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The launch of the new channel also marks the return of sports broadcaster ESPN. In June 2012, News Corp and ESPN had entered into a definitive agreement. Under this, a unit of News Corp had bought ESPN’s 50 per cent stake in ESPN Star Sports (ESS). ESPN had also agreed not to re-enter the sports broadcast business in India for three years.
To be sure, it continued to stay in the mind of sports followers through its digital properties such as ESPNCricinfo.
In 2013, Star India, under 21st Century Fox, launched six new sports channels under the brand Star Sports. It launched Star Sports 1, 2, 3, 4, HD1 and HD2 channels in addition to the digital platform, starsports.com. The broadcaster, at the time of the launch of the new set of channels, suspended ESPN Star Sports and ESPN Star Cricket channels.
Star India is part of 21st Century Fox, the media house controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch also controls News Corp, the parent of this news website.
“Through a survey we found out that 92 per cent people still recall ESPN as a sports brand. Also, 60 per cent of sport fans follow our digital property on a regular basis,” says Ramesh Kumar, vice president, ESPN India and South Asia, ESPN India Pvt Ltd.
ESPN India claims that its sports property ESPNCricinfo generates 12 million unique visitors per month. It claims that the site is growing at a rate of 35-38 per cent year on year.
While declining to give any details on the nature of the deal between ESPN and Sony, Kumar made it clear that the new deal is not a joint venture, but rather a long-term partnership.
As part of the deal with Sony will provide ESPN with 1000 hours of studio programming in a year. This includes studio based shows, documentaries and other support programming. According to Kumar, ESPNCricinfo team will also create cricket based shows for the sports channels.
In addition to the current set of channels, there is also a plan to add one or two more channels in the coming months. Moreover, a digital property under the brand name ESPN will be launched in the middle of the year. The new site will replace the US content on the present ESPN site with Indian content.
Kumar says that initially the company will follow an advertising-led business model. “We will charge consumers for premium content at a later stage,” he adds.
Meanwhile, ESPNCricinfo will continue to operate as a standalone property.
According to a report on sports business in India by ESP Properties, the sports and entertainment division of GroupM Media India Pvt Ltd, the Indian sports business saw a 10 per cent increase in revenues, up from Rs 43.725 billion in 2013 to Rs 48.096 billion in 2014. While a large chunk of the revenue came from the new leagues, 2014 was also a FIFA World Cup year. Hence Sony Pictures earned an additional Rs1 billion as on-air revenues as it was the host broadcaster for the sports tourney.
“It's an interesting time for sports business in India. Star India has the rights for all the marquee cricket tournaments expect the Indian Premier League (IPL) in addition to the rights for the home-grown leagues such as the Indian Soccer League, International Premier Tennis League (IPTL), Premier Badminton League (PBL) amongt others. By joining hands with ESPN, Sony will not only have access to a lot of international content, it will have the muscle power to bid for rights. The partnership allows Sony to become more aggressive,” says Vinit Karnik, business head, ESP Properties.