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We Own It, We Show It
"The value of Indian cricket is at least $2 billion in the next four-five years."
"It can be as big as the NBA (the basketball league) in the US."
"An Indian Test player can earn as much as Michael Jordan used to: $40 million a year."
There are strange new sounds emanating from the edifice that is the Board of Control for Cricket in India. And we might do well to pay attention to the group within the board that's making them. It's led by I.S. Bindra, the Punjab Cricket Association president who's made Mohali one of the best managed cricket grounds in the world, and Lalit Modi, the new Rajasthan Cricket Association president, who handled the early marketing and distribution in India for espn, Ten Sports and DD Sports when each was launched.
The key to the Promised Land is a proposal the duo moved at the BCCI working committee meeting on the first of this month: the board must set up its own TV channel. Modi's logic is so compelling in its simplicity that you wonder why no one thought of it before. "A sports channel is all about rights. BCCI owns the rights to all cricket played in the country. Why not have our own channel?"
His math is even simpler. The number of homes having televisions in India is close to 100 million, out of which a large percentage has a cable connection. Even if 50 million homes agree to pay $1 a month for BCCI's channel, it will add up to $600 million a year just in subscription. Then there is the advertising, whose rates can go up to as much as $10,000 for a 10-second spot, as they did for India's tour to Pakistan last year. "Why only $2 billion in 4-5 years," says Modi about Bindra's estimate, "it can be $2 billion a year." Such an exponential rise is not exactly inconceivable. espn, under Modi's stewardship, had paid the BCCI $12 million in 1994 for the rights to cricket in India in the following five years. Last year, Zee bid a shade above $300 million.
What he's not even counting is the savings on legal fees. Dispute over television rights entered cricket close on the heels of the lucre. Beginning 1987, when Bhaskar Ghose, i&b secretary at that time, demanded 85 per cent of the revenue from in-stadia advertising during the Reliance World Cup for Doordarshan, every high-profile series has led to a higher profile controversy. Once the BCCI has its own channel, the lawyers can look elsewhere.
Besides, the BCCI will not be the first sports body to own a television channel. Manchester United, one of the most successful soccer clubs in the UK and the world, has a channel of its own.
However, potential rivals remain unconvinced. "They don't know what they are talking about," says an executive with a sports channel. "It's just a pressure tactic, or perhaps an off-the-cuff thing. The cost of production alone is $80-85,000 a day. Then there are expenses on infrastructure, buildings, staff, marketing, distribution, the works."
Besides, BCCI is no Man U. It does not even have a website of its own. And it does things like forgetting to book hotel accommodation for its team for the Bangalore Test against Australia last year. Even the way it conducts its own affairs is not exactly exemplary.
Bindra acknowledges this. He therefore proposes the inception of a separate company to handle the channel, its management, marketing and distribution. This company, using BCCI resources, can hire the best talent. Production can either be outsourced or brought in-house. To ensure transparency, the company can be turned into a public limited company and listed.
Rivals, meanwhile, point out that the BCCI may be overestimating the value of its biggest leverage, the rights. It is true that sports channels sustain themselves primarily on cricket. But India does not host much international cricket, the commodity that really sells. In 2004, international cricket in the country consisted of just the four Tests against Australia, two Tests against South Africa and the solitary odi in Calcutta for BCCI's platinum jubilee celebration. That's just 31 days. What will a cricket-only channel do for content the rest of the year?
Well, Modi and Bindra talk about a sharp increase in international cricket in India by dismantling the current payment structure. Teams visiting India will be paid more than the customary $2,00,000 since the matches will generate considerably more value than, say, a match between even respectable teams like South Africa and New Zealand anywhere. Then, BCCI can bid for rights to telecast matches involving India in other countries. "Since India is driving the business of cricket, why should we not be in the driver's seat?" asks Modi.
For the rest, the proposed channel will telecast domestic cricket. (Yes, you read it right.) "No channel is interested in showing domestic cricket," laments Bindra, talking about matches where the crowd seldom exceeds some jobless people, several stray dogs and a few unwilling journalists. "People like to watch stars. Who creates the stars? Television does. We will create stars in domestic cricket. We will also increase the number of domestic tournaments by adding things like inter-city competitions," says Modi.
That will take some doing. That the existing sports channels did not find it worth their while to telecast even the Challenger tournament, which was played in a limited-overs format and involved several international stars, says a thing or two about the advertising support.
But that part will come later. The first challenge will come at the board level itself. Bindra has gone so far as to say that his "dear old friend Mr Jagmohan Dalmiya was happy to endorse" the proposal. But Dalmiya, an astute businessman, has himself been uncharacteristically quiet on an issue of such financial magnitude. In any case, during last year's BCCI elections the Bindra-Modi group had supported Sharad Pawar for president while Dalmiya had thrown his weight behind Ranbir Singh Mahendra, who prevailed 16-15. BCCI secretary S.K. Nair is playing safe, giving the usual "the proposal is before us, we are looking at it" response.
Modi, however, believes that the disposition of the current board will have little bearing on the fate of the channel. "I am waiting for the board to change. We will see what the court judgement is (the BCCI election has been challenged in the courts). Otherwise, there will be elections in September," he says. Since last year's elections, the anti-Dalmiya faction has won in some state associations and is now claiming a majority.
Even if these calculations go wrong, Modi hopes to garner the support of state cricket associations by offering them the ultimate clincher. Currently, they get Rs 3-4 crore a year from BCCI. This might have gone up to about 12-14 crore had the Zee bid been accepted. Given that the Australia series is over and Pakistan will end next month, a re-bid will not result in anything more than Rs 8-10 crore for the associations. Meanwhile Modi, armed with BCCI's own channel, will offer them Rs 100 crore. It won't be an easy offer to refuse.