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ESPN’s play in India with Sony as partner
MUMBAI: American sports media brand ESPN has re-entered the Indian market more than three years after exiting the television space by selling its 50 per cent stake in the then joint venture ESPN Star Sports to 21st Century Fox (then News Corp).
ESPN was bound by a three-year non-compete clause as part of its sale agreement with Star Sports. With that expiring, it has returned to collaborate with Sony Pictures Networks India across both television and digital platforms.
Even though it has retrenched from various markets in Europe and Asia to focus on its primary market the US, the sports media brand has identified India as a key market. This time it has decided to collaborate with Sony Pictures Networks India to make its mark in the volatile sports broadcasting market.
As part of its collaboration with Sony, the sportscaster will immediately provide non-live programming, event-based shows and documentaries for co-branded sports channels Sony ESPN and Sony ESPN HD, which will go on air from 17 January. More co-branded channels will be launched in future.
Sony ESPN channels will air ESPN’s documentaries. This includes the documentary on Muhammad Ali on the legendary boxer’s birthday on 17 January. It will also provide branded ESPN feed to the channels for Australian Open. It is also toying with the idea of providing cricket-based programming through its digital cricket platform ESPNcricinfo.
Answering a query as to what brought ESPN back to India, ESPN Asia Pacific VP & GM Mike Morrison said, “It’s a great sports market. We have a phenomenal brand like ESPNcricinfo here. We always wanted to have a strong place in a market like India.”
On the collaboration with Sony, he said, “Sony shares our vision of a multi-sport and multi-platform approach. It already has an established sports business in the market. We looked at all the options. It made sense to launch in the market right now with Sony–ESPN combination.”
ESPN will also provide production support. “There are plans to introduce ESPNcricinfo programming. We are also providing production support. There will be a branded ESPN feed for Australian Open,” Morrison said, also pointing out that the partnership will be limited to the Indian market.
Sony will have access to ESPN programming related to NBA, UEFA Euro 2016 and Australian Open. “All the programming done by ESPN for the rights held by the network here they can take that,” he clarified.
ESPN India and South Asia head Ramesh Kumar said that the sports media brand is identifying content need gaps in the sports broadcasting particularly in cricket.
“There is an opportunity to do a weekend cricket show,” he noted. “In November 2014, when we did a comprehensive sports survey, we found that 90 per cent of multi-sport audience have a brand recall of ESPN. Almost 60 per cent of them followed the brand through digital. Despite huge investments made by other players, there is a need gap for a quality player with quality production values.”
Kumar said that ESPN would work closely with Sony wherever there is an English-language show relevant to this market. ESPN, which will be providing over 1,000 hours of content to Sony, will focus on non-live programming to support Sony’s live sports coverage.
“As part of this deal, we will be providing ESPN 30+30, the documentaries and films which can run on Sony ESPN,” he stated.
Queried about the possibility of bringing back sports news channel ESPNews, Kumar said, “In what format, we would bring in is something we will look at. Again what treatment that we give it because there are few things which we want to give as it is which will sit nicely.”
Kumar sees a lot of potential for its reality-based programmes like X-Games. “We will be syndicating to them X-Games, which is a reality-based extreme sports. That’s a segment where we see urban youths developing a liking for it,” he averred.
The Sony ESPN-branded multi-sport platform, which is expected to be launched in the middle of this year, will have ESPN.com architecture. ESPN will also evaluate opportunities to bid for digital rights of properties, Kumar said without getting into the specifics.