Star India bought the media rights for the IPL for a whopping Rs 16, 437 crores for a five-year period from 2018 to 2022. Star India piped Sony entertainment who had broadcasted the league for past the ten years. Star also has the rights to telecast India’s home season, England’s home season and Australia’s home season.
Star also has the rights to broadcast EPL, Wimbledon, US Open and various badminton tournaments. Off late, many viewers have accused the channels of their priority to telecast cricket more than it telecasts other sports.
Star India’s CEO Uday Shankar, on the contrary, believes that the media rights bought were not very expensive. He believes that the craze for T20 cricket has increased enormously and an investment of Rs 16 crores is not very high to broadcast IPL. Shankar also said that they would have killed each other to bid for Test cricket rights if everybody was watching it.
According to Shankar, cricket stadiums are empty in most of the countries apart from England and Australia, and he believes most of the Test cricket is meaningless and has no context to it.
In an interview, Shankar spoke about some crucial topics.
You went for a consolidated bid. Were you sure you were going to nail it?
In an auction, the last thing you are sure of is whether you will nail it. It’s tempting to position this as a big strategy. But it wasn’t quite that simple. We had no IPL for 10 years. Till five years ago, we had a joint venture with ESPN but Star India didn’t have a direct presence in sports. We built a sports franchise on the back of ICC and the BCCI rights and a few other bilateral rights. A few years ago, when the digital rights for IPL came up, we made a bid because we were developing Hotstar. It was clear to us that we wanted that Hotstar association to continue. Beyond that the only thing that made sense was to get it for TV. One big concern that we had at the time of bidding was if we’ll be able to renew our BCCI rights. In the event they ended up becoming unaffordable, it made sense for us only if we had TV as well as digital for IPL. That way we get certain insurance. In the meanwhile, we were also planning to take Hotstar outside India even if the IPL may not have the same power as the ICC and other bilateral cricket outside of India. Since there was this option for the global rights, we put in a bid. It was a very risky strategy. Because we were working with a tight budget, what you could offer for one part would definitely then impact your ability to bid for the second part and we didn’t want to be in a situation where we were bidding against ourselves. We said ok, we’ll really bid to lose the individual parts and put in our best forward for the global rights. And it came really close but I think it was our lucky day.
The BCCI rights will be coming up early next year. With the high price you guys paid for the IPL rights, will Star bid with the same intensity to renew them?
It’s too soon for us to figure out whether we want to bid for BCCI or not. If we didn’t win the IPL rights then we had no choice. Now that we have it, the desperation is not so strong. Between the ICC and IPL, we still have a strong portfolio, especially because most of the ICC tournaments come before or after the IPL.
Contrary to what everybody thinks and says, for us the IPL rights were not very expensive. For our internal benchmark, we compare it with the price we were paying for the BCCI rights, which is 43 crore. You are paying 43 crores for a Test and that too not for select Tests against Australia and England. And you have to pay 10 crores more and get an IPL right. It’s a no-brainer.
Wasim Akram once said that if you watch Star in India, it’s like India have never lost a match. But even the promos and packaging for a series have become almost nationalistic, based on showdowns or conflict?
So is Wasim Akram saying I should show the Indian fans matches where their team lost badly? What is the context of a bilateral match? We call it the national team. When two nations take on each other, where else will the national sentiment come? It happens in every country. When England and Australia play the Ashes, exactly the same thing happens. Why do we get touchy about it?
Don’t you think the Mauka-Mauka campaign created a lot of negativity?
I thought it created a lot of positive rivalry between the two countries. There were multiple variants of Mauka-Mauka that spawned in India and Pakistan. It was a tongue-in-cheek thing. The fact that Pakistan had not beaten India in a World Cup game and the fact that Pakistani fans wanted their team to beat India. Instead of turning it into India-Pakistan war, we turned it into a spoofy take on the whole thing. People get involved in sport because it arouses passion for their team. If you do not work around that passion, then what are you going to talk about?
In the coverage of English sport, some of those emotions come naturally from rivalries between cities like the War of Roses between Lancashire and Yorkshire, but you are creating these emotions when there is no need to.
Are you saying the British population is so deeply rich in its reading of history that they remember the War of Roses? It’s sustained like that. Because people want to rally their audiences and fans around their teams. So they turn it into this big thing. Otherwise what difference does it make, two people playing against each other? Like Andre Agassi said, “what happened? I lost a match. It’s a game. Nobody died.”
So now, since you have the IPL, the promotion could be North India v South India for example.
Yes but we won’t do that and that would be wrong. You cannot start using regional or religious sentiments and we understand the lines we should not cross.
The sense of nationalism also comes through on occasions in the Hindi commentary.
We have commentators who straddle both English and Hindi commentary. A very few who do only Hindi. But if it’s nearly the same set of people, I can’t understand how their tone can change from one box to another. Sometimes they might use certain words. The commentary needs to connect with the audience. Hindi commentary is clearly for the Indian audiences.
You’re saying TNPL has more viewership than US Open, and hence you decided to show it more?
Yes yes, but there are multiple considerations when we slot something. We believe cricket has been great there is a case for it to go local in an attractive format. So when people came up with TNPL, we said yes. Even before TNPL we had supported university cricket. Even if people like a cricket tournament in one state, that is far more important in our priority than a niche or elite sport like US Open which is watched by a few people around the country. Sometimes, we get carried away by our echo chamber.
When I took over EspnStarSports, there was a lot of golf. A lot. I dropped all of it. One of our biggest advertisers was really upset with me because of that. He said, ‘you guys are dumbing down sport’ and I said, “It’s easier for me to personally deliver DVD’s of golf matches to people… there are so few of them! (laughs)”
You brought in rule changes in your kabaddi and hockey leagues which have been then adopted by national sports bodies. Is that a matter of pride for Star?
When we started showing Kabbadi, first challenge was how do we get people to watch a game which isn’t played in any stadium, which is never mentioned in Indian Express and which has never appeared in Star Sports, ESPN or Sony. There was no formal language. How do you formalise it? And then all rules are known for other sports. How do you simplify it, then? That’s why we came up with those rule-changes. There is no pride in that rules have been adopted by sports bodies but real joy is people watching, understanding.
Are we moving towards a scenario where market demands can end Test cricket?
I don’t think Test cricket needs to be shut down. Staple has to be shorter format, and Test has to be fine-dining experience for special occasions. ICC have ODIs and T20, and they do well. The whole stature changes when there is an ICC tournament. Do we want to save cricket or no? You think if Kerry Packer didn’t do what he did, what would have happened to cricket. Do you need 13 Test matches in a year – 65 days! How many holidays you get? 20 days? Is that enough to watch all the Tests?