DreamDTH Explains: A comprehensive guide to sports channels in India

Star and Sony have ruled the show so far and Viacom18 has risen rapidly, with Discovery and Doordarshan being smaller players along with the streaming-only FanCode and Prime Video.

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By Soham Bhadra

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Thus far, our ‘DreamDTH Explains’ articles have presented an overview of Indian channels in the Hindi GEC, Hindi movies, Hindi news and English GEC, movies and news genres. From these mainstream genres, we now move to various niche-interest genres that may not individually have a high viewership — except some sports channels during major events — but provide colour and variety to Indian television offerings. In this article we discuss sports channels, where there are two main players, Star and Sony, with Viacom18 rapidly rising as a challenger, while Discovery and Doordarshan maintain a small but noteworthy presence as well — in addition to streaming-only platforms like Amazon Prime Video and FanCode.

Separately we will discuss devotional and spiritual channels (for which none of the major national broadcasters are present) and music and youth channels, as well as multilingual channels — namely kids’, lifestyle and infotainment/knowledge channels. Afterwards we will move on to the multitude of regional languages and culminate with an analysis of the Zee-Sony merger.

One clarification before we proceed: Indians normally use the word ‘network’ to refer to a broadcaster, not an individual channel. So Star, Zee, Sony, etc. are networks, and so are smaller related clusters of channels within a parent broadcaster such as the Star Sports network. This is in contrast to a few other countries, especially the United States, where the word ‘network’ refers to an individual channel — including both the big traditional broadcast networks, like ABC and CBS, and specialty cable or satellite channels. This distinction is especially important for sports channels, since Star and Sony announce their events as broadcasting on the ‘Star/Sony Sports network’ instead of naming each channel separately, though individual channels’ logos are still mentioned.

  • Page 1: Star Sports
  • Page 2: Sony Sports Network
  • Page 3: Sports18
  • Page 4: Eurosport, DD Sports, 1Sports plus FanCode and Amazon Prime Video; also, rights which will soon be up for sale.

Overview of sports channels

Since 2017, the sports broadcasting sector in India has effectively been a duopoly between Star Sports and Sony Sports Network (previously known as Sony Pictures Sports Network until the mega-rebrand of the Sony channels on Diwali). While the uniform Star Sports brand was introduced in 2013, replacing brands like Star Cricket and ESPN, Sony has grown its sports portfolio non-organically, particularly through the acquisition of the Ten Sports channels from Zee in 2017. Additionally, there are a handful of small sports channels like Discovery’s Eurosport, Doordarshan’s DD Sports, the independent 1Sports and more recently Viacom18’s Sports18 channels, which were launched in April but are yet to show any major high-profile events — that is, until the FIFA World Cup in Qatar starts this month.

However, notwithstanding the impending merger between Zee and Sony, there is still a high likelihood that Zee will return to sports broadcasting in the coming years — especially after the announcement a few months back that Disney Star would sub-license the ICC cricket broadcast rights within India to Zee. Nowhere were Sony channels mentioned in the deal, implying that Zee would have to launch its own sports channels sooner or later — seeing as it has none currently — while its merger partner Sony’s channels may very well be excluded from airing ICC events. This will have far-reaching implications in the near future.

Due to the importance of Star, Sony and Viacom18, they have been given their own pages with detailed analysis. Star Sports has been discussed on Page 1, while Sony Sports Network can be found on Page 2, Sports18 on Page 3 and other sports broadcasters on Page 4. In addition, some streaming services without TV counterparts have the exclusive rights to certain events — also discussed on Page 4 — such as Amazon Prime Video, which has the exclusive rights to New Zealand Cricket events, and FanCode, which has the exclusive rights to West Indies cricket, including the Caribbean Premier League. Finally, the rights of certain events are up for sale in the coming years, and it is anyone’s guess as to who will take them, so these have also been discussed at the end.

Star Sports: the giant of Indian sports broadcasting

A complicated history in a nutshell

The erstwhile ESPN Star Sports entity was created in 1996 and remained under the aegis of the then-News Corporation. Headquartered in Singapore, it oversaw the broadcast of Star Sports- and ESPN-branded channels across India and the Asia-Pacific region; the Asia-Pacific channels switched to the Fox Sports brand in 2012 before closing in 2021. Meanwhile, as mentioned, a big rebrand in November 2013 — coinciding with cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test series — saw the introduction of a new parent Star Sports brand at the expense of the Star Cricket and ESPN channels. Several channels underwent a reshuffling in May 2017. Below we track the complicated history of past and present Star Sports channels — of which currently there are as many as 17 (12 SD + 5 HD) — with a few more planned but long deferred.

