Court adjourns sports rights case; Zee has till Tuesday to decide whether it will re-bid

MUMBAI: Give this round to ESPN-Star Sports. The Bombay High Court, which this morning proposed that the sports broadcaster and Zee Network submit fresh bids to the Registrar General of the High Court, has given Subhash Chandra's network till Tuesday to decide whether it is agreeable to the court's proposition.

Zee's board of directors is meeting on Monday to decide on what course of action to take. If Zee agrees to the proposal, it has to inform the court accordingly on Tuesday. Then both Zee and ESS will have to submit fresh bids on Wednesday, 15 September. If it does decide to put in a fresh bid, only ESS and Zee will be allowed to submit afresh. One rider the court has inserted here is that there will be no further avenue of appeal if this route is taken by the two claimants in the case.

What is curious about the proposal put forth by the High Court however, is that whosever's bid is higher, will get the rights. That means that the criteria of merit goes out of the window, which is the sole argument around which ESS moved the courts in the first place.

Coming back to the choice before Zee, if it is not agreeable to a re-bid, the case will stand adjourned till Thursday (16 September), when the Bench of Chief Justice DS Bhandari and Justice DY Chandrachud will here arguments on whether Zee is eligible or not to telecast cricket matches.The bench apparently decided to take the re-bid route to try and avoid further waste of time on the issue. The BCCI counsel had expressed worry that if the issue continued rebounding back and forth, then when the Australian team comes down in October, a broadcaster might still not be finalised.

The talk doing the rounds is that if Zee agrees to the re-bid, then the price for the India telecast rights could touch an astronomical and financially crippling $350 million. Either way the third party in the case, the BCCI benefits.

However, addressing a media gathering after the hearing, ESS Asia MD Rik Dovey maintained that India cricket was not a survival issue for the broadcaster.

"We are looking to grow our business. We have a strong connection with Indian cricket through our brand ambassador Sachin Tendulkar. We also have Saurav Ganguly. We also have cricket from England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Bangladesh. We would like to add India to our kitty."

Earlier in the day, ESS' counsel had argued that Zee had not produced a single day of cricket thus far. "They buy the rights to cricket for their international territories. This includes animation graphics and replays. The only thing that is from Zee are the ads.

What we are disappointed at is the fact that the BCCI deviated from its norms. The bids were supposed to be placed before Price waterhouse Coopers for evaluation. This never happened. PWC only tabulated the bids. In fact, responding to a letter from us, they said that they had told the BCCI to inform all the bidders of their limited role. The BCCI did not do so."

The counsel added that BCCI president Jagmohan Dalimya had had a private phone conversation with Subhash Chandra where the Zee Group CMD was informed that his network was eligible. "How can Dalmiya do this? The bid stipulation is clearly aimed at excluding those parties who do not have their own production unit.

"We gave details of our production unit in our bid document. Even for England tours which are produced by Sky, we take our own production team along with cameras. That is because Indian viewers want to view the action from the perspective of Saurav Ganguly and the team. We also have our own commentary team."

The counsel maintained that Zee on the other hand would either hire a production unit or license the rights to a third party. "If you do that then you cannot claim to be possessing production expertise." Dovey added that a sports broadcaster would produce cricket in a far better manner than a non sports broadcaster. "There are a host of specials that we create around our presentation. The Asia Cup is an example of that."

Meanwhile, the tremors of today's developments were felt on the bourses with the Zee scrip getting quite a hammering. Zee's share price, which opened the day at Rs 161.50, plummeted to a low of Rs 149.40 before recovering slightly to close at Rs 151.15, down 6.4 per cent.

As had been earlier reported by Zee Telefilms has already made the initial payment of $20 million to BCCI for telecast rights of the India cricket matches.

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