How sports broadcasters played the game in 2015

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18 Mar 2015
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MUMBAI: 2015 was an interesting year for the sports industry in general and sports broadcasting industry in particular, with non-cricket leagues gaining traction, new channels getting launched, and sports channels building affinity through localisation. The audience was also spoilt for choice as sportscasters dished out high volumes of live sporting content.
New channel launches
Star India kicked off the year by launching two new high-definition (HD) sports channels—Star Sports HD3 and HD4—thus taking its total sports HD channel count to four. The two new channels, which are mirror of their standard-definition (SD) siblings, were launched during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup. Star Sports HD3, thus, became the first Hindi HD sports channel in India. Star Sports 3 is the first Hindi sports channel in India.
The launch of Sony’s second sports channel Sony Kix tied in with the eighth season of the IPL. Positioned as the home of football, the channel offered Tamil and Telugu audio feeds for the IPL.
Ten Sports, which donned a new corporate identity as Ten Sports Network, shut down its Ten Golf SD channel to launch an HD golf channel called Ten Sports HD in its place.
Sony–ESPN alliance
One of the big developments of the year was Walt Disney’s sports media brand ESPN’s return to the Indian market after splitting with Rupert Murdoch’s Star Sports in 2012. ESPN joined hands with Star India’s rival Sony Pictures Networks (earlier Multi Screen Media) to launch co-branded sports channels in the Indian market apart from a multi-screen digital sports platform.
The alliance with ESPN will help Sony as the latter is synonymous with sports programming and has a high brand recall. ESPN’s portfolio of live and non-live content will also come in handy for Sony.
Property acquisitions
The biggest acquisition of 2015 was the acquisition of IPL digital rights by Star India’s Novi Digital, the holding company of video-on-demand (VoD) service Hotstar. Novi paid Rs 302.2 crore (Rs 3.02 billion) to snatch the rights away from Sony, which had put a bid of Rs 285 crore (Rs 2.85 billion).
Times Internet Ltd (TIL), which was the incumbent rights holder along with Nimbus Communications, had bid only Rs 191.8 crore (Rs 1.92 billion).
The IPL digital rights acquisition was a strategic investment by Star to build Hotstar as a prime destination for digital content consumption.
Star fortified its position as the home of international cricket by acquiring Asia Cup rights until 2023. The broadcaster also extended its partnership with Hockey India by renewing telecast rights deal until 2018. While it lost two key football properties, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga, the broadcaster made up for that loss by acquiring Bundesliga rights.
Having launched a football-focused channel, Sony fortified its position in football by acquiring La Liga, Serie A, and FA Cup. The acquisitions meant that the broadcaster had a good mix of international and league football. It also provided enough volume of football content to feed its two sports channels.
Earlier, the broadcaster had gained foothold in football with the acquisition of FIFA World Cup 2014 and 2018, and UEFA Euro 2016 rights.
Having acquired the Australian Open rights towards the end of 2014, Sony boosted its tennis line-up with the acquisition of ATP World Tour rights. It also signed an expanded multi-year deal with NBA that involved airing 14 live NBA games per week.
In cricket, the broadcaster bought the India–Sri Lanka series rights following a bidding process. The series was outside the multi-year broadcast deal signed between Ten Sports and Sri Lanka Cricket. The broadcaster also snapped up PWL rights to strengthen its local league play.
“2015 was a significant year for Sony because we scaled up significantly on all fronts. If you start with the IPL, it was the best IPL in five years in terms of ratings. This was also the year in which our football portfolio became really strong with the addition of Serie A, La Liga and FA Cup. It was also a big year for us in terms of tennis because we acquired the whole ATP tour rights. In addition to being home of football, we have also moved to become home of tennis. It was also a big year for us with the coming together of ESPN. Besides, we tasted success with the Pro Wrestling League,” Sony Pictures Networks (SPN) India EVP and business head of the sports cluster Prasana Krishnan noted.
It was a quiet year for Ten Sports as far as acquisitions are concerned. The sportscaster renewed its deal with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for five years besides bagging exclusive broadcast rights to Moto GP for five years.
After losing its tent-pole property, the Bundesliga, Neo Sports Broadcast focused on acquiring only smaller properties. The sportscaster acquired the FIFA Club World Cup and Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) besides Baku 2015 European Games and Afghanistan vs Zimbabwe cricket series.
“Our strategy has been to position ourselves as a premium niche channel. The idea was to focus on premium properties such as premium football, horse racing, golf, etc., where there is a decent enough following in India,” Neo Sports Broadcast Network EVP of programming Mautik Tolia said.
The state of the leagues
After tasting success with the first season of the PKL, Star India deepened its association with the league by acquiring 74 per cent in the league’s owner Mashal Sports, which had Anand Mahindra, sports commentator Charu Sharma, and Lex & Legal Services’ Rajiv Luthra as shareholders.
The broadcaster also decided to have two seasons of the league from 2016 in order to build on the popularity of the league. Having two seasons will also help Star to play 10 weeks of live content on its channels.
The year saw the launch of the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) by iTV Network MD Kartikeya Sharma through his sports venture ProSportify. Like other sporting leagues, the PWL was also lapped up by corporates and celebrities. The success of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) encouraged more celebrities and corporates to invest in wrestling, which enjoys decent following in many pockets of the country.
