Less than 48 hours after Disney Star won the International Cricket Council (ICC) media rights with a whopping $3 billion composite (TV + digital) bid for four years (2024-27), they sub-licensed the TV component of their spoils to ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Ltd. (ZEE) on Tuesday evening.
“Disney Star will continue to be the exclusive home for streaming of all ICC tournaments through its digital platform – Disney+ Hotstar,” a joint statement of the two companies said. “ICC has in-principle approved this arrangement.”
The pending ICC approval may only be a formality and is expected to come soon. “We have had discussions and have given in-principle approval. There are a number of contractual obligations that need to be crossed out,” ICC’s Chief Commercial Officer, Anurag Dahiya confirmed.
The ICC sees no problems with Zee’s credentials or the legitimacy of the sub-licensing. “Zee were one of the bidders themselves and if they were the highest bidders, we would have awarded the rights to them. The first round was about eligibility and us being ok with their exploitation plans and they have already crossed that hurdle,” Dahiya added.
Sub-licensing of media rights in other territories is common. But it’s unheard of for anyone to give away lucrative India cricket rights to a competing broadcaster in a matter of days. Disney Star and Zee appear to have come to a mutual understanding and kept Viacom 18 at bay. Reliance controlled-Viacom 18, where seasoned media executive Uday Shankar also has stakes had emerged as a player to watch after winning the IPL digital rights for ₹23,758 crores. Here, they were pushing for an e-auction and were more conservative with their bidding.
Although both Disney and Zee refused to confirm that it was a pre-auction arrangement, industry watchers say it’s a reasonable inference given that neither Zee or Sony – the two are soon to merge – placed a competitive bid.
“There is nothing wrong with a pre-auction arrangement,” said Dahiya.
“In a market that has two entrenched broadcasters (Star and Sony), the incumbents will come together to keep the third competitor, well capitalized in this case, out. This is exactly in line with that,” opines Harish Thawani, former Chairman of Neo Sports.
With Star already having TV rights for IPL, the reminder of their BCCI bilateral contract, South Africa cricket and the recently acquired Australia cricket rights, they no longer need to defend their TV position. “By securing the IPL television broadcast rights for 2023-27 and now opting to retain only the digital rights for ICC tournaments for 2024-27, we have in place a balanced and robust cricket offering for our audiences across linear and digital,” K Madhavan, Country Manager & President, Disney Star commented.
For Zee-Sony, who don’t have a strong digital footprint, the TV rights serve the purpose. Although the merged Zee-Sony entity is expected to leverage from Sony’s sports channels, sources at Zee say they had approached this auction with their own strategy and have enough channels across languages of their own with a wide distribution network to beam World Cup cricket.
Zee have recently acquired rights of the UAE T20 league, starting next January. The ICC rights will mark their return to big-ticket cricket after they and the BCCI agreed to bury their hatchet by dropping all pending and dormant cases arising out of the rebel Indian Cricket League (ICL).
“It’s neat in terms of how it is playing out. Zee in its current makeup don’t have a sports channel and are looking at sport to grow their business on linear TV. So, it would be core to their strategy. Hotstar is looking to grow their subscriber base, particularly after the shift in IPL rights,” said Dahiya. “For us, it’s a win-win that both the digital rights holder and TV sub-licensee, in this case, will do their best to exploit these rights, expand coverage and get more fans engaged.”
Viacom 18 had no comments to offer. Back in 2017, Shankar was at the forefront of Star’s winning consolidated bid that took the IPL rights away from Sony.