Broadcaster Star Sports is on its way to launching India’s first ever private free-to-air sports channel, according to people familiar with the situation. The channel will be called Star Sports First and be available on public broadcaster Doordarshan’s free-to-air Direct-To-Home platform Freedish. Doordarshan’s DD Sports is India’s only other free-to-air sports channel right now.

Star Sports’ parent company Star India had reportedly won two slots in the Freedish e-auction held on July 4. A total of 11 channel slots were sold in the auction, raking in more than Rs 85 crore for Doordarshan.

Star Sports has not yet made anything official about launching a free-to-air sports channel, but told The Field that their “efforts are still in the developmental phase, and an official announcement will follow at an appropriate time”.

This is a big development not just for Star but also for the entire broadcast industry, experts said. The free-to-air market has so far been dominated by general entertainment channels and news channels. No private sports network has bothered to offer its content to the free-to-air market, until now.

No coincidence

The imminent announcement of Star’s first free-to-air sports channel will come weeks before the commencement of the fifth season of the Pro Kabaddi league, which will be its longest ever, spanning 13 weeks. Industry experts said that this is no coincidence and Star Sports is banking on Pro Kabaddi to attract viewers in the free-to-air market. Star Sports is the official broadcaster of Pro Kabaddi and the company owns a 74% stake in Mashal Sports, the firm that launched the league.

“Clearly, a large part of the target group that this free-to-air channel will address will be people who are not necessarily in the top 50 towns in India, where there aren’t any organised cable providers,” said Harish Krishnamachar, founding partner of Sportoid Sports Solutions, a sports management company. “Therefore, anything that has a certain Indian origin to it or a mass appeal – like cricket and kabaddi – would lend itself very well to it.”

Pro Kabaddi’s stakeholders said they would welcome the decision to show the league on a free-to-air channel if it meant larger viewership. “Star hasn’t communicated directly with us [about the new channel], but it would be great if Pro Kabaddi is available to more people,” said Supratik Sen, CEO of the U Mumba franchise. Freedish reportedly has 2.2 crore subscribers. In comparison, Dish TV, which is the biggest player in India’s paid Direct-to-Home industry, had 1.39 crore subscribers as of December 31, 2015.

Doordarshan's Freedish DTH provider reportedly has 2.2 crore subscribers (Image: Reuters)

Apart from Pro Kabaddi, Star has a vast array of options to choose from to show on the free-to-air channel. Star Sports is the official broadcaster of the Indian cricket team’s home matches, the International Cricket Council tournaments, the Indian Super League (football), the English Premier League (football), the German Bundesliga (football), the Badminton World Federation tournaments, the Premier Badminton League, the Hockey India League, Wimbledon, the French Open, the International Premier Tennis League, and Formula One.

Considering DD Sports is the only other sports channel in the free-to-air domain, Star’s channel is likely to have a significant impact on the market, considering the difference in quality in their content. “DD Sports’ content hasn’t been compelling,” said Krishnamachar. “But Star, with the kind of intellectual property and programme content that they have, the channel will be compelling. In places where people are unwilling to pay for channels, it will certainly make a difference.”

The economics of running a free-to-air channel is probably why other sports broadcasters haven’t ventured into this space yet, experts said. A significant amount of channels’ revenue comes from subscriptions, with experts pegging it north of 40%. The rest comes from advertising. To operate a free-to-air channel, broadcasters will have to make that 40% also from advertising, and there lies the challenge.

Telecasts of Indian cricket matches are intruded by advertising that is considered excessive by many, often interrupting live play. The fact that cricket provides a natural break at the end of every over definitely helps. However, a sport like kabaddi or football doesn’t provide you that break. So how can broadcasters recover the loss of that subscription revenue on a free-to-air channel? That’s the crux of the matter.

Calculated gamble

“The cost of acquiring this content is high, so when you paid so much you’ll want to recover the money,” said Krishnamachar. For example, Sony Pictures Network paid Rs 8,200 crore back in 2008 for broadcast rights of the Indian Premier League for 10 years, which is Rs 820 crore a year. In 2012, Star bid Rs 3,851 crore for broadcast rights of the Indian cricket team’s home matches for a six-year period.

So how does Star plan to recover its lost subscription revenue from a free-to-air channel? “It is a calculated gamble, but for me the game has to be about increasing viewership numbers,” said Krishnamachar. “Most of the media houses and agencies rely upon viewership to tell their clients at what price they should buy. The gamble really is to say, if I can show increased viewership of the sport, I can get better advertisement rates.”

While Star has not released its viewership figures for Pro Kabaddi after season one (43.5 crore), the company said that it has recorded a growth of 51% over the last four seasons. By increasing the length of season five from five to 13 weeks, and offering the matches free of cost to lakhs of television viewers in the free-to-air market who did not have access earlier, Star’s gamble might just pay off.

Note: This story has been updated on July 7 with Star Sports’ statement on the matter.