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Back on the front foot

India’s win at the ICC World Cup Twenty20 should help the broadcaster play a longer innings.
 
If the country is euphoric over India’s win at the ICC World Cup Twenty 20 cricket tournament, R C Venkateish is delirious. The managing director of ESPN Software India Private Limited, that runs channels like ESPN Star Sports and STAR Cricket, may not admit it.
 
But he must be relieved to see TRPs (television rating points) for cricket matches soaring again. And also to see advertisers queuing up for slots. After all, his company is said to have bet nearly $ 1.1 billion on cricket for the next eight years.
 
Says Venkateish, “We have telecast rights for all International Cricket Council (ICC) games till 2015 including the two World Cups and it’s a great line up.”
 
That’ s true. But industry watchers believe that though ESPN has been lucky to win the ICC rights, the broadcaster does not own rights for international matches in India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan. “These are crucial for the Indian market,” says a former ESPN employee. But Venkateish is not perturbed.
 
“We have enough “quality” cricket on the STAR Cricket channel for South Asia,” he says. Nonetheless, experts feel that it is Neo Sports, which is airing the current India-Australia series, that will benefit immediately from Twenty 20’s success.
 
Harish Thawani, chairman, Neo Sports, is optimistic. “The bull frenzy in the cricket broadcasting space will continue since the economy is growing at 8.5-9 per cent and the broadcasting sector is growing at a faster clip of 17-19 per cent.” He believes the win in South Africa has revived interest in the game.
 
“The next lot of big stars, the next big endorsement brands and the next icons have arrived,” Thawani remarks. Neo Sports holds the telecast rights for international cricket matches in India. And spot rates for matches are believed to be selling at Rs 4.5 lakh per 10 second.
 
Besides, the game is attracting a host of non-traditional advertisers.
 
Does the start of a bull run in cricket mean that ESPN will be able to reverse its fortunes and recover the Rs 4,000 crore it has committed to cricket broadcasts? Venkateish refuses to talk numbers.
 
However, he says that Twenty20 has rejuvenated viewers’ interest in cricket, especially after India’s miserable performance in the Caribbean. “Twenty20 will have a positive rub off on all forms of cricket,” he adds.
 
To be sure, the broadcaster has been through a rough patch in India as it has lost several major cricket properties – both domestic and international – to rival channels like Zee, Sony and Neo Sports. And, as Thawani points out, without cricket, a sports channel in India is dead.
 
The former ESPN employee agrees. Says he, “We tried building others sports and created programmes such as Sachin Speaks, Super Selector with Naseeruddin Shah and Samsung Cricket Show with Sourav Ganguly. We realised that only ‘live’ cricket works.”
 
Industry watchers reckon ESPN would have made a good Rs 200 crore from advertising slots for Twenty20. The slots for the last couple of matches were sold at a far higher price than the Rs 2 lakh which slots for the initial matches fetched.
 
However, the broadcaster needs to recover its investment of $1.1billion. Moreover, since India generates 70 per cent of ESPN Asia’s revenues, the pressure on Venkateish is high. Interestingly, experts like Sony Entertainment Television’s Kunal Dasgupta don’t see why ESPN won’t make money.
 
“Of course it will make money on ICC rights, it has eight years to do so,” says Dasgupta. Adds Starcom MD (west & south) India, Manish Porwal, “ESPN has no issues. The lull in cricket was temporary and audiences and advertisers are back.” That should make Venkateish happy.
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