The prime ministers of India and Pakistan were both in attendance, and India's Mohali airport had to turn away private jets after running out of space for the rich and famous to park their planes. When India and Pakistan played in the semifinals of the Cricket World Cup on Wednesday, both countries came to a virtual standstill as hundreds of millions of fans watched every single ball of the eight-hour match.
The rivalry between India and Pakistan is legendary, and ESPN Star Sports, which is broadcasting the whole tournament, is making the most of the captive audience. Last-minute deals have raised spot rates from $7,800 to $44,688 for only 10 seconds of airtime during the match, pricing many marketers out of the game. Those aren't exactly Super Bowl rates -- a 30-second spot for that U.S. game goes for up to $3 million -- but they are premium pricing for a pay TV channel in India.
Sudha Natrajan, deputy CEO of Lintas Media Group India, responded to questions by email because she couldn't tear her attention away from the screen long enough to make a phone call.
She said, "One billion hearts are synchronized at the same level. Cricket is a religion in India. One of the biggest emerging markets in the world has lost 75% of its productivity [today] -- this is not just a cricket match, it is nearly a war."
Official sponsors of the month-long tournament, which is being played mostly in India, with a few matches in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, include Sony, Honda, Vodafone, Suzuki, Nokia and Pepsi. Ms. Natrajan claimed that Lintas Media Group is the single largest investor in the tournament on behalf of its clients.
"This was an opportunity we spotted and clinched six months ago," she said. "We have planned well in advance so we didn't have to buy at premium last-minute rates."
Divya Gururaj, managing director of MediaCom India, said, "Prices are insanely high yet clients have been buying. It is hugely expensive to acquire cricket rights so ESPN Star Sports is milking this bonanza." The broadcaster, a joint venture between ESPN parent Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., owner of Star TV, kept back ad inventory for last-minute deals and has jacked up the rates to capitalize on the success of the Indian team. (Of six matches played, India has four wins, one loss and one tie).
MediaCom bought space for Volkswagen at the premium rates for last-minute spots because a new campaign themed "Think Blue" launched on the day of the semifinal, and India's team wears blue.
Nike also paid a premium for buying advertising only from the semifinals on, debuting its new "Yards" spot during the India-Pakistan showdown on March 30. The ad compares the raw street-style of cricket played by Indian kids with the bold style of Team India.
Jai Lala, a partner at Nike media agency Mindshare, said audiences reached 80 million homes in India -- and were more than matched by those watching at work and in public spaces. "The premium charged can be justified, although not many advertisers have bought at this rate and it was considered very expensive by a lot of marketers. It's a risky proposition as it is completely dependent on India's performance." India beat Pakistan in the semifinal and will play neighboring Sri Lanka in the final on Saturday.
Ms. Natrajan said that it's not only ESPN Star Sports that is hiking its prices. Fares for plane tickets from Delhi to Chandigarh, where the match took place, reportedly soared from $67 to $500 for those wanting to get to the stadium.
According to reports, Castrol spent one-third of its entire Indian ad budget for 2011 on the Cricket World Cup, and LG Electronics boosted its marketing budget by 15% this year to buy airtime during the tournament as well as the Indian Premiere League matches.
Last year, more than one in every eight TV ad dollars was spent during cricket matches, according to TAM Media Research. Cricket dominated TV ratings in India in 2010, with about 176 million viewers, compared to 57 million in 2003. Cricket is the biggest driver of revenue for India's TV industry, accounting for 85% of all TV sports-related advertising on TV.