Star India’s logo will not be seen on the jersey of the Indian cricket team after March 31, the company’s CEO Uday Shankar recently said in an interview. Shankar said that his company was “concerned about the health of cricket in the days ahead” in light of the impasse between the International Cricket Council and the Board of Control for Cricket in India with regard to revenue sharing and governance. Whatever Star’s reasons for pulling out, the fact that they will no longer sponsor the Indian team is a good thing in terms of fair play.

Here’s why.

The television network, which is a fully-owned subsidiary of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, won the bid to be the official sponsor of the Indian cricket team in December 2013 for the period of January 1, 2014 to March 31, 2017. Under the contract, Star India would have its logo on the Indian men’s, women’s, Under-19 and “A” team kits. What’s the problem? Star also has the broadcast, internet and mobile rights for Indian cricket till March 2018.

“The move by Star represents its new strategy to extend its association with cricket beyond broadcasting rights,” said a report in Business Standard, when the sponsorship deal was announced. While this is okay, what is not is the fact that the official broadcaster of Indian cricket was also its sponsor. Would the broadcaster then be objective in their coverage of the Indian team?

On-air censorship

Note that Star’s broadcast rights literally involve only broadcasting India’s matches and nothing more. In 2012, the BCCI started to produce its own matches in-house. It has its own production setup and crew, including commentators. Star is only broadcasting what the BCCI produces. So, you are only going to find mild criticism, if any, of the Indian team on Star Sports during live matches.

“The conflict has already been made redundant with the level of censorship on commentary on air,” said a sports lawyer who did not wish to be identified since his firm deals with one of the parties. “Even before Star came on board, that whole issue has been a contentious one – of criticising anything that the BCCI does. The no-criticism policy has been there for the last five or six years, when Sahara was on the jersey. It’s been long since anyone criticised the team on air.”

Is that because of pressure from the BCCI? “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s written into the commentator’s contracts. Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar are on permanent contracts – they are hired by the BCCI and enforced on to the broadcaster.”

But what about the coverage when there isn’t any live game? If you watch Star Sports’ in-house shows on cricket, there is hardly anything critical about the Indian team there as well. During non-match days, they show highlights of previous games, mostly those won by India, re-runs of post-match analysis shows that involve the BCCI-contracted commentators, and special episodes glorifying Indian captain Virat Kohli.

Star Sports schedule on March 1, 2017 (Screengrab)

Compare this coverage to that of England’s Sky Sports, also under Rupert Murdoch’s umbrella, and you’ll notice a stark difference. Sky’s commentators are not contracted with the England and Wales Cricket Board, and thereby don’t hold back in laying into the team if need be.

When Alastair Cook resigned as England captain after a miserable tour of India, his predecessor and one of Sky’s commentators, Nasser Hussain, said on air that that the 32-year-old had lost his “mental toughness”. Can you imagine Gavaskar or Shastri saying something similar on Star Sports about MS Dhoni when he resigned from captaincy? Gavaskar, in fact, told NDTV, with whom he is also contracted as a cricket analyst, that he would have “staged a dharna” outside Dhoni’s house had he retired at the same time.

Conflict of interest is not new to Indian cricket. Members of the BCCI, right up to the president, and its affiliated state bodies have often held multiple positions across entities. Former BCCI President N Srinivasan became the owner of a franchise of the Indian Premier League, a tournament that was started by the board. This was after a clause in the BCCI’s constitution, which stated that no administrator shall have any commercial interest in any of the events of the board, was amended to exclude the IPL and its offspring, the Champions League T20.

However, everything changed following the 2013 spot-fixing and betting scandal, in which cricketers and officials belonging to two IPL franchises, including Srinivasan’s Chennai Super Kings, were charged. Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals were suspended for two years as a result. The scandal eventually led to Srinivasan’s exit from the BCCI.

The scandal also led the Supreme Court of India, in January 2015, to appoint a committee headed by a retired judge, Justice RM Lodha, to clean up Indian cricket administration. The Lodha committee recommended a total overhaul of Indian cricket, from the grassroots level right up to the top brass.

‘Watershed’ moment

In its annual general meeting in November 2015, the BCCI, then presided over by lawyer-turned-administrator Shashank Manohar, decided to crack down on conflict of interest. The governing body released a list of regulations, which were applicable to administrators, current and retired players who were still on its payroll as commentators, coaches and selectors.

Among the first people to be asked to resolve their conflicts of interest were Shastri, who was the Indian team director at the time and also part of the IPL’s governing council, Sourav Ganguly, who had to quit his role as a commentator to take up administration, and Anil Kumble, who stepped down from the BCCI’s technical committee to continue his association with IPL franchise Mumbai Indians.

Roger Binny, a member of the senior selection panel, was asked to quit his role considering his son, Stuart Binny, is still an active player in contention to play for India. “If he is a deserving player he should not get flak that he is playing because he is Roger Binny’s son,” Manohar had said. “We can’t destroy his career.”

The Times of India called it “a watershed [moment] in Indian cricket in ways more than one”, and it was not wrong.

N Srinivasan (left) and his successor Shashank Manohar (Punit Paranjpe/AFP)

Legally not a problem

So did Star India’s conflict of interest slip under the radar? It would seem so. However, legally, there is no problem at all with such a deal. “Conflict of interest is not a legal term at all,” said Nandan Kamath, principal lawyer at LawNK, a sports and intellectual property law firm. “It is completely a moral and ethical term, which has been completely overblown after this Lodha saga. People don’t even understand it. The minute you say conflict of interest, everyone just scatters as if it is some bad word.”

Kamath went on to explain that conflict of interest is merely a statement that a person may have two competing interests – one that might be private and one that is public. “And the minute the public position is coloured by the private interest, it doesn’t make it an infringement of law or anything,” he said. “It just makes it something that needs to be addressed, either through disclosure, recusal or, in an extreme case, removal.”

Legally, Star was in the clear. They got the sponsorship and broadcast contracts through open-bid processes, to which there is no legal limitation. “These are two entirely separate, mutually exclusive baskets of rights,” said another sports law consultant, who also requested anonymity. “One doesn’t overlap with the other.”

The only way Star could have faced a problem was if another sponsor came up and said that it had an issue. “There might be a commercial conflict, where I say they are the broadcaster and they have their logo on the jersey, they will get more exposure than I do,” said the sports lawyer. “That is not there in this case.” The only other jersey sponsor for Team India is Nike, who manufacture the kits. They seem to be fine with sharing space with Star.

So, is such a deal unique to this case? There aren’t any similar examples, at least in the world of cricket. “It is unique because you are putting all your eggs in one basket,” the sports lawyer said. “Very rarely will broadcasters get to expose themselves on air when they anyway have the inventory. You can argue that it is completely irrelevant, considering your logo is anyway on the screen. And you’re showing your logo on the jersey to people who anyway are watching your channel. The only additional exposure they get is in newspapers and websites. They don’t need the [additional exposure of] photos in the newspapers.”

With Star now exiting the sponsor category, can we expect some balanced coverage on the channel? Even though commentary will continue to be censored by the BCCI, the broadcaster still has the option to provide balanced and objective coverage in its in-house shows. Will Star exercise that option? Never say never, but considering the history of cricket broadcasting in India, especially in the last decade, don’t count on it.