The two Star Sports Select channels were first launched in 2016 only in HD, before SD feeds followed in 2017. It is only since 2017 that several regional Star Sports channels were launched, along with the Hindi channel Star Sports First, which was originally intended for DD Free Dish audiences but was later removed in a subsequent e-auction. Note that what was originally launched as Star Sports 3 in 2013 (today Star Sports 1 Hindi) — promoted as India’s first 24/7 Hindi sports channel, with an HD feed launched in 2015 — has nothing to do with the present-day Star Sports 3, which was launched on 15 September 2018 after finally shuttering Channel V, the iconic youth channel that had been on air since the 1990s but was earmarked for shutdown since late 2017.

Main Star Sports channels:

Before 6 Nov. 2013Star SportsStar Sports 2
launched 2013
Star Cricket launched 2007
HD launched 2011
HD launched 2011
6 Nov. 2013–28 May 2017Star Sports 1,
Star Sports HD1 (fmr.
Star Cricket HD)
Star Sports 2,
Star Sports HD2
(fmr. ESPN HD)
Star Sports 3
(SS HD3 launched 2015 before Cricket World Cup)
Star Sports 4
(SS HD4 launched 2015 before Cricket World Cup)
Since 28 May 2017Star Sports 1 (HD)Star Sports 2 (HD)Star Sports 1 Hindi (HD)SD became SS1 Tamil
HD defunct

It was only for the 2015 Cricket World Cup that Star Sports had a 4K feed, which it has not had since. There seem to be no plans to relaunch a 4K feed, even if temporarily, for any other major event.

Regional and Select channels:

  • Star Sports 3: A multilingual channel launched on 15 September 2018, replacing Channel V. Bengali and Malayalam audio feeds were added in November 2020. HD feed planned but later cancelled.
  • Star Sports First: A Hindi channel launched on 21 July 2017, initially for DD Free Dish viewers, but later removed from DDFD.
  • Star Sports Select 1 (HD) and 2 (HD): Launched in July 2016, initially only in HD feeds, to cater to international non-cricket sporting events, such as the Premier League. SD feeds were launched with the May 2017 rebrand.
  • Star Sports 1 Tamil: Launched in May 2017, replacing Star Sports 4. HD feed planned, but launch indefinitely postponed along with several other Disney Star channels.
  • Star Sports 1 Telugu: Launched on 7 December 2018. HD feed planned, but launch indefinitely postponed along with several other Disney Star channels.
  • Star Sports 1 Kannada: Launched on 29 December 2018, a few weeks after SS1 Telugu.
  • Star Sports 1 Bangla: Launched on 23 March 2019. Planned to be replaced by Jalsha Josh, but this too has been indefinitely postponed.
  • Star Sports 1 Marathi: Launched on 15 July 2019 after the Cricket World Cup. Never added by any TV platforms; viewable only by Star employees. Planned to be shut down, which has also been postponed.

Also, it is safe to assume that Star Sports 1 Malayalam and Gujarati have been cancelled. The former was planned in February 2020 but Disney Star never moved forward with it, which is a loss for the football-crazy state of Kerala (though Star Sports 3 has a Malayalam audio feed). The latter would have been a big shock, since no big broadcaster other than Viacom18 — let alone Star — has any presence in the Gujarati market, not counting news channels.

Cricket’s holy trinity: IPL, ICC and BCCI

Cricket has always had an outsized importance in Indian sports broadcasting. For many years, Star Sports has held the broadcast rights to both ICC international and BCCI domestic events, and has in fact been guilty of populating its numerous channels with repeat telecasts and highlights of cricket matches, to the extent of neglecting other sports. In contrast, Sony and other broadcasters are far more judicious in rotating all kinds of sports events and ensuring good coverage for them. This is exactly the opposite of the Hindi movie genre, where it is Sony that is guilty of airing too many South Indian dubbed movies at the expense of Bollywood ones, and Disney Star that has the best scheduling, rotation and promotion of its Bollywood library. In fairness, Star does not have much choice here, having spent billions of dollars on cricket to cement its undisputable status as India’s biggest sports broadcaster.

