entertainment [and] without entertainment as well.
You just need to have that one thing in common for all of these sports, which is fans. As long as you have fans available for these sports, you can do an umpteen number of things with them. It could be online or offline, doesn’t necessarily need to have an offline large scale opening or closing ceremony.
It could just be [about] creating a community of fans and doing day-to-day engagements with them, keeping them completely active in the sport that they are in. It could be creating these small engagements with people where they themselves get to see them[selves] on screen.
These are the kind of activations that we have been working on in the last few years. As long as ‘I’ can be heard and seen on screen, I’m totally glued to the entire match or the screening.
On Gujarat Titans’ Innovative Logo & Jersey Launch in IPL
Very recently, for Gujarat Titans, making their debut in this year’s IPL, it was very important for them to move away from the legacy of what the other [IPL] teams have created over the last 15 years.
It was important for them to create not just a ’Gujarat community' fan following for them but a worldwide fan base. Not just [by] doing the specific launches that we would have done in the past few years for other franchisees by launching their logos online [but] we actually launched them on the Metaverse, and that was a crazy thing that we did for the first time for any of the teams at IPL.
It just didn’t create a small buzz for them, it got people from all over the world talking about it. We created a dugout for Gujarat Titans’ fans on the Metaverse, where our players interact with the fans on a daily basis whenever they are getting time off-field, which is not possible on a regular [IPL] brand activation campaign.
We launched their [IPL] jersey at the Narendra Modi stadium but we just didn’t launch an offline event, we actually made it absolutely viral where a drone came, picked up the jersey, and in an augmented reality format, it actually reached out to everyone’s home.
So you’re not just engaging yourself by seeing what’s happening on-screen, you can catch the drone, see the jersey, experience it 360-degree and get a chance to win or get the IPL jersey with your name and number.
So by just trying to go beyond the excitement that one can see only with stars performing, it’s something more close and personal, it’s something more experiential, and it’s more ‘live’ for everyone.
2) For the 2017 IPL edition, you successfully executed eight opening ceremonies in a span of 10 days. Can you tell us more about the challenges you faced and the highs you experienced?
Every stadium had its own challenges because they are managed by a different curator. Every stadium had its own entries and exit nuances, things that we can do and can’t do on the Field of Play (FoP).
When you are on the Field of Play, and because these ceremonies are happening just before the toss, you had to plan it very differently. So you have to think through the execution plan in a manner that you bring ‘stages’, because without that, the performers will not act.
But you cannot destroy the grass. You cannot have so much weight on that it burns the grass. So our entire planning was done from an approach where you bring in things and you take things out. And while the ceremony was only 20 minutes long, we were ‘out’ in seven minutes.
You have to plan in a manner that not even a single nail is left on the field of play because if by any chance anyone gets hurt you are blacklisted completely. So you have people running with metal detectors, and you have people removing things at the same time.
I would say when you are standing there and seeing it, it all just looks like chaos. But after you’ve executed everything, it just looks very streamlined. So many challenges, but I think what I have learnt from that experience is that you are only as strong as your team.
And if your teams are absolutely sorted and you’ve cleared everything for them in a manner that is just plug and play, it works brilliantly. And that’s the learning that we are applying here [for upcoming the IPL 2022 Closing Ceremony] as well.
3) You’ve facilitated the Indian visits of global legends like Andre Agassi and Michael Phelps. Broadly, what are the pointers/concerns to keep in mind while bringing international sporting celebrities to the country?
Primarily [it’s important to keep in mind] the fact that these guys are "sporting" legends and you cannot treat them as film stars. You have to be very specific about their travel, stay and food.
That’s the first thing that you have to keep in mind. Also, you can’t block their entire day and tighten the agenda so badly that they don’t have time to breathe, because at the end of the day, they need that relaxing time, right?
Phelps had to meet the swimming school students, the media, our channel partners, the organizing committee, brands a lot of things that are packed and they can’t stay here for three or four days.
So we try and curate the agenda in a manner where you have enough time and more given to the audience that you are coming to meet. But at the same time, you are taking care of yourself because I don’t want the sporting legend to fall sick, either while you are here or when you go back.
And these guys are all coming after 19-30 hour flights so it’s anyways very very tiring. So that is something that we need to keep in mind. Otherwise, they are absolutely brilliant. I mean, they know what they have to do.
They don’t need to be briefed much. They just need to be taken broadly through what we expect from them, and they’re just sporting legends so they are just very sporting.
4) Having created and curated experiential campaigns across banking, finance, lifestyle, music and sports, what stands out when it comes to live sports events?
Honestly, what stands out is the budget that they [sports industry events like IPL] spend versus other industries on creating such events.
