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Zee vs ESPN-Star: It's match of the season

Surajeet Das Gupta | September 11, 2004

It's a multi-million-dollar battle and it's being fought to the last ball of the very last over. Earlier this week it looked as if Zee TV had hit a winning sixer with its $308 million bid for all international cricket matches in India for the next four years.

Zee despatched teams around the world to buy equipment for sports broadcasting. Also it put its technicians to work on around 10,000 decoder boxes that would be needed to receive the new channel.

All that came to a sudden halt on Thursday morning. Two judges of the Bombay high court asked the two top bidders -- the Zee Group and ESPN-Star Sports -- whether they would submit fresh sealed bids to the court. Zee was given till Tuesday to decide whether it wanted to take part in the fresh auction.

If Zee refuses to put in a fresh bid the court will start hearing the case filed by ESPN-Star Sports on September 14. Says a Zee spokesperson: "We have to go back to our board before we can take any decision and that will be held on Monday."

The court's decision was, inevitably, greeted with jubilation by ESPN-Star Sports, which has been sent reeling ever since it lost the multi-million-dollar bidding war to Zee. Now the company is back in the game. The stakes are high because ESPN can't afford to be turfed out of Indian cricket.

What will happen next in the cliffhanger cricketing battle? For one thing, the Board of Control for Cricket in India could be laughing all the way to the bank. Both Zee and ESPN are determined not to back down and, as a result, some industry experts reckon that fresh bids could touch a staggering $350 million. That would be way above what most experts had expected them to earn.

In any television bidding war there's a key question: is the channel bidding too much? Will it be able to earn back the huge sums it is forking out to buy cricket right? In the case of Zee there's an additional question: why is Zee gambling its future on the cricket deal?

The answer, quite simply, is that Zee chairman Subhash Chandra believes that cricket will pitchfork the company to the top and establish it as a giant in the sports broadcasting business which is currently dominated by ESPN-Star.

Says Chandra who was busy all last week making plans for the new channel: "Sports was the only gap in our bouquet offering which includes cinema, general entertainment, business, news and kid channels. This gap will now be bridged and we will be a complete channel."

Chandra says the new channel will need an investment of Rs 25 crore (Rs 250 million) and require working capital of about Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion) -- some of which will be needed to buy the rights of other non-cricket programmes.

There are many who disagree with that optimistic analysis and they believe that the high bid will boomerang on the company. Take, for example, Mumbai-based SSKI analyst Nikhil Vohra who says he's sceptical about the financial prudence of the bid and sees limited fiscal benefit for the company.

Vohra reckons Zee will lose around Rs 130 crore (Rs 1.3 billion) in a four-year period on the deal. The losses will, of course, be greater if the bid is upped again. He points out that Sony bid only $148 million, which is less than half of what Zee threw into the kitty. He believes that Sony, which entered the cricket game two years ago has a better reading of the market and found no reason to overbid.

Others hold a similar view. Says Atul Rastogi of Motilal Oswal: "I don't think it will have any positive impact on its bottomline. Of course it will improve their bargaining position with cable operators."

But Chandra has different compulsions that are forcing him to take the big gamble. For a start, his channel has been losing ground in the marketplace to Star and Sony and Chandra hasn't been able to turn that around for a long time. That is reflected in the viewership and advertising figures.

According to Mumbai-based Spatial Access, a media audit house currently Star TV channel rakes in about 60 per cent to 65 per cent of TV advertising revenues. That's followed by Sony, which picks up between 20 per cent and 25 per cent. Zee currently gets only about 15 per cent.

Zee lags behind the leaders in another way. It has only about 5.5 million paid subscribers compared to Star-ESPN, which has 8 million and the Star bouquet which has over 13 million. If that isn't worrying enough Zee must also face the fact that it doesn't have 'killer' content. It has few programmes in the Top Ten, according to various television ratings.

But that's precisely why some argue that Zee desperately needs to get into cricket. Says Harish Zaveri of Edelweiss Capital: "For many months Zee was off the radar of most stock brokers. The sports channel will bring them back. They have had no driver programmes for a long while."

Chandra, of course, hopes that cricket will change Zee's fortunes dramatically and that it will both push up ad revenues and subscription numbers. He is hoping that the number of paid subscribers will go up by over 45 per cent to 8 million within a few months -- bringing it in line with ESPN's subscription base. Also, Zee is hoping that once he's on the cricket field he will be able to hike subscription rates by 15 per cent to 20 per cent.

Can cricket work miracles for Zee and for others like ESPN and Star? The answer is almost certainly yes. That's because sports channels make good business sense and there's no revenue earner like cricket.

Industry experts say that the revenue generated from sports channels (primarily dominated by Star-ESPN) is worth over $150 million (over Rs 720 crore). Throw in an event like the World Cup cricket (the rights of which are with Sony TV) and overall revenues go up to over Rs 1,100 crore (Rs 11 billion).

