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2013: Sports channels begin to challenge the traditional rules

By Peter Hutton

Peter-Hutton-ESPN-STAR-Sports-MDWelcome to the Year of the Star cricket series featuring the Star Indian cricket team on Star Sports. Quite a last 12 months for Uday Shankar and Nitin Kukreja’s team at Star—they’ve built on their inherited sports business with dynamism and an intent to be local and relevant. In the last year, a huge spend on the next three years of the English Premier League football and a leap into the darkness of the hockey franchise world has shown a continued determination to challenge the rules of the Indian sports traditions.

Those rules certainly needed re-writing with all the sports channels dragged into losses by the relentless inflation of cricket rights. Now we wait to see if Star can rewrite the rules on collections of revenues with sports as the battering ram of their whole entertainment business. What can’t be disputed is the way that they’ve used the entertainment channels to help cross-promote and build the bigger event to a wider audience. Sachin’s last Test was a human interest story that transcended sport, and I’m sure the support of the Star network helped maximise the value of that emotional goodbye.

Star also deserves credit for their investment in digital content that makes multiple games or multiple views of a sports event available. All over the world, viewers are moving away from experiencing only linear television content and Star has claimed the Indian sports digital territory with an excellent offering that is bound to grow in popularity.

Away from Star, Sony made the shrewd move of bringing in Prasanna Krishnan from Neo to shore up their sports content, and the appointment has paid off with a sensible improvement in live sport for Sony Six, as it seeks to turn its IPL dominance into a year-round position. An interesting challenge for the channel, but with bidding for the cricket World Cup and the rest of the ICC rights about to start again, Sony is able to present itself as a credible alternative to the Star incumbent.Sony’s purchase of the Australian Open rights is an excellent way of extending their year round portfolio, with two weeks of content that also receives good advertising support.

Meanwhile at Ten, new man Rajesh Sethi has already achieved the difficult task of pulling the business back to India from the old Dubai headquarters as he looks to re-energise the traditional home of the WWE. With long-term agreements with Sri Lanka, the West Indies and South Africa in place, Ten’s cricket foundation is strong. Their next target has to be the renewal of the Pakistan Cricket Board rights, which, subject to Pakistani politics, should be a decision just round the corner. Predicting Pakistan is never easy, but Ten has held the rights since the launch of the channel in 2002 and the relationships are deep rooted. The return of the experienced Manoj Padmanabhan also adds solidity to their new India-based team.

Over at Neo, they are uniquely and proudly able to claim profitability for the sports business. You can count on Harish Thawani to find a new way to make the business work, and as he waits to see the value of his purchase of India’s tour of New Zealand, you can guarantee that he is up to something to keep his competitors on their toes!

On the event side, we’ve seen a very successful launch of the Indian badminton league, some great crowds for Indian franchise hockey and yet we still wait for the footballing equivalent. The football league is now being pushed along by the Star juggernaut, and it will be fascinating to see how the project finally fares on the pitch after what seems like years of relentless press releases. Meanwhile, Yannick Colaco’s appointment at the NBA is the latest worldwide vote of confidence in the talent of the Indian sports industry and the latest embodiment of the large sports franchises looking to make a footprint on India’s shores.

The other international television rights coming up for grabs this year in India will include a new deal for Wimbledon, the first since the break-up of the old ESPN-Star business, the two sports channels that had shown the event ever since the launch of pay TV in the country. Wimbledon is an institution that has always valued high-end production and long-term relationships, so it’ll be a definite challenge to remove Star’s grip on India’s most-watched tennis event. By contrast, with world hockey, there’s bound to be strong competition in the only TV market worldwide that pays significantly for the sport’s biggest events.

Away from cricket, the biggest deal of the New Year (if not already done) is the sale of the FIFA rights for the Brazil football World Cup in the summer of 2014. Star’s broadcast of India’s away series in England in the same weeks would appear to rule them out of the bidding, though they are never easily ignored when it comes to major rights.

Good luck to everyone for their New Year. My visits to India are rather infrequent now, but I watch with interest on the world’s most fascinating sports market.

(Peter Hutton is Joint CEO of sports media rights company MP & Silva)

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