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The year of big switch in sports broadcasting

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MUMBAI: This year has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride for sports broadcasters. The industry saw it all–channel launches (pay as well as free to air [FTA]), rebranding, and battles for rights  for numerous domestic and international properties. Renowned properties changed hands while new ones also found a home in the country. It was a year that witnessed the less-fancied sports going from strength to strength in a market that has been dominated by cricket for far, too, long.

Among the marque developments during the year was how the aggressive Uday Shankar and team stole the rights for the IPL by bidding for the entire package, rather than individual rights for digital and TV, like the rest of the bidders. What was also uncanny was the slender margin that it pocketed the property as compared to everyone else's cumulative bid. Yes, it bid high, but has not Uday shown that he is the risk taker bar none on several occassions in the past by betting on sports like kabaddi, football, tennis,hockey, table tennis, badminton and encouraged the setting up of leagues for the poorer sports? And his efforts have borne fruit as these  have managed to rope in the viewers, advertisers and revenues. But his challenge will be to able to steer Star Sports in India in the aggressive manner he is known to do now that the India operations of Star India are in the process of coming under the Disney fold following their sale - along with other properties by the Murdochs  - to the mouse house. Star Sports meanwhile lost its leader Nitin Kukreja earlier this year when he departed to head one of the team owner's franchise operations.

Of course, streaming service Hotstar set its landmarks in terms of viewers that it managed to rope in for almost every tournment it rolled out.  Star Sports nearest rival now is the NP Singh headed Sony Pictures Networks India which let go of the IPL rights by bidding only for the television piece of the rights. Though its bid was higher than Star Sports' it still did not manage to retain the rights.

2017  was remarkable for the fact that digital players - among which figure Amazon, Facebook - are open to come head on with traditional television to snap up sports telecast rights. They of course lost to Star but who knows if they will become key game changers in terms of sports rights pricing going forward.

The year was also remarkable for the fact that Chinese brands of mobile phones have put their might behind building sports in India by becoming sponsors for almost every major property. Either  OPPO or Vivo or some other brand has paid top dollar to be associated with Indian sport. Whether this bodes well or not only time will tell, but it would be good if Indian brands too get their foot into play.

Launched in 2016, Veqta, India’s OTT subscription service dedicated to sports, got great traction for the first live property after the launch of the subscription package on Veqta. The boxing bout between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor and the digital campaign was a huge success, garnering around 1.4 billion digital impressions across various media. Within a month of activation of a subscription package, the platform crossed over 150,000 downloads. This made it clear that in India there is a big demand for alternative sports, apart from mainline sports like cricket, and there are people willing to pay for premium sports content.

Let’s see how each broadcaster fared this year:

Star India

While it restructured its bouquet, Star Sports 3 SD and Star Sports 4 SD and their HD feeds went off air. The broadcaster bet big on a regional channel as well as going Hindi with Star Sports 1 Tamil and Star Sports 1 Hindi. Moreover, it also launched Star Sports Select 1 and Star Sports Select 2, taking the broadcaster’s sports bouquet to a total of 11 channels.

Star Sports telecast Ultimate Table Tennis' (UTT) inaugural season in 2017 to promote table tennis as a sport in India. The league played a pivotal role in achieving this objective by working in cohesion with the stakeholders: the Table Tennis Federation of India, the franchises, and the broadcaster. Unlike other major sporting leagues being run in the country like IPL and ISL, UTT had club-based franchises instead of the usual city-based franchises. 

The broadcaster then took a dive into going FTA route with Star Sports First. The country’s first private FTA channel hopped on board FreeDish and got off to a roaring start in cricket-crazy India. This enabled sports fans and enthusiasts to watch their favourite sports in Hindi without paying any subscription fee. Rather surprisingly, Star Sports First contributed to 31 per cent of the overall viewership for Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) season 5. With the launch of Star Sports First, it increased its channel count to 12, thereby becoming the broadcaster with the most number of sports channels in the country.

The broadcaster took the lead on cricket in the country by acquiring the rights for the Indian Premier League (IPL) by comfortably winning it for $2.55billion for its global rights. Both the TV and digital rights for the next five years from 2018 are with Star. It will also be introducing virtual reality as a game changer.