The six franchises in the league are Delhi Veer (GMR Group), Bangalore Yodhha (JSW Group & Virat Kohli), CDR Punjab Royals (CDR Group & Legendary Dharmendra), UP Warriors (Lotus Greens & Rohit Sharma), Haryana Hammers (Olive Global), and Mumbaiche Garude (Maverick Industries, Mafatlal, Garudacharya).
Talking about the phenomenon of non-cricket leagues, ESP Properties business head Vinit Karnik said, “The rise of non-cricket leagues in India, though phenomenal, is yet at a formative stage when it comes to fan commitment. Therefore, it might be too early to comment on which of these would gain maximum popularity among the Indian audience. However, official figures suggest that the ISL and PKL are currently the coolest kids on the block. The soccer frenzy in India is at a high now and holds promises of a bright future too. Kabaddi is a home-grown sport and has attracted audience not only from rural India, but from urban India as well in terms of conversation and point of view.”
Sharing his PWL experience, Krishnan said that the ratings of the league were very encouraging considering it was done at a short notice.
“The ratings particularly in the North Indian market were very encouraging. The local leagues are clearly finding their own space. An opportunity is coming up for sports that have a historical connect. In the long run, this is good because we are getting more driver products and more variety,” he stated.
He further said that the quality of talent in the leagues plays a big role in their popularity.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is also toying with the idea of having a league modelled on the Indian Premier League (IPL) that will fill in the gap left by the dissolution of the Champions League T20. However, the BCCI might look at another window for the proposed league.
The BCCI, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa had scrapped CL T20 as commercial partner. Star India was not in favour of continuing with the league due to low popularity. The broadcaster paid $420 million to walk out of the league.
With calls for merging the I-League with the ISL growing louder, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) formed a committee to look into the feasibility of the proposal.
2015 also marked as a comeback year of sorts for yesteryear stars like Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne, and Wasim Akram with not one but two T20 tournaments. The first one was Tendulkar and Warne’s Cricket All Stars, which was played in the US. The objective of this tournament was to grow the popularity of the game in US among the non-expats.
The other one is a franchise-based league called Master Champions League (MCL), which will be played in the UAE. The MCL has six franchises who will invest $25 million each over 10 years.
IPL continues to attract investors
In a year of controversies, the IPL continued to be a cash cow for the BCCI. There were two new team owners as Kolkata businessman Sanjiv Goenka’s New Rising Group and Delhi-based mobile phone manufacturer Intex Technologies bagged the rights to Pune and Rajkot teams respectively.
The two new teams will replace Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and Rajasthan Royals (RR), which were suspended by the RM Lodha committee for two years on charges of spot fixing.
With the two franchises making negative bids, the BCCI is eyeing an additional revenue of Rs 360 crore (Rs 3.6 billion) over the next two years.
DTH and sports
The year saw the first-ever broadcast of a sporting event in 4K technology. The 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup became the first-ever cricket broadcast in 4K resolution or Ultra HD. Star had broadcast seven matches including the semi-finals and final in 4K.
Direct-to-home (DTH) operators Tata Sky and Videocon d2h became the first mover in the segment by providing 4K set-top boxes (STBs) to the customers. Videocon d2h 4K STB was priced at Rs 6,590 for new customers and Rs 5,990 for existing customers. Tata Sky priced its 4K STB at Rs 6,400 for new connections and Rs 5,900 for existing subscribers.
Tata Sky also launched an HD service called Star Sports Add On HD, in partnership with Star Sports, which allowed its customers to watch football matches that the sportscaster is not able to broadcast on its existing channels.
SPN CEO NP Singh told that the company would also look at such opportunities. “We are open to all options, but right now nothing is under consideration,” he said.
Regional feeds
The trend of having regional feeds particularly airing language feeds on Hindi movie channels gained traction in 2015.
The ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 was aired in Hindi, English, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Bengali by Star India. This was the first time the Cricket World Cup was aired in non-Hindi languages.
Taking the regional route, Sony had aired Bengali feed of IPL 8 on its Bengali entertainment and movie channel Sony Aath. The broadcaster also provided Tamil and Telugu audio feeds for the IPL.
Sony Six started providing Hindi feed for its wrestling entertainment property Total Non-stop Action (TNA) to capitalise on the growing popularity of Mahabali Shera, the first-ever Indian wrestler in TNA.
Similarly, Ten Sports Network started airing WWE Raw Dhamaal and Smack Down in Hindi on ZEEL’s Hindi movie channel Zee Cinema. The objective was to increase the reach through mass channels.
Sony aired the Hindi feed of the newly launched PWL on its Hindi movie channel Sony Max.
“Until recently, all the commentaries on sports matches and leagues were either in English or Hindi. The relay of the FIFA World Cup in Bengali took the audience by a storm and was very well accepted. The viewership grew manifold in no time and encouraged broadcasters to start sports commentary in other regional languages as well. This proved to be a very fresh take on promoting sport events in a multi-lingual country like India and has raised the popularity and reach of the leagues too,” Karnik stated.
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