Much like sports itself, sports broadcasting has gradually become an industry that is also becoming a tool through which larger world structures are staking their claim to various sports across the world. European football presents a rich example of it, as geopolitical wars ensue over broadcasting rights and ownership of clubs. Gradually enough, something similar to that has happened in cricket, especially since India’s financial and on-pitch influence in the sport has spread. This is best typified by Viacom18’s rise in India’s favourite sport, even in football.
The idea that India will have its very own broadcast of a FIFA World Cup would’ve been laughed off 20 years ago, but that did come to fruition during the FIFA World Cup in 2022, as Viacom18 bagged the rights to broadcast the tournament in a deal worth a reported ₹450 crore. Viacom18’s new sports channels, Sports18 and Sports18 HD, came into being not too long before that and used their rights over LaLiga and the Serie A as a foundation to bring the World Cup to Indian TVs. Despite some glitches around online streaming on JioCinema, the general feedback for the broadcast was a positive one, and Viacom18 is not stopping there.
Despite entering the scene relatively belatedly, India has already acquired a leading position when it comes to promoting and monetising women’s cricket across the world. India’s T20I series against Australia back in 2022 had free entries for games, which was a clear sign of how the country was beginning to see women’s cricket, as it was followed by Viacom18 bagging the rights for the inaugural season of the Women’s Premier League (WPL). While the deal is reportedly worth US$117 million, Viacom18 is set to merge JioCinema and Voot to form a single OTT platform that will be rebranded altogether.
Not just the WPL, Viacom18 now also has rights for the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Olympics, while also being the official Indian broadcaster of three of the major five European football leagues in the Serie A, LaLiga and Ligue 1. With Star Sports now looking to exit the Indian Super League (ISL), Viacom18 is set to step in for the broadcasting rights for the Indian professional football topflight as well. This is barely a coincidence, considering that the ISL has been operated by FSDL, which is a subsidiary of Reliance Industries. Keeping in mind that Viacom18’s majority shareholder, Network18 Group, is owned by Reliance, acquiring the ISL broadcasting rights certainly makes a lot of sense.
All of this presents a picture of how vital OTT platforms are becoming in sports streaming. Something that attracts OTT platforms to sports is the presence of a loyal viewership, which can’t be guaranteed when it comes to films and TV shows, unless they become massive hits. OTT platforms also allow for less structured advertising opportunities, allowing them to use advertising as per their needs. They can prey on the faithful audiences of fans of teams and the sport itself, and with them now having become much more accessible in India due to Jio’s internet revolution, it is only natural that this process comes knocking on the doors of India’s sports broadcasting industry.
Disney+ Hotstar did achieve some success in this regard with its hold over the IPL and the Premier League. Sony did the same with its hold over the Olympics, WWE, the UEFA competitions and certain parts of Indian cricket. But Viacom18’s approach seems much more all-encompassing, and the company certainly has a firm financial backing to rely on. Reports state that Viacom18 was handed a clean slate during the bidding process to acquire media rights for the IPL, which says a lot about the company’s financial strength, given Hotstar struggled to make any profits from its IPL broadcast and streaming deals over the previous decade or so.
But Viacom18’s approach will not just help establish its dominance in the sports broadcasting market; it will also damage the competitors, especially Star India, because Hotstar alone generated 70% of its ad revenue for a lengthy amount of time.
A case can be made of the fact that streaming the FIFA World Cup for free last year was essentially an attempt by Viacom18 to test its servers for streaming and whether they could take up the load of a massive number of viewers from across the country. That is pretty much why a lot of fans reported issues in their JioCinema telecasts of World Cup games in the beginning. Even though the streaming service was free and didn’t require a subscription or even a log-in, the Hotstar example suggests that a small chunk of revenue for sports streaming comes from subscriptions, while a majority of it comes from advertising during games.
More than advertising, there are suggestions that Viacom18 could use AJIO for an effective merchandising project as well. AJIO could become the official merchandise sponsor for team jerseys of IPL teams and start a new revenue chain — something Hotstar or Sony were incapable of, as the individual sporting entities had to rely on third-party retail chains for selling their merchandise. WWE using The Souled Store as its official merchandise partner is a prime example, but Viacom18 will not have to rely on external retailers due to its obvious ties with AJIO, which could be a massive revenue stream in itself, especially considering how popular the IPL and the FIFA World Cup are as sporting events in the country.
The advantage of bagging rights to the IPL and the WPL is vital, since it allows for a smooth transition of fanbases from one entity to another. Since three of the five WPL teams are owned by franchises with IPL teams, Viacom18 can keep an audience retained for a larger amount of time than Hotstar ever could, which is vital given the popularity of the sport in India and how it drives advertising revenue, reducing other sports to the tag of the “growing” ones.
Football is still a “growing” sport in India. One of the challenges that TV broadcasts of the ISL previously presented was how it focused heavily on metro cities while unintentionally neglecting areas of the country—Goa, Kerala and the northeast—that actually have a rich footballing heritage. But the permeation of the ISL into the online streaming sector has made the league much more accessible for a majority of regions across the country.
For a sport that has had structural issues in India for a while now, falling back onto a reliable broadcast deal will hand ISL clubs higher assurances of making their business work. And with the relegation-promotion system coming into place soon, these broadcast deals with Viacom18 could well make Indian football viable for everyone.
Although JioCinema users will expect the free streaming to continue, that seems unlikely because of the upcoming rebranding of the OTT platform (the IPL streams are expected to be free anyway). A lot of things point towards how all these developments are attempting to make sports an exclusive experience that make fans feel truly connected to the product. It will end up assuming the form of something that transcends the idea of purely sports broadcasting, even if it starts with that.
Viacom18’s goal is to make fans “live” sports on a daily basis on a single platform, without having the need to drop out elsewhere.