The digital ad revenue for the tenth season more than doubled as compared to previous season which was Rs 1.2 billion.

Recent reports suggest that a caveat is being created to ensure broadcasters share their telecast with pubcaster DD for its terrestrial network and FreeDish. This would be made possible as and when the government formally issues a directive as both the law and information & broadcasting ministries were being consulted, under a regulation called the Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act 2007.

Sony Pictures Network (SPN) India

SPN India started this year with the completion of the first phase of the acquisitions of Ten Sports from Subhash Chandra-led Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (Zeel). This involved a monetary transaction of $30 million out of the total $385 million in consideration. The second phase of the deal was mutually concluded by both the parties because of certain condition with Zeel’s receipt of the remittance of $ 36.32 million from SPN.

SPN India roped Sachin Tendulkar as its brand ambassador for the sports bouquet. On the same day, Sony rebranded its sports portfolio by adding two HD channels Sony Ten 2 & 3 HD which took its total count to 11 channels in the sports cluster. Each channel picked its favourite sport with Sony Six and Six HD dedicating itself entirely to cricket while Sony Ten 1 and Ten 1 HD took to wrestling. Football was handed over to Sony Ten 2 and Ten 2 HD. Sony Ten 3 and its HD counterpart was given to all Hindi feed for any sport. International sports can be viewed on Sony ESPN/HD. Sony is also focusing on golf with Sony Ten Golf HD, which is a very niche market in India.

SPN India, the official broadcaster (till 2017) of IPL, crossed the Rs 13,000 million mark in terms of ad revenue. After a decade of holding strong, it lost out to Murdoch’s Star India with its aggressive biding price which paled Sony’s proposition of Rs 11,500 crore for just India’s rights.

The broadcaster also won the exclusive rights for the shortest format of cricket - the T10 Cricket League which is also its inaugural season. Sony has both the TV and digital rights for the league, hosted by the Emirates cricket broad.

DSport

DSport is a sports TV channel launched by Discovery Communications India specifically for the Indian subcontinent in February this year. The channel is focused on bringing the most live sports content, over 4000 hours, from around the world to audiences in India. Its wide portfolio of live sports content includes the exclusive rights for many of the leagues of wrestling, football, cycling, horse-racing, golf, tennis, motorsports, and many more.

To name a few of the exclusive leagues in DSport portfolio are, wrestling properties including American Ring of Honor and Lucha Underground. The third edition of the HBL Pakistan Super League will be aired exclusively on Dsport.  Dsport also acquired the exclusive India broadcast rights of the inaugural edition of the Laver Cup as well as the ICC World XI Tour of Pakistan.

TS Panesar was appointed as the business head in the second half of 2017.

Nimbus Communication

Launched in 2006, Neo Sports and Neo Prime have lost their sheen over the years. Their current portfolio includes leagues like FIFA Club World Cup, The Coppa Italia and Coupe de France in football. In tennis,Davis Cup and Fed Cup are the only two leagues the broadcaster owns. The broadcaster also owns some of the leagues from other sports like basketball, table tennis, motor racing, horse racing and many more.

Conclusion

The year 2017 was made memorable because of the shift in the ownership of IPL rights from Sony to Star, the country’s first private FTA sports channel, and the consolidation of other sports in the country. While plans are afoot by broadcasters for the upcoming year, here are some events to look out for in 2018.

SPN India is likely to make an aggressive bid for the Indian cricket team home rights in a bid to shore up the rights for the few cricketing events with it. Star India is also expected to leave no stone unturned to acquire the rights with the vision of having a monopoly in the Indian sports and cricket industries. We know that Sony already has the Rs 11,000 crore that it was ready to splurge on the IPL rights. The BCCI is expected to open the bid early next year for a period of five years. Furthermore, to enhance the fan experience, Star India wants to make a mark with its first IPL edition and will introduce virtual reality for the 2018 season.

The stage is set for a dogfight between the two big players in the sector–Star and Sony. Just the prospect of this off-field battle is mouth-watering. 

Also read: 

Comment: Does Star stand to gain or lose by sharing IPL with DD?

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

Star India to introduce VR for IPL 2018

ISL piggybacks on EPL's popularity to gain viewership

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