Indian Football has once again, against all odds, won the small battle of being telecast on Indian television, with an IMG-Reliance joint venture for marketing and distribution rights concerning Indian football worth Rs 7 billion.
Zee Sports, and now Ten Action+, have completely acquired telecast rights for International football, with the subscription money coming from young people in the metros who are big fans of European club. However, in terms of viewership, the ratings are not even close to 0.5, thanks to the odd timings of Champions league and Spanish La Liga fixtures, as well as other broadcasting issues.
IMG-Reliance has paid Zee Rs.700 million to terminate the existing contract with AIFF, highlighting the determination and urge of the company to promote non-cricket sports in India. But questions remain about the broadcasting partner, since the joint venture companies do not own any television channel, which begets the issue of a sports channel to show the Indian football games. Moreover, the company needs to ensure that the channel would complement their marketing initiatives, for which they have pooled in a huge sum of money; the money not only takes care of promotions, but is also to be spent on works at the grass-root level in the form of scholarships for under-16 squads.
As far as the broadcasting scenario is concerned, channels telecasting sports other than cricket need to pay a huge amount on distribution – there is no pressure on cable operators to carry their channel free of cost from the consumer side, and the mass audience possesses little knowledge about Indian football. With football being a sport that breeds on club or community culture, it needs a wider reach the country to elevate its status; this requirement forces sports channels to pay a heavy price to cable operators to share their bandwidth. Therefore, IMG-Reliance needs to very careful while choosing a broadcasting partner – a channel with greater coverage in the country is very important for this kind of popular spectator sport.
East Bengal thrashing Air India – one of the many matches missed by fans
IMG-Reliance can also consider broadcasting as a separated external vertical, or they could possibly come up with their own channel with the amount of rights they have got in their kitty(akin to basketball); the Information and Broadcasting ministry should help them with the licensing. It is a good decision to have a separate vertical; the lack of such a separate option made it difficult for Zee to get sponsorships, marketing and broadcasting done at the same time. Indian football is currently sitting on a Rs. 5 billion valuation, with brands like Nike and Panasonic already sponsoring Indian teams.
Indian football fans can also question the government’s stand on this issue. Private broadcasting channels will choose to transmit a program which they think will guarantee them enough money/sponsorship in return. Sad to say, Indian domestic football cannot guarantee such sponsorships yet. However, if the broadcasting partner is a government sponsored one, there is no need for them to be governed by profit only. DD Sports – the government run Sports channel – suffers from poor TRPs, and is rarely watched by Indian sports fans. Before Zee tied up with AIFF, it was DD Sports who telecasted Nation Football League matches; they mostly focused on matches in Kolkata or Mumbai, but occasionally would telecast high profile matches. Mohun Bagan fans would still fondly remember Uday Konar going berserk after scoring a dramatic winner against Air India in the 2001/02 season – that match was shown on DD Sports, and was viewed by football fans round the country. DD Sports even made an exception to provide live feeds to the high profile Bagan – Churchill Brothers match in Goa on the last day of the 2001/02 season.
Should DD Sports choose to telecast matches, it can be a win-win situation for all parties concerned. DD Sports will be able to generate some much needed TRP and build a viewer base. I-League will get a broadcasting partner who will not solely focus on commercial aspects. It will also benefit Indian fans in general. In this age of set-top boxes and satellite broadcasters, a lot of channels are not provided by local service providers. Channels like Ten Action+ or Neo Sports are unavailable to local operators, or are pay-per view channels which are often out of reach of the lower middle class families. DD Sports is telecast in all parts of the country by every local operator, so it will easily reach the masses.
As it stands now, Indian football fans can only hope for AIFF to find a new telecasting partner quickly. Irrespective of the quality, I-League has provided many cliff-hanging encounters over the years. On more than one occasion, the title race has been decided on the last day, with three teams aiming to win it. Indian football fans are being deprived of such much needed football action, so the AIFF needs to act at the earliest.
~ Saurabh Singh Shishodia (with inputs from Somnath Sengupta)