But 27 days into the 13th edition of the IPL in UAE, one just cannot tell that this year’s league is indeed being played inside empty stadiums. The buzz during the games seems as real as it gets and it is an outcome of some brilliant planning and execution by host broadcasters Star India.
And one man who has spent numerous sleepless nights overseeing the whole process from initiation to finally raising the curtains on what has been nothing short of a spectacle is Sanjog Gupta. But the newly appointed Star India Sports Head refuses to take credit and calls it a complete team effort.
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Speaking to ANI, Sanjog threw light on the initial ambiguity over the venue, the challenges that came with organising the league with an eye on the virus and most importantly, ensuring that the reputation that the IPL has built over the years of being a visual delight remains unscratched.
Halfway into the tournament, Gupta says the biggest takeaway is when people think fans have been allowed into the stadiums.
“I will quickly tell you a story…There is a colleague of mine and I was chatting with him after the first week of IPL, and he told me that his parents are very keen to go for the finals. I said crowds are not allowed, and he said exactly, they didn’t even know that IPL was being played to empty stadiums. They had full plans and didn’t realise that the crowd wasn’t there, now that is a compliment.
“It is a massive compliment for the entire team that has worked practically day and night to put this experience together. Both audio and visual. There is a guy who is our primary audio producer who had to sit through 100 matches over a two-month period to basically put together a library of audio references for different situations in a game and how the crowd reacts.
“So when MS Dhoni plays against Mumbai Indians and hits a six…it sounds a certain way, but when a KL Rahul hits a four against Delhi Capitals, it doesn’t sound the same. So we had to create this library of audio references and then we had to re-record all the sounds, because we can’t take the sound from the original match because it has too much of interference.
“And then, of course, using it, curating it and playing it live is another operation in itself, because you have to constantly watch the game and have to know where the fielders are to know that you’re not queuing the wrong sounds. So we actually created a new workflow for it which allows the sound engineer and the audio producer to actually be able to see where the fielders are with a dedicated feed for them,” he smiled.
“…We have got a lot of queries from broadcasters around the world on the workflow and the process and the systems that we have deployed, because what they have seen in the IPL, they have not been able to manage on any of their own broadcast. So again credit to the entire team.”
Once pulled off, it does look spectacular. But talking about the challenges that the team faced coming into the tournament, Sanjog says there were four to five basic areas that needed attention and detailing.
“When we started, there were maybe five challenges. This is as of June-July when we started working with BCCI to see what was the possibility of having IPL happen. Then, have it happen in India or abroad depending on how the pandemic pans out. First challenge was the uncertainty itself.
“To accept the fact that, there will be uncertainty till the last minute where it is going to played. You know enough stories to know how it went back and forth — largely to no one’s fault. It’s just that the situation we were involved in with the pandemic. Probably the first thing was to just prepare ourselves for the ambiguity.
“As you can imagine, the schedule came less than a month before the tournament, which means we had to plan accordingly. We had to do a lot of preparations to be ready to act quickly, be nimble, be flexible and be able to move with very little notice and actually make things happen.
“The second one was more around the ecosystem — how do we get the ecosystem to align in favour of IPL and see the fact that this IPL is not just another sports tournament — it has the potential of being a game-changer, both for the sports ecosystem and national sentiment. It is likely to bring back joy to people’s lives which is going to be desperately needed for a country that has been struck by the pandemic and has been in lockdown for so long — both to lift spirits and create a sense of togetherness that this is an important tournament.
“Third challenge was how do you communicate to a country that has been affected by a pandemic in a certain way — you know that something joyful and full of life and spirit is coming, and they are invited to come and watch. We don’t want to be insensitive. You want to be empathetic because all of us have our own stories to tell about how we dealt with the pandemic and a lot of us perhaps have stories which pulled us down to some extent. In that context, how do you invite viewers to connect with something that is all about fun, joy and a sense of festival.
