Anirban Roy Choudhury

Viacom18 bets big on sports; to broadcast league featuring international cricketing legends

The tournament kicks off on March 7, 2020 and will be telecast on Colors Cineplex at 7 pm.

Nothing beats the popularity of the two 'C's - Cinema and Cricket in India. The giants in the media and entertainment space in India have always tried to marry the two. Go back a few years and you would remember Mandira Bedi hosting the wrap-around show before and after the Cricket World Cup matches which were telecast by SET Max, a Hindi movie channel from the stable of Sony Pictures Networks India (SPNI) earlier known as Multi Screen Media (MSM). In fact, Max was the official broadcaster of the Indian Premier League for 10 years whereas the network's sports channels played a supporting role by telecasting English or other regional feeds.

When the new season of IPL kicks off, the present broadcaster Star India is also likely to telecast a good number of matches on its movie channel, Star Gold. The broadcast ecosystem is a fight between five large conglomerates - Star India, SPNI, ZeeTV, Viacom18 and Sun TV. However, when it comes to sports, it is a duopoly between Star and Sony as the two own most of the media rights to telecast marquee properties (Cricket, NBA, Premier League Football, Wimbledon, Formula One, WWE...). However, the third broadcaster that has been toying with the idea of getting into sports for a while is Viacom18.

The joint venture between Mukesh Ambani's Network18 and global media giant Viacom Inc has, in the past, telecast a Triangular Series - 'Nidhas Trophy' played between India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on its movie channel Rishtey Cineplex (now known as Colors Cineplex). The media rights of that tournament were shared with Discovery Communications' sports channel DSport. Reliance Jio currently owns the rights to broadcast and stream English Football League Cup (Carabao Cup) and shares them with English music channel VH1. However, its biggest bet on sports is the upcoming 'Road Safety World Series' - a cricket league featuring legends who have retired from international cricket.

India Legends led by Sachin Tendulkar, Jonty Rhodes' Africa Legends, ace paceman of his time Brett Lee's Australia Legends, West Indies Legends led by Brian Lara whose 400 not out still holds the record of most runs made by a batsman in one inning and Thilakaratne Dilshan's Sri Lanka Legends will tussle it out among themselves. "It is going to be competitive cricket featuring legends who are admired by millions. They all will play for the pride of their countries and we expect it to attract lots of viewers," says Nina Elavia Jaipuria, head, Hindi Mass Entertainment, Viacom18.

Nina Elavia Jaipuria
Nina Elavia Jaipuria

Viacom18 owns the rights to broadcast the World Series for five years and Jaipuria believes that it is going to emerge as a marquee property. "We are going to use our network of 30 channels and an additional 30 channels of other broadcasters to promote the tournament. It is Sachin Tendulkar playing again after 2013 and we are sure that fans would love it. In fact, we are hearing that the first match at Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai to be played between India and the West Indies is already sold out. This tells us about the buzz around it," asserts Jaipuria.

Edu-tech firm Unacademy which competes with Byju's, Udemy and others has associated with the tournament as its presenting sponsor while the Road Safety department of the Government of Maharashtra is a partner too. "We have got both BCCI and ICC's approval to organise the league and all the players are managed by PMG (Professional Management Group - a sports marketing and content syndication firm). We are not only the broadcaster of the tournament but a partner too and we will work closely to offer wholesome entertainment to the audience through on ground and off ground innovations like fanzones, technology-driven innovations and digital, social media activities for the fans to engage," adds Rohan Lavsi, head, Colors Cineplex, Viacom18. All the matches will be telecast live on Colors Cineplex while Jio TV and Voot will live stream too. "Cricket helps in getting new viewers on the channel who then stay on after the tournament is over and sample other content pieces which are premiered on the channel. The reason for us to do this is to get that new set of people on board and then launch television premieres of marquee movies around the cricket tournament," asserts Lavsi.

Rohan Lavsi
Rohan Lavsi

While the league promotes a noble cause of Road Safety, Jaipuria is clear that this is a proper business opportunity for the channel. "Over 1.5 million accidents take place on Indian roads every year and that is a serious concern. That is why Road Safety is going to remain the issue that we would talk about, not only this year but in the coming editions too. However, we are looking at premium ad rates as the buzz around the tournament is immense and Sachin Tendulkar taking on Brian Lara is huge," she says.

The tournament kickstarts on March 7, 2020, and will conclude with the finals on March 22. The legends from the five countries will play 11 matches among themselves. The matches will start at 7 pm. However, the live telecast will begin at 6 pm every day. "We have curated a one-hour wrap around show - Super Over, which will be hosted by Cyrus Broacha and feature the legendary Sunil Gavaskar as an expert. It is going to be a blend of entertainment and cricket analysis," says Rohan Lavsi.

If sources are to believed, Colors Cineplex is trying to sell the slots north of one lakh rupees and Jaipuria says the network has received a "positive response" from advertisers and is likely to lock a good number of brands at a "premium" rate.

Will Viacom18 launch its sports portfolio sometime soon? "We are always exploring white spaces," replies Jaipuria. "We are getting into sports to evoke emotion, to establish ourselves as a wholesome entertainer. However, launching a sports portfolio is a tough, expensive business call as it has a very high entry barrier and a lot of it has to be measured before you take that call. It has to be a serious, strategic long-term discussion," she concludes.

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