Having held on to major cricket events for many years, Star finally secured its grasp on the biggest prize of them all, the Indian Premier League (IPL), in September 2017 that saw it shell out a whopping ₹16,348 crore (US$2.55 billion) for global media rights for the 2018–2022 period. The result, as far as broadcast production was concerned, was a firm shift away from the entertainment-driven Extraaa Innings T20 pre-/post-match show that Sony (the original broadcaster from 2008 to 2017) became popular for, and instead IPL highlights along with several fan engagement shows — including in regional languages — now filled the numerous Star Sports channels all through the year. Not to mention, this was the one event that drove the exponential rise of Disney+ Hotstar as the number one OTT platform in India. No other event, not even the ICC Cricket World Cup, has been able to generate the money and interest across multiple avenues that the IPL has consistently been able to do, especially since Star’s entry in 2018.

Star Sports Watching in Showroom
Star continues to be the home of ICC events — but now Zee will join the party as well

But for the next cycle of IPL media rights in June 2022, with the BCCI increasing the prices — which already seemed astronomical in 2017 — by several times, Disney Star realised it could no longer hold on to both the broadcast and the digital rights. Therefore it had to settle for retaining the Indian TV rights for the 2023–2027 period, while the digital rights were taken by Reliance Industries’ Viacom18. This is a loss for both Disney+ Hotstar and the fledgling Sports18 channels — which would have grown tremendously had Viacom18 bagged the broadcast rights — but it gives Reliance the opportunity to build its digital platforms (including but not limited to Voot and JioCinema) with the same driving force that has powered Disney+ Hotstar, especially since it now has James Murdoch and Uday Shankar, both ex-Star veterans, in its stable.

A similar situation played out with the ICC media rights a few months later, which Disney Star continues to retain, except they are now sub-licensed to Zee for broadcast within the Indian subcontinent. This was clearly a move to offset the high acquisition cost — supposedly to the tune of US$3 billion — while Zee’s deal is valued at half as much. It remains to be seen how Zee handles its newly-acquired sporting events (also including the UAE T20 League), and whether it will launch new sports channels when its merger partner Sony already has several. With Star Sports grabbing the rights to Australian cricket from Sony — though it will lose South African cricket to Viacom18 from 2024 — it has only increased its lead over Sony and the rest as India’s foremost cricket broadcaster.

Encouraging other sports and developing new leagues

Notice in the previous sentence the term ‘cricket broadcaster’, which seems to suggest that Star Sports does not have much to offer aside from cricket, but this is not the case. Even though it may appear that cricket powers most of the programming schedule of Star Sports, the fact remains that it offers plenty of other sports across a wide variety of interests, ranging from local professional leagues like the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL), Premier Badminton League (PBL) and the top-flight football tournament Indian Super League (ISL) to major international sporting events such as Premier League football (the tentpole attraction of the two Star Sports Select channels), Wimbledon tennis (with the other three Grand Slams belonging to Sony), FIH hockey and Formula One racing.*

Indeed, Star Sports has actively been involved in nurturing the development of the ISL and PKL in particular, and hence in tapping into previously unheard-of talent from across the length and breadth of India. Given that these leagues do not benefit from the billion-dollar valuations of IPL teams, the bottomless cash reserves of the BCCI and instant countrywide player brand recognition, they have depended on the broadcaster for promotion and coverage, which in turn has sparked popular interest: however limited it may seem compared to the IPL, it still runs into crores of viewers. Much of this has Uday Shankar to thank, as his years at the helm of Star India drove the company to encourage and nurture new sports avenues beyond the tried-and-tested cricket, reaping boundless benefits in the process.

*Certain events’ rights are up for renewal in the coming years. While they are discussed at length at the end of Page 4, those that are currently or were previously held by Star include BCCI domestic cricket, Formula One and the Caribbean Premier League.

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Soham Bhadra

Television Analyst

85 articles published
Soham is a Computer Science graduate from NTU, Singapore, actively interested in the Indian TV and entertainment industry. He publishes articles and shares his insights on the Indian TV industry and DTH operators. He has a passion for words and reflects that through his articles.

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Nice article from DDF. As a sports i loved it and learner a lot

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