“The fourth was the conceptualization, design and deployment of the bio-secure bubbles. It is bit of a peculiar situation with IPL happening in UAE. Unlike any other global tournament, it is not one secure bubble — it’s actually four different bio-secure bubbles. One in Mumbai, which is a central bio-secure bubble, one in Dubai, one in Sharjah and one in Abu Dhabi. How we set protocols which, firstly, keeps at bay any possible contamination of the bio-secure bubble and secondly in case there is a contamination, how do you control the contagion and make sure the infection doesn’t spread.
“I think part of it was science and working with medical experts and the other part was to work with the production design itself to come up with protocols that still allow you to put together a great broadcast, but keep people safe.
“The final challenge was if you are not going to have fans in the stadium, how will you mind the broadcast in such a way that it doesn’t look like a pale shadow of the IPL. The last thing you want is to create all this hype around IPL, get people to come in and have them complain about the fact that this doesn’t feel like the IPL or feels like a downgraded version. So the final challenge was how do you design the broadcast in a way where we approached it in an interesting manner. We thought that we will not try and make up for everything that isn’t there. We will redesign the game and how it’s broadcast, from scratch.
“So, we started by imagining what the broadcast should look like if a game was being played in a field — and then worked the plan, instead of saying this is not there and that’s not there. We said let’s redesign IPL — can this truly be IPL Broadcast 2.0? Can it be a complete redesign of the IPL broadcast both in terms of video and audio, and in terms of consumer experience? It was a re-imagination exercise,” he explained.
Touching on the sensitivity factor in the post-coronavirus era, while one can be wary of the impact social media can have if things don’t go as planned, Sanjog says being responsible citizens and custodians of national sentiments is important.
“I don’t think it’s a social media thing as much. Yes, you are right that social media obviously amplifies the chatter that much more, but I think it’s also being responsible citizens. More than anything else, we take our role as being the nation’s storytellers and thereby to some extent, in a limited way, custodians of national sentiments very seriously, which is why we always tried to act responsibly and the same was the case with IPL.
“Whether it is a marketing campaign, which actively incorporated the situation with the pandemic in the creative by celebrating Covid heroes, common people who were Covid heroes for us, or by ensuring that every broadcast that we do, every match that we broadcast, has clearly re-established and reiterates the precautions that one must take.
“Even the commentators reiterate the message and we don’t miss a single game because it’s very easy otherwise for people at home to see a match being played even if it’s as far away as Dubai is and get the feeling that everything is normal and that they don’t need to wear a mask because their heroes are not wearing a mask,” he pointed.
In fact, the Star India Sports Head used the example of Kolkata Knight Riders’ co-owner and Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan.
(KKR co-owner Shah Rukh Khan – BCCI/IPL/PTI Photo)
“Even when Shahrukh came to the stadium, he was wearing a mask, and we made sure that we conveyed the message that look, because Shahrukh is not in a bio-secure bubble, he is wearing a mask,” he explained.
While the execution so far has been nothing short of astounding, Sanjog isn’t willing to sit on the laurels.
“Look, we are always planning surprises and in fact some of these we dropped without making too much noise. For example, because Ravindra Jadeja started batting up the order, we re-created a chant for Ravi Jadeja. You know that chant that plays — Go Ravi Jadeja. We actually created that two weeks back and dropped it on the CSK-SRH game.
“So, one part of it is the constant evolution of an existing innovation that we have, that we don’t want to just sit back and say ‘this is the bank of sounds that we’re going to use’. For example, the team is actually putting together a chant for Rahul Tewatia, because of what he’s done in IPL.
“The idea is to keep re-creating because there’s a need for freshness. That’s one part. The other part is new innovations. So one of the things that we’re going to be launching, hopefully next week, as part of the fan week is the first-ever live cricket quiz which will be played as part of the pre-show, where you as a viewer can actually participate in the quiz.
“So the questions are asked on the broadcast and you answer them on Disney+ Hotstar and every day there are a bunch of winners. The idea is for us to constantly find ways of offering new pieces of delight to viewers and which is what the endeavour is going to be even for the last three weeks,” he signed off.