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ESPN returns to India, ties up with Sony

Sports broadcaster ESPN is returning to India after a three-year gap in a tie-up with Multi Screen Media (MSM), the network that owns channels such as Sony, Sony Max, SAB and AXN.

While the nature of the deal has not been divulged, MSM's existing sports channel – Sony Six – will be re-branded as Sony ESPN.

“This exciting, long-term collaboration between ESPN and MSM will serve Indian sports fans with exceptional products, content and coverage through the combined strengths and expertise of our two companies,” Russell Wolff, executive vice-president and MD at ESPN international, said in a statement.

ESPN exited the sports broadcast business in India in 2012 after it sold its 50 per cent stake in the joint venture ESPN Star Sports to News Corp.

ESPN is 80 per cent owned by ABC, Inc, an indirect subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, while the remaining is held by Hearst Corporation.

In addition to revamping Sony Six, MSM plans to launch new sports channels in coming months. It plans to increase sports content on its online video streaming application Sony Liv, while the website ESPNcricinfo will continue to provide coverage of cricket. In collaboration with MSM, ESPN will launch a co-branded localised multisport website and mobile application that will cover cricket, football, tennis, basketball, badminton and field hockey.

“For consumers in India and the subcontinent, sports television viewing will change dramatically since they will soon have access not only to more content but also the widest array of sports lineup, ever available,” said NP Singh, CEO, MSM.

The coming together of the two broadcasters indicates the growing importance of sports for large television networks. As per GroupM ESP-SportzPower India Sports Sponsorship report 2015, the Indian sports industry grew 10 per cent to Rs 4,806.9 crore in 2015 from Rs 4,372.5 crore in 2013.

“At a time when broadcasters are struggling to increase subscription revenue, sports channels play a crucial role in distribution,” said Jehil Thakkar, partner and head of media and entertainment practice at audit firm KPMG in India.

Harsha Joshi, executive vice president—group trading, Dentsu Aegis Network, said that, with ESPN being a popular brand in India, the broadcaster should not face any difficulty in grabbing eyeballs.

MSM’s sports rights portfolio in India includes the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, top European football leagues and the NBA, the basketball league in the US. The agreement with ESPN will provide the broadcaster access to more than 1,000 hours of programming a year.

Media analysts also say that MSM needs to acquire rights for more cricket tournaments. Cricket remains India's most popular sport even though soccer, kabbadi, hockey and tennis are grabbing an increasing number of eyeballs.

Nikhil Rangnekar, joint CEO at media solutions company Spatial Access said that 70 to 80 per cent content of a sports channel is driven by cricket. “MSM does not have marquee events except the IPL and a few bilateral series like India versus Sri Lanka. With a majority of telecast right now residing with Star Sports, if the broadcaster is looking at serious play in the game then it needs to start acquiring cricket content,” he said.

Star Sports is part of 21st Century Fox, the entertainment media house controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch also controls News Corp, the parent of this news website.

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