Anirban Roy Choudhury

Here's why Viacom18 decided to telecast football matches on MTV, acquired LaLiga rights

As a part of the three-year deal, Viacom18 will live-stream the matches played in Spain's top division football league on Voot and Jio Platforms.

Spanish top-flight Club football league system, LaLiga, has made it clear time and again that it eyes India as a key market because of its huge reach. In 2016, inaugurated its office in New Delhi and it has a Spanish delegation station in the unfamiliar and not always "pleasant" weather conditions. The global Football league with its headquarters in Madrid (Spain), is present in 41 countries through eleven offices and 44 delegates.

In 2018, Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) gave up the first right to refusal, and the broadcast rights were not contested as much as the league owners hoped for. Star had already invested Rs 16,347.50 crore to acquire rights of Indian Premier League and already had Premier League Football in its portfolio. Because Sony lost IPL to Star, it started aggressively bidding for Cricket rights in other countries and bagged South Africa, England, Australia among others. It was already the destination for international football including the FIFA World Cup and thus La Liga was finding it difficult to rake in a premium.

The league had an interest in it as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi continued to be a part of it. So, in 2018, for a period of three years, in an unprecedented move, Facebook submitted a bid to acquire the streaming rights of La Liga in India. In 2021, the contract was up for renewal and Rob Shaw, the Facebook Director of Sports League and media partnerships had informed that the social media giant will neither renew La Liga rights in India nor the UEFA Champions League Rights in Latin America.

With a deadline of February, La Liga invited a tender and it was announced that India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani-backed Viacom18 has acquired the broadcast and streaming rights of the tournament for a period of three years. "There was a lot of interest for the rights both from Indian broadcast organisation and International ones. Viacom18 was one of the companies interested and I can say that it was complex negotiation but both the organisations had common objectives and so it was an easy one to close," informs Jose Antonio Cachaza, managing director, LaLiga India.

Sports in itself is a complex proposition. The content acquisition costs are high and there are multiple factors on which the monetisation depends. After ZEE sold Ten Sports Network to Sony for Rs 2,579 crore in 2016, the sports broadcasting space in India became a duopoly. Star and Sony are at loggerheads and both are known to have deeper pockets. Though Viacom18 is one of the big-five broadcasters (Star and Disney India, ZEE, Sony, Viacom18, SunTV) in India, it is relatively new into the business. The network, apart from occasional Cricket tournaments and Carabao Cup Football, didn't show a serious interest in sports content. Now for three years at least, the network will telecast matches on its youth and music channel, MTV and stream them on Voot Select and Jio Platforms.

"We are yet to figure out the distribution strategy as to which channels will be devoted for the broadcast of matches," says Anshul Ailawadi, Business Head – Youth, Music and English Entertainment.

Youth and Music channels are going through the most difficult times especially with OTT platforms targeting the same cohort. Star has shut Channel V and other competitors of MTV like the UTV Bindas turned into a music channel. MTV continues to stay a strong proposition on the back of its huge portfolio of reality shows and branded content. "When you talk about reality nothing can be more real than sports," adds Ailawadi.

Anshul Ailawadi
Anshul Ailawadi

He says the network was keeping an eye on properties that are true to the "core offering" of MTV and up for grasp. Thus started the discussion on La Liga. Not going by the "legacy construct" that each channel must have a clear identity like either movies channel or sports or general entertainment channel, Viacom18 bets on a mix and match. "Football has a strong following in Indian especially among the younger set of audience which is also MTV's audience," and that is what Ailawadi believes is more important than having a dedicated Sports channel telecasting the matches.

"If we can grow the fan base 10X without alienating the loyalists we will pat our back," says Ailawadi when asked what according to him would make this association a successful one. While for Jose Antonio Cachaza, he is looking at, "Much larger fanbase, more number of loyalists," but one of the important ones, he says, "We get more money in the next negotiation in 2024."

Television partner, in a country like India, plays a key role in developing the brand. La Liga, if sources are to be believed, wants Viacom18 to aggressively promote the tournament through its channels. Jose Antonio Cachaza says, it is not just TV but Voot Select and Jio Platforms will also play a key role in the distribution. "See, it is not that we are just going for the younger audience. Viacom18 has general channels as well. Of course Viacom18 will announce the broadcast plans and declare which channel will air which match, and we have faith that we will be able to grow the presence of the brand."

Jose Antonio Cachaza
Jose Antonio Cachaza

A consultant associated with a global professional firm says "it would be misleading" to term this investment in La Liga as Viacom18's foray into Sports. "Unless Viacom18 launches a sports channel and starts betting on sports content, we don't see big difference in the market dynamics or spike in rights acquisition cost," opines the consultant who wished not to be named.

"La Liga missed out on the opportunity of multi-lingual broadcast in India and with Viacom18 bagging the rights, now the league can explore that. Moreover, if some matches are telecast on Rishtey - Viacom18's widely distributed channel, it will fetch new viewers. On the other hand, for Viacom18 and Jio Platforms, it is an impact property for which they can charge a premium. There will be a match in most weekends and so, the engagement and retention will be higher too. It will all depend on the quality of the matches and players."