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Disney’s cricket streaming strategy in India underlines the sport’s financial heft

Those from non-traditional cricket playing countries generally deride the British Commonwealth bat and ball sport, a game widely viewed as shackled to just a small part of the globe.

Due to an elitist structure underpinning the sport’s governing body, which has just 12 countries with top tier membership status granting more funding, power and playing opportunities, cricket’s growth has been sluggish compared to other global team sports such as soccer and basketball.

But often to the surprise of those not in cricket terrain, there is serious money in the game stemming primarily from India – the world’s most populous nation where cricket has a stranglehold.

There has been enormous investment in cricket amid India’s burgeoning financial muscle.

This was evident in last year’s astronomical $6 billion media rights deal in the Indian Premier League – the most popular and richest T20 competition in the world that attracts most of the best players and effectively shuts the cricket calendar in April and May.

While the sport’s governing body has a $3 billion broadcast deal for its next four-year cycle of events – a significant increase on its current agreement – which India is set to contentiously pocket nearly 40 per cent of the revenue share.

Such the lure in this part of the world, cricket has been a major focus of Disney’s streaming strategy in India. The company just recently announced that Hotstar – India’s largest premium streaming platform owned by Disney – will offer free streaming of cricket tournaments in India on mobile devices in a significant development.

It’s part of a strategic re-think for Disney after rival JioCinema – backed by the deep pockets of billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Viacom18 – enjoyed success in garnering millions of viewers by streaming the recent IPL for free on its platform.

Users will be able to stream this year’s Asia Cup – which will be played in Pakistan and likely Sri Lanka in September – and the subsequent World Cup played in India at no cost.

It’s a departure from Disney’s previous strategy, which required users to subscribe to a paid plan in recent years. Disney believe the free of charge streaming service will reach more than 540 million smartphone users in its bid for the matches to be “accessible to as many mobile users in India”.

Cricket has perhaps inevitably been thrust into the increasingly heated rivalry between Ambani, who is currently ranked 13th on Forbes Real Time Billionaires list, and Disney, which once owned the coveted IPL rights.

Losing the IPL’s media rights – by far the most popular sports league in India – has reportedly been costly for Disney’s Hotstar, whose subscriber base subsequently shrank by around five million users in India.

But Disney’s decision to follow the copybook of its rival has raised eyebrows.

“If continued over the longer term, free cricket offerings may magnify losses for streaming platforms or lead to consolidation, as many platforms may not be able to survive with lower revenue per user,” Elara Capital analyst Karan Taurani told Reuters.

This raging war is intensifying in a country where the streaming industry is booming and the money spinner of Indian cricket caught in the middle.

Cricket is simply a financial behemoth in India, evoking plenty of starry-eyed admirers – but also a healthy dose of resentment – within the sport’s traditional playing countries.

With major influence on major streaming companies amid billion-dollar media rights deals, Indian cricket might just help change the sport’s often-mocked reputation beyond traditional borders. Forbes

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