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The rise and rise of Uday Shankar the gambler, the decisive risktaker who does not flinch

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MUMBAI: The Great Gambler. The Decisive Risk Taker. If there are sobriquets, which can be attached to Fox Asia president and Star India CEO Uday Shankar, they are these two. And when the next chapter in the history of Indian television is written thaese two labels will aptly fit him. 

When the once-journo bid an audacious $2.37 billion to bag the IPL global media rights last year, many thought he had bitten off more than he could chew; that he had stretched his bid too far. At Rs 43 crore per IPL match, many felt that Uday and team Star India would be hard-pressed to recover that kind of expense per match, and that Star India would have red ink splattered all over its balance sheet.

Media observers believed that India’s largest TV network in terms of revenue --- surprisingly not yet listed on the Indian bourses even after almost over two decades of presence here --- would take time to digest the huge bill Uday had agreed to pay for a prestigious cricket property, which Sony Pictures had earlier valued at half of what Star India agreed to pay to the Board  of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). And for double the period. 

Clearly, everyone thought that the odds were stacked against him, and that he would be struggling just to get his act together on the IPL bid. 

But you can’t keep Uday down for too long. He is a man with a vision and in a hurry to achieve that.  And building India’s sports ecosystem is what excites him, apart from expanding Star network’s reach in India further. The former is a challenge many – including the Indian government over decades – have balked at taking up.  

Hence, when the bidding for BCCI’s India home turf cricket media rights came up, Uday was actually licking his chops, itching for the scrap that was to come. In the fray were much larger players with supposedly deeper pockets like Reliance Jio, Facebook, Google and, of course, old time rival,  the NP Singh-headed Sony Pictures Networks India. As day one moved into day two, and the price went from the stratosphere to outer space, crossing unimaginable levels, one heard media reports that the network had walked out of the game. That Star India had lost the stomach for the ferocious battle that was being waged. That it was licking its wounds in a corner.

But actually, Uday and his teammates were playing wait and watch. Both Sony and Jio scrapped and took the rates even higher and higher. Many old timers were nodding their heads wondering whether the world had gone crazy. 

Then in one fell swoop, Star India came in from nowhere and made one last bid, which would result in it paying up Rs 60.1 crore per match, giving a cumulative Rs 6138.10 crore for the 102 international matches team India would play domestically. 

That offer proved to be something both Sony and Jio could not better, despite the data-pricing disrupter’s deep pocketed owner Mukesh Ambani. For Star India, it proved to be the winning offer. BCCI officials were of course grinning from ear to ear. In less than eight months, Star India had made the world’s richest cricket board even richer by Rs 22,500 crore. 

By ratcheting up the price tag for the media rights, Uday has ensured that cricket as a sport has caught the world’s - especially the non-cricketing nations' - attention. And probably put BCCI in a different league of sports association or bodies. Sports such as football and the English Premier League command around Rs 80 crore to Rs 95 crore per match. 

It also raises questions: Will Uday and Star India be able to recover and  profit from the property they have just acquired?  What will BCCI do when the next term comes up? Is Rs 60.1 crore a match the peak or will the rates rise to newer levels or sink to another adjusted level depending on the general economy? What if the BCCI cannot command the same rate next time around? 

The bespectacled humble professional is, however, quite sanguine hat he has not overpaid and that cricket has been severely underpriced in India.  As have been television advertising sticker prices. The only way to get a sport, which is a religion for a billion plus people, its true value is to raise the bar and get advertisers to pay more. At the same time lay out the pathway for  subscribers who are willing to cough up a few hundred rupees extra a month to do so. Offer them a package, a deal, they cannot refuse. Additionally, get the south Asian diaspora worldwide to do the same. Finally, add a new bunch of viewers  - whether on OTT or on TV – in newer nations to experience the sport and pay for it. 

Uday has built a reputation for himself as the executive who can make happen what others think impossible. Industry observers scoffed when he was made CEO of Star India. What could a journo know about entertainment and sports and running a TV network?

But he proved them all wrong. Not only did he build Star India into India’s No 1 media and entertainment company – through a mix of mergers acquisition and new launches --  with a bouquet of channels in several languages, he has also pioneered many initiatives and fought tooth and nail for what he believes in. Like bringing in programming with a purpose. Like creating a writer’s room where young talents from the hinterland are trained to write television and digital shows under the expert guidance of international trainers. Like battling the regulator TRAI in the courts for trying to dictate pricing of channels, and stalling a regulation, which he thinks is unfair.  Like investing thousands of crores of rupees in building an OTT Hotstar, which has earned the respect of much better pocketed global rivals like Netflix. Like launching a league for an indigenous sport like kabaddi and several other sports leagues that will over the years give a boost to Indian sports and yield profits to the Star Network. 

Will Uday Shankar’s  IPL gamble work? Will the BCCI home rights bet prove a winner? Well we for one at indiantelevision.com believe that Uday and team Star India will emerge triumphant by year three and will be laughing all the way to the bank by year five. (Our earlier prediction that the BCCI home cricket rights would go for between $800 million to $1 billion proved true; hopefully this one will too.)

And Uday will have another chapter to write in his autobiographical book – when he does choose to do so –about how he and his team made it happen. 

Also Read:

Comment: The rise and rise of Uday Shankar

Uday Shankar sole media exec in top-100 powerful Indians list

Star's Uday Shankar on distribution challenges, IPL, FTA vs. pay TV, innovations, Made in India content…and much more

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