Neo Sports Broadcast set for mega revamp; sees Rs 400 crore equity infusion

MUMBAI: ?They say in golf if you are shooting 100 then your golf needs attention but if you are scoring 80 then your business may need attention. The sweet spot is somewhere in between, the ideal work life balance.? That?s how Harish Thawani, a man synonymous with the Indian sports industry and currently NEO Sports Broadcast chairman, begins the conversation after weeks of chasing to understand the company?s play in the current ecosystem.

And be rest assured that this avid golfer has surely found that sweet spot in between, for his company Neo Sports Broadcast will soon see a complete makeover and fresh investments to the tune of Rs 400 crore in content, branding, marketing and technology in 2015-16.

Neo Sports Broadcast, which operates two channels - Neo Prime and Neo Sports, will also see a slew of new initiatives being launched soon.

?Our existing shareholders have decided to make an equity infusion of approximately Rs 400 crore into the company this year, subject to the necessary regulatory approvals,? Thawani tells

Equity Infusion and Consumer Insights:

The existing shareholders of Neo includes Oman Investment Fund, Nimbus and Thawani himself. Nimbus in turn is majority owned by Cisco, 3i and OIF; with Thawani and associates holding a significant stake. In 2012, after having lost the BCCI cricketing rights, Neo decided to re-engineer itself on its future growth story. Through consumer insights, TAM numbers and research undertaken by the company, it picked up two trends in the market.

?One, sports other than cricket like football, tennis, badminton, golf and basketball were gaining significant traction and it helped us to find ourselves a relevant space in the ecosystem. Secondly, digitisation was providing an opportunity to broadcasters to cater to over 150 million viewers that now watch sports other than cricket,? Thawani explains.

Based on these insights the company has decided to acquire quite a few properties for this year for its two channels.

New Rights Acquisitions:

As Neo Prime and Neo Sports look to boost their fan base based on its recent research on viewers? preferences, the company has begun a fresh set of rights acquisitions. As many as five new rights deals have been recently concluded and at least five more are in the pipeline, providing over 40 new live events and over 800 hours of live programming a year. All rights acquisitions have been done on a multi-year basis.

Neo has also boosted its football portfolio with a top five European league the Dutch Eredivisie and will shortly add another major European football property to its portfolio. Its Eredivisie acquisition followed the research insights that top tier clubs like Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord have a significant fan base in India.

Another consumer insight showed that table tennis is an under-served sport in India, despite being a huge participation sport, commonly understood by viewers. This prompted Neo to acquire not just the World Cups and World Championships but also the ITTF World Tour. ?The rise of Indians on the table tennis circuit augurs well for the growth of its viewership in India,? states Thawani.

The telecast rights to the 2015 European Games (similar to the Asian Games) have been acquired by Neo and will be aired this summer. This second largest multi-nation, multi-sport event is expected to be a spectacular display of sport at the highest level.

To boost its motor sport coverage and enthused by the fact that technology now enables live coverage, Neo has acquired the World Rally Championships (all 12 events a year).

It has also boosted its coverage of live horse racing to engage the super affluent horse racing fans in India, with its deal to air English horse racing (including the major Derbies and Classics).

Also in the pipeline is a programming band devoted to fight sport, which is expected to launch in the second half of 2015 apart from a major European football asset, a series of top tier badminton events and a tennis rights package.

This complements Neo?s offering in tennis, consisting of the French Open, Davis Cup and Fed Cup; its top tier golf coverage with the PGA Tour of about 40 events a year, Bundesliga football, World Basketball Championships and others.

When queried about plans for cricket, Thawani says, ?It has been widely reported that Neo was recently a bidder for the ICC rights, which should convey that our interest in cricket will continue. There are several cricket rights that will come to market in the coming 18 months, and we will evaluate each opportunity.?

Channel Upgrade to HD: 

?We will convert both our channels; Neo Prime and Neo Sports from SD to HD. We aim to make this transition in October-December 2015 quarter,? says the man, who besides being an avid golfer, played as many as four other sports competitively at university and club level.

Consumer Engagement:

The company will also launch a multimedia campaign, including digital media to communicate its enhanced programming to fans in order to boost brand recall and increased engagement. The mega multimedia campaign will begin from as early as May 2015.

It has been learnt that the company had seen an interest from companies such as Euro Sport, BeIn Sports and Super Sports among others to either buy a majority stake or outright purchase of Neo Sports Broadcast. However, Thawani refused to comment on any specific discussions citing confidentiality provisions, but states, ?Neo is, to my knowledge, the only profitable sports broadcaster in India, having made profits in 2013-14 and we expect to sustain that trend. This has enthused our shareholders to back the company in its quest for further growth. Consequently, we have taken a decision to not evaluate any stake sale. When required, we may induct one more financial investor.?

It is clear that Neo shareholders believe that smart management and digitisation would help it go a long way and therefore it would be a wrong time to disinvest. It may be recalled that just eight years back, Neo had one of the most successful pay TV launches in the world of sport, quickly becoming the number one sports channel in 2009 and number one sports network by 2010.

In the world of today's broadcast television, where content, technology and innovation rapidly changes the share of audience, Neo looks poised to take competition head-on with fresh capital infusion and many a new properties firmly tucked under its belt.

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