Two weeks after Star India won the IPL rights with a colossal bid, CEO Uday Shankar talks to Bharat Sundaresan and Sriram Veera about not being too desperate for renewing the BCCI rights, the nationalistic feel to cricket branding on his channel, the hastening wane of Test cricket and scheduling nightmares that get him into trouble even in his own home.
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.
In your pursuit of monopolising Indian cricket, wouldn’t you like to have BCCI rights in your kitty too just to kill the competition?
We are in the business of making money. I’m not an owner. I work for a shareholders’ board, investors, everybody. I have to deliver returns on investment. There is only so much one guy can afford. Say someone has IPL, BCCI and ICC, there’s still plenty of cricket outside of those.
It’s not your job to kill Test cricket or keep it alive. But does it make financial sense for broadcasters like you to go more franchise cricket than Test?
The whole question about Test cricket is answered by looking at any one stadium where a Test is being played. Except for the summer Tests in England and a few in Australia, have you seen a full stadium? In today’s world, who do you expect to be available on TV or in the stadium to watch a match that goes on for five days? Our own data suggests, whether it’s T20, ODI or Test match, people spend one hour watching it. This is BARC data. Economics of Test cricket doesn’t work. But I still think we’re putting the cart before the horse. The economics do not drive the game. The popularity of the game drives the economics. If magically all the stadiums were to be full and everybody who loves cricket was watching Test cricket, we would kill each other to go and bid for the Test rights. But Test cricket has a two-fold problem and that needs to be recognized. One, most of the Tests people find meaningless. Even today when India and Pakistan play or England and Australia play, people get excited about it because there’s a context. Most of Test cricket there’s no context. Second problem with Test cricket is that there’s too much of it. Last year in this country, India played 13 Tests at home. So 65 days of Test cricket in India, where data shows a person sees one out of 30 hours played during a Test.
It’s easy to misunderstand a broadcaster’s perspective because we seem to be the guys who are in it for the money, which is true. But you make money only when the fans like something. The fans have spoken that they love the T20 format. This whole model of going and buying ever-more expensive cricket rights is not sustainable. Consumption of sports here is lowest in world. Until that changes, business of sports is going to be tough.
In case you win the BCCI rights and get that monopoly, a subscriber wouldn’t have an option but to pay whatever you are charging me.
First of all, you can’t become a monopoly on rights that are leased to you for a few years and the rights cycles are getting shorter and shorter. The IPL has gone from a 10-year cycle to five years. BCCI was for six years. Even if someone has all the rights, advertisers run a business. And cricket is not the only product. It’s a very mischievous argument that just because we have more rights, we will be able to get away with anything.
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?
The kind of baser emotions of revenge, vengeance you are using is not for a mature audience, who can be targeted with just the quality of the sport for example.
Like what? I don’t understand what the problem is. I think our audience is very matured. It is just a tool of communication. You do headlines in newspapers to direct people’s attention to what’s happening there. I don’t think at Star Sports, we have never done anything that is negative or hawking baser emotions.
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.
There was an Amitabh Bachchan tweet about Indian commentators not talking up Indian players, and Dhoni retweeted that. Few months down the line, unrelated or whatever, Harsha Bhogle loses his spot. How do you handle such stuff from influential people?
I don’t know about it … People who tweet are all influential people. If we get carried away by tweets, we have to shut shop. Have you ever seen a tweet by Uday Shankar? Nope. Because no would notice. Sometimes we tend to take the virtual world too seriously. I don’t know about this particular episode but what is wrong if somebody says why aren’t our commentators not talking up our players, and another guy says why should I talk my country up – it’s a very healthy debate.
About scheduling now. For example, you had the rights to US Open tennis, but there were complaints that a TNPL or KPL matches were shown across more channels, and people couldn’t see Juan del Potro taking on Dominic Thiem in a great match.
So you think we should do a national referendum before we schedule?! Do you know how many people watch US Open in this country? You are so wrong…
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)”
Then why pay to get the rights for the US Open in the first place?
We, of course, don’t want only cricket, we want to cater to a wide variety of audience. US Open we did show, you are just talking about a match here and there that wasn’t telecasted. Before, Indian sports broadcasting used to be all about cricket. I used to call it a travelling circus; when cricket was happening, the circus was here, and then disappear. Things have changed. We want to create as much diverse spectrum as possible. Distribution is an issue, not a lot of DTH or cable operators carry it. We have very little control on that. We haven’t signed up that every single match would be carried. Even in EPL, some matches we are not able to show. Some fans will take up to social media and will give hell but that’s the passion for sports in India. We are a tennis-loving family and I get pulled up at home too for the same issue.
Slotting issues can be understood but what happens when people say you are dictating or micro-managing scheduling of the sport itself. Like Saina Nehwal had to play in the night and then again in the morning at the World Championships. It’s alleged that broadcasters orchestrated this change in schedule.
I wish I had that kind of power! First of all, I can categorically say that we didn’t have anything to do. But even if we had made some suggestions, it’s not that whatever we say gets accepted. Sport would be very different if that were so. If people are scheduling matches with fans in mind, what is wrong in it? Has anyone asked Saina if she would like to play at a time when nobody is watching her versus a time when most of home crowd are waiting to watch here?
You no longer show the lunch-time and tea-time shows when cricket is on in England. Are you saving so much money by erasing them?
Yes, we paid so much for this auction! (Laughs). Seriously, though, sometimes those shows are too expensive. They are owned by those broadcasters and it can get very costly. Even the Ashes gets same viewership as US Open!
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?