I just feel that the appetite to bring in the legends on these kind of shows is more from [IPL type] sporting events versus the appetite that the corporate brands have for their corporate events. Having said that, the intent is absolutely different. Here, you are creating a TV show, a broadcast event that the world-at-large is seeing.
On the other hand [in non-sports industries], you’re creating an event that is very dedicated and directed to your set of people who you are inviting for the event. These are not broadcast or televised events.
[When it comes to sporting events like IPL] you have to think from the point of view of what the masses and the world will like. It has to be an international standard, it has to be at a level that people across the globe will be able to consume versus [for corporate events, where the focus is on] what your dealer partners will like, what your internal teams will like and what your internal stakeholders will like.
So the requirements are fairly different, which is why I think the budgets are fairly different. The intent is purely entertainment on one side and very entertainment-informative-educative on the other side.
5) You executed MS Dhoni’s Life Insurance campaign with Exide. This had a powerful impact on Exide’s employees. Would you say sports stars make for natural motivational figures, and are we doing enough to leverage Indian sporting celebrities for speaking engagements?
So, answering your first question, they definitely make of a huge motivational moment for any of our experiential events that we’ve done.
Twenty years in the industry and I don’t remember any one sales conference that I’ve done without a sporting legend. From Mr Kapil Dev, to Rahul Dravid, to Dhoni, to Virender Sehwag, to [Sachin] Paaji to [Harbhajan Singh] Bhajji…the stories are just so unique that everyone…I mean everyone…wants to just hear them.
You listen to people, to presentations throughout the day, but the moment these sporting legends walk into the room, the euphoria changes, the entire vibe changes. They are our national heroes.
I’m not talking just about cricket, cricket is definitely there. I’m talking about even from Sindhu [to] Mary Kom, they have such vivid stories about themselves and the experiences that they’ve had that there are definitely takeaways for people who are sitting inside the room.
I think the brands themselves have realized and come to a conclusion that the moment they bring in a sports personality into the room, it just uplifts their entire experiential engagement, so I think it’s fairly tapped by all the brands across the industry.
6) The IPL Auction ceremony was a big hit in terms of viewership. Do you believe similar potential exists to conceptualize, market & monetize non-core live events surrounding the actual on-field action – such as opening and closing ceremonies/jersey launches/championship parades etc?
You know, honestly, it’s strange that I was speaking about this with the BCCI official and discussing that is there anything else that we can do at an auction? I mean, these are really tight schedules from morning till evening [so] for IPL auction, there is no window of creating anything different.
However, if there is any other sport that requires a little more relaxed auction happening around it, there is definitely scope to talk about the players, giving it a little more depth by showing what the players’ back-stories are all about making them come out and speak to the camera and say ‘I’m so happy that this team has taken me on.’
So there are those little things that we can do based on what we see the international market and international brands doing. But specifically to IPL, right now there is no scope.
7) In the US, half-time performances during the Super Bowl become a viral sensation. The IPL closing ceremony happens before the finals. Keeping logistics issues aside, do you think it makes more sense to have the entertainment performances between two innings, rather than prior to the toss? Would this scale up the attention that these events get?
It definitely makes sense for sporting [events] to have some half-time entertainment between the two innings. I’m not too sure if [IPL] cricket has that much time or not, plus the logistics of ensuring that the grass is well taken care of and the pitch is not disturbed is in itself a huge thing. But having said that, you will be able to entertain the live audience more if you are in half-time.
[Prior to the start of the IPL match] people in the stadiums are still coming [and] are completely inside during half-time. So for the offline audience which is inside the stadium, definitely a halftime entertainment makes sense, but for the viewers who are watching it [IPL] on TV, whether it’s at 6.30 or 9.30pm, it’s absolutely fine.
IPL Closing Ceremony 2022
8) Can you tell us what to expect from the IPL 2022 Closing Ceremony in Ahmedabad? Any new innovations this time around compared to previous IPL Closing Ceremonies?
What you wouldn’t have seen earlier [in IPL] is broadcast augmented reality (AR) that will be happening for the first time here. We’re [also] paying tribute to Indian cricket, which has evolved and given us so many memories to cherish upon in the last 75 years.
It is very beautifully coinciding with Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, ‘India at 75’. It’s the 15th IPL, so obviously it is big, [and] it’s bigger because of the ten teams we have.
It’s at the largest stadium in the country (and in the world if I may say so). So what people have not seen in the past at an IPL ceremony are the two entertainment acts that we are bringing to the innovation of bringing alive the moments of the past, through broadcast AR. It’s something that BCCI has not gotten in the past, in [the] form of creating a record that you will be seeing this time for the first time.