First look at the subscription revenues of the paid sports channels. Industry estimates are that the subscription revenue of sport channels works out to around $65 million (dominated of course by ESPN-Star Sports). Zee would be able to pick up a substantial chunk of this money if it gets the cricket rights.

Then, there's the money that comes in from advertising. According to Hong Kong-based Media Partners Asia, a media research agency, the sports advertising market in India is worth around $85 million (around Rs 400 crore) and it makes up around 10 per cent of the total TV advertising pie of over Rs 4,000 crore (Rs 40 billion).

But cricket is the biggest earner in the sporting arena and it's thought to pick up around $75 million (over Rs 350 crore). And don't forget that the share of cricket to total TV advertising doubles when events like World Cup hit the pitch.

If all that isn't enough, there are bigger bonanzas for bigger matches. For instance, Ten Sports is believed to have raked in over Rs 120 crore (Rs 1.2 billion) in ad revenues from the recently concluded India-Pakistan series. Obviously a large part of this revenue could shift to Zee.

Says Vivek Couto, executive director, Media Partners: "Zee potentially could have over the next four years at least 50 per cent of that pie on an annualised basis as it grows beginning with 25 per cent share in year one and then scaling up to 50 per cent in the next three years."

What adds to the attractiveness is the fact that there might be potential for both ad revenues as well as subscription revenues to be hiked in a cricket crazy nation.

But opinions differ about whether ad rates can be hiked any further. Some media experts believe that ad rates have soared (it went up to Rs 500,000 for a 10 second spot in the India-Pakistan tour) and that there isn't much room for further growth. Couto reckons it will grow by 10 per cent to 12 per cent on an annualised basis with a major spurt in 2007 when the World Cup happens.

Meenakshi Madhvani of Spatial is one of those who argue that ad rates might actually fall in coming months. She also points out that the scope to hike subscriptions is limited as the BCCI India matches will also be shown on Doordarshan and are not exclusive.

Certainly, there's an awful lot of cricket at stake in coming years. In the next three years (for which data on matches are available) Star-ESPN points out that it has over 116 days of India cricket, apart from over 696 days of overall cricket (which includes matches where India is not playing). Star-ESPN executives say that on an average the channel has over 40 days of Indian cricket every year.

ESPN has also been working with the BCCI to develop other cricket properties (like the Holland Cup which just finished). If it succeeds in winning the contract for the next four years it will be in an unassailable position -- it will get around 80 days of Indian cricket annually.

That will put it far ahead of rivals like Ten Sports, which according to industry estimates has 64 days of Indian cricket in the next three years. Similarly, Sony TV will have about 76 days of Indian cricket in the next three years thanks to the ICC and the World Cup.

But the scenario could change dramatically if Zee manages to keep the contract. If that happens it would be able to offer advertisers between 109 to 120 days of cricket in the next three years and battle neck-to-neck with Star-ESPN after coming from nowhere.

And that picture could change even more dramatically if Zee's talks with Ten Sports for a distribution agreement get off the ground. Zee has confirmed that talks are on but Ten Sports refuses to comment. Industry observers say a tie-up would strengthen both sides and give them leverage to sell their channels as a bouquet -- driving up subscriptions.

Says an industry observer: "Between the two they can offer over 200 days of Indian cricket in four years and that is a proposition which no customer or cable wallah would ignore."

Zee is in a position to leverage cricket in other ways. It could use the game to push its direct to home business. Chandra points out that it is aiming at about 1 million DTH subscribers by end-March 2005 (from 150,000 currently).

The company hopes it will be able to offer DTH viewers special features like the ability to watch the match from different angles (people at home could, for instance, get a simulation of what it's like watching from the members gallery).

Says Jawahar Goel who heads the group's distribution business and the DTH project: "At the moment the average revenue per user has gone up from Rs 150 to Rs 175. Cricket we hope will push this figure to over Rs 200."

At the moment however all eyes are on the Monday board meeting. Zee's marketing team has already put together an aggressive blueprint on how to make cricket a hotter moneyspinner.

For instance, it plans to create cricket brands out of state teams on the lines of what happens in the US with the baseball teams. It also hopes to beam over 200 days of local cricket by leveraging its seven Alpha regional channels and offering viewers commentary in local languages and thus, creating a new audience.

Then, it is talking to the BCCI to market its hospitality rights more aggressively. For instance, it may tie-up with BCCI to offer special packages under which companies can invite clients and wine and dine them. The company also hopes to leverage its strength in tele-shopping to sell cricket merchandise on behalf of BCCI.

Will it all work out for Zee? For the moment all eyes are on the Bombay high court. But, as Zee has already learnt to its cost, the battle's not over till the last ball is bowled.

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