It is a fact well-known today that cricket broadcasting rights are the biggest source of revenue for the Board of Control for Cricket (BCCI) in India. But there was a time, not so long ago, that the BCCI had to pay Doordarshan (DD) Rs five lakh for broadcasts of cricket matches. In the pre-liberalisation years, DD had a monopoly on broadcasting, so the BCCI had no choice but to pay up. All that changed in 1993 when Mark Mascarenhas, the head of a production company called WorldTel, offered the BCCI a mind-boggling $600,000 to acquire the rights to broadcast the India-England cricket series. That watershed moment opened the floodgates through which serious money kept flowing into the BCCI coffers via the sale of rights to broadcast cricket matches in India. In 2012, the Star group paid Rs 3851 crores to air cricket matches played in India. In 2018, that figure rose Rs 6138 crores.
The birth of the Indian Premier League (IPL), and the subsequent success of other sporting leagues, made broadcast rights only more lucrative. Last year, Star India acquired the media rights for the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) for Rs 181 crore. Compared to the Indian Premier League, whose media rights are estimated, to be valued at around Rs 40,000 crores in 2022 for the next cycle, the amount might seem a pittance. But for a homegrown sport like kabaddi, which was struggling to find viewers until the PKL arrived a few years ago, generating nearly Rs 200 crore from the sale of consolidated media rights i.e., TV, digital and gaming is a significant step in the right direction.
The roots of this arbitrary rulemaking lie in the Sports Broadcasting Act Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007 (Sports Law). It was enacted with the objective of providing access of sporting events of national importance to the largest number of listeners and viewers, on a free-to-air basis. The law aims to do this through a statutory license framework under which the broadcasters of these events are mandated to share broadcasting signals with Prasar Bharati. The law also allows the central government to decide which sports or tournaments are “sporting events of national importance”.
The law is a manifestation of the eminent domain of the state on private property. In other words, it is, the power of the state to acquire private property for public good. To seek private investment in sports, enhanced leverage has to be given to entrepreneurs and promoters, who bring money and passion to the business. These statutes bring uncertainty around the business models being created around the sport, and most specifically, the leagues being created. I believe that the courts have opined that any limitation or restriction prescribed by such law should not be arbitrary or excessive or what is beyond what is required in public interest. Courts have also clarified that the Sports Act is an expropriatory statute and its provisions must be construed strictly.
The impugned notification disregards these judicial safeguards and emanates from an excessively liberal interpretation of “sporting event of national importance”. Moreover, by including “international events organised by National Sports Federations”, the notification practically brings every sporting discipline in its fold.
This is not the first time that the government has misconstrued the provisions of the Sports Act. In 2007, BCCI approached the Delhi High Court to seek a declaration that Doordarshan’s right to retransmit broadcasting signals of sporting events of national importance is limited to its own terrestrial and DTH networks and does not extend to private cable operators carrying DD channels. Prasar Bharati contested this position and sought retransmission rights over its own as well as other networks. It argued that since broadcasting utilizes spectrum, which is a natural resource, it can be used for maximization of public interest. In August 2017, after multiple rounds of litigation, the Supreme Court of India passed an order in favour of the BCCI and clarified that Prasar Bharati can only retransmit on its own terrestrial and DTH network.
Returning to the latest PIB notification, not only does such rulemaking threaten to spur away investments from sports broadcasting, it also gives legitimacy to laws, which benefit only one entity on the pretext of “public interest”. This move only enhances the financial spread of Doordarshan, which does not invest in the creation of sports models, but skims off the surface, if the product delivers, and limits the long-term value creation private sector-led sports models could create in India. With OTT and digital streaming now changing the landscape in terms of penetration and reach of content , and lowering the cost of delivery significantly, some of the assumptions under which these statutes are written may not be relevant anymore.
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