Game of glorious uncertainties: ‘Sony-Zee merger has cricket written all over it'

© Provided by The Times of India

MUMBAI: The news-making deal that marks the merger of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. with Sony Pictures Network India (SPNI), bringing an end to a two-year speculation and close to eight months of being in the pipeline, has cricket written all over it.

The transaction between the two television entities will serve as a reminder going forward on how the game of glorious uncertainties has played a key role in keeping alive a good deal of competition between India’s traditional linear broadcast players. This at a time when OTT and subscription models are busy eating into all facets of appointment-viewing.

A bit of backstory first.

The two television giants had first made headlines together 17 years ago in 2004, and then too, ironically, it was in the month of September. The BCCI, that sits over all cricket media rights in the country, had – in the first week of September 2004 – signed a four-year broadcast rights deal with Zee to the tune of Rs 1500 crore, a first-of-its-kind back then, before erstwhile broadcaster and competitor ESPN-Star (ESS) cried foul over Zee “being unfairly granted the contract” and hauled both parties to court.

The BCCI, then led by former president Ranbir Singh Mahendra, while defending its decision in the court, alternately decided to then grant the contract to Sony Entertainment Network (which is how the company was called then), which incidentally was the third-highest bidder in the race for title rights after Zee and ESS.

“Sony turned out to be the proverbial turtle in a race with two hares. Zee went to court, separately on two counts – this four-year media rights deal and a separate one involving the India vs Australia series,” say those who tracked developments then.

As court battles took their own time settling, relationships grew better and sour on either front. Zee and BCCI would end up parting ways for the longest time, with Zee going on to launch the controversial Indian Cricket League (ICL) and getting blacklisted by the cricket board, while Sony – that later became Multi Screen Media (MSM) before being rebranded SPN India – became BCCI’s ‘friend’, bagging the massive Indian Premier League (IPL) rights a few years later.

This backstory is important because cricket again will be the primary catalyst as Sony and Zee begin a fresh journey, this time together. In 2017, they had briefly been in the news when Zee sold Ten Sports to Sony for US$385m in an all-cash deal just months before the IPL rights were sold.

Cricket will remain the catalyst because at the end of this year, the IPL rights will come up for sale again. Those in the know say “SPN India has managed to convince its board in the US that they would need to loosen purse strings to buy cricket rights in India if Sony were to take on rivals when bidding takes place for IPL rights. Sony realizes that it lost traction in terms of engagement with consumers when it lost all cricket rights in India five years ago”.

India, for the record, is the only territory in the world where Sony produces television content and given the niche market, the network has no intentions of losing ground.

Now, with the Sony-Zee merger, the two entities may make for strange bedfellows given their past but together they also make for a lethal combination that can withstand competition coming from some very strong quarters.

Viacom is building machinery and a war-chest for IPL rights. Disney, on the other hand, continues to be the elephant in the room. Amazon is already busy sounding the bugle.

In that, Sony and Zee – individually – would’ve needed a partner to handhold. This marriage though, apropos of the past affairs, has put them on a firm footing.

“Until last week, had you asked me how much the IPL rights would’ve gone for, I’d have probably said around US$3.5b (approx. Rs 25,000 crore). You ask me now and I’ll say it’ll crash past US$4.5b (around or in excess of Rs 30,000 crore),” says a top media-industry executive.

Cricket has played cupid between two entities yearning for a partnership. And this partnership is clearly capable of winning the match now.

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