ESPN Returns to India in Deal With Sony Unit

Nick Caito/ESPN Images

ESPN Sony plans to launch new channels and other initiatives to take on the sports juggernaut's 21st Century Fox-owned former partner Star.

ESPN is returning to India after it ended its 18-year-old joint venture with 21st Century Fox-owned Star network two years ago.

This time, the sports network powerhouse has partnered with Sony Pictures Television's India unit Multi Screen Media, whose existing sports portfolio, in addition to its range of entertainment networks, includes three channels — Sony Six, Sony Kix and Sony Six HD.

According to the companies, the partnership plans to launch new co-branded channels, starting with Sony Kix being rebranded as Sony ESPN though MSM will continue to retain the Sony Six brand. Also planned are digital properties, which will add to, the long-running online cricket platform retained by ESPN after it exited the ESPN Star Sports broadcasting joint venture.

“This exciting, long-term collaboration between ESPN and MSM will serve Indian sports fans with exceptional products, content and coverage through the combined strengths and expertise of our two companies, which each have a strong heritage of leadership and innovation in India,” said ESPN International executive vp and managing director Russell Wolff.

“MSM’s association with ESPN is holistic and embraces both television and digital formats,” added MSM CEO N.P. Singh, “Not only are we about to set the frontiers in sports content and distribution but we will most likely set the trends as well.”

ESPN parent The Walt Disney Company has a strong presence in India with its local unit offering diverse entertainment content both in TV and film. But when it comes to sports, MSM is a major player given it has rights to the popular Indian Premier League cricket franchise. MSM also offers diverse international content, such as FIFA tournaments, including the World Cup, and basketball from the NBA, among other sports.

However, in addition to being a major entertainment networks operator, Star is considered the market leader in sports in India with its six channels offering content, such as the Cricket World Cup, the English Premier League and Formula One racing, among others.

Modeled after the English Premier League, IPL offers a heady mix of cricket and Bollywood with stars owning some of the teams, such as actor Shah Rukh Khan's Kolkata Knight Riders.

IPL's success has inspired other leagues to promote less popular sports such as soccer, badminton, hockey and even the traditional Indian contact sport of kabaddi.

The recently launched Pro-Kabaddi League that airs on Star Sports has been well-received, mirroring an IPL-style formula of mixing sports with Bollywood with some teams partly owned by stars such as Abhishek Bachchan. Similarly, Star Sports' newly launched Indian Super League features local soccer teams, again some part-owned by Bollywood stars such as Ranbir Kapoor, which aims to expand the sports broadcasting market beyond cricket.

The ESPN Sony partnership “will also explore collaboration on the development of other original sports programs,” according to Singh. While boosting more local content, future bidding wars for properties, such as the IPL, for which MSM acquired rights through 2017 for a record $1.63 billion from India's cricket board, could possibly heat up with the entry of ESPN Sony. “But its all speculative how high it could go,” consulting firm KPMG India analyst Jehil Thakkar tells The Hollywood Reporter, adding: “However, the return on investment would be justified given the size of the sports broadcasting market and especially its future growth potential."

Total sports viewership in India is estimated at 276 million, while advertising for sports TV is estimated at $640 million (41 billion rupees), according to a recent KPMG industry report.

In addition to local content, ESPN Sony will offer over 1,000 hours of ESPN programming per year, such as the March Madness NCAA Championship, U.S. College Football playoffs and boxing, among others. Also included are ESPN films, such as the Emmy-winning 30 For 30 series, which features films from Barry Levinson, Peter Berg, Steve James, Brett Morgen and Ice Cube.