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The Third Most Watched Sports Franchise in the World Is Planning a Women’s League

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Indian Premier League, called the Super Bowl of cricket, is gearing up to roll out a women-only version of the game as organizers chalk out ways to make the third most-watched sporting event bigger, more profitable and diverse.

Board of Control for Cricket in India — the sport’s governing body conducts the wildly-popular men’s edition of IPL whose broadcast rights will be fought over by media titans including The Walt Disney Co. and Amazon.com Inc. — wants to auction broadcast rights of the women’s games and its six league teams by early next year, BCCI head Jay Shah told Bloomberg in an interview in Mumbai.

“At the moment, there is strong interest in media rights,” Shah said, adding that he was hopeful the owners of men’s IPL franchisees would bid for women’s league teams too. The association, he said, wants to bolster women’s games too — a format that typically gets overlooked in the otherwise cricket-crazy nation of almost 1.4 billion people.

Shah’s game plan to bolster diversity is underpinned by pure business savvy as he looks for more niche ways to monetize the 15-year-old sports franchise. IPL, estimated to be worth $7 billion, attracted 600 million viewers last year and trails only Premier League and National Football League in terms of eyeballs, according to estimates by BCCI.

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An auction of broadcast rights of the men’s league in June is likely to draw bids of more than $5 billion in a heated contest that could include Amazon Prime Video, Walt Disney, Sony Group Corp. and Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries Ltd.

As long as cricket continues to be played in each alley of India, IPL’s popularity will keep increasing, according to Utkarsh Sinha, managing director at Bexley Advisors in Mumbai.

“IPL is one of the stickiest media properties available, and heavyweights will slug it out to get media rights to it,” Sinha said. “It is probably the first format globally designed with commercials and profits in mind.”

Cricket’s niche formats

BCCI is relying on the auction’s success to bankroll subsidiary niche formats like the women’s cricket league. The fight for IPL’s five-year broadcast rights underscores the jostle among media behemoths to win eyeballs in the largest consumer market that’s still open to foreign firms but has proven tough to crack even for the likes of Netflix Inc.

Amazon has announced its intention to add live sports on its platform in India including cricket in end-April while Reliance-controlled Viacom18 Media received $1.8 billion in funding from a James Murdoch-backed firm as it gears up for the bidding battle.

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A girl plays a shot during a practice session at a cricket academy, on February 29, 2020 in Agra, India.Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The demand for IPL right now is so hot that BCCI has raised the base price above which bids will be accepted to $4.2 billion. It has also, for the first time, managed to sell all sponsorship slots for 2022 matches with backers, including Saudi Arabian Oil Co to Tata Group, according to Shah.

The online auction format for the men’s league in June itself is new to BCCI and underscores Shah’s attempts to modernize the 94-year-old cricketing body’s style of functioning. Bidders also can pitch only for live streaming rights or TV broadcast rights. Previously, BCCI has sold these rights as a bundle in a closed bidding process.

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“The decision was taken to double the reserve price for media rights after assessing the rising interest in the game,” Shah said. “We also decided to go for an e-auction this year to make the process transparent and to ensure maximum participation.”

A longer season for cricket

The cricket control body for India, which accounts for about 80% of the sport’s global revenue, is working with International Cricket Council to increase IPL season’s window from the current two months on the sporting calendar. A longer window will mean more matches and higher revenues.

Part of the board’s share of the money raised from the franchise is spent on state-level cricket associations, setting up infrastructure for the sports, and other expenses, including pension and fees for the players.

IPL, estimated to be worth $7 billion, attracted 600 million viewers last year and trails only Premier League and National Football League in eyeballs

Shah said that online streaming would overtake the broadcast soon and dismisses chances of any viewer fatigue — one of the biggest risks for any sports event. Online streaming accounts for only 30% of the game’s viewership but is on a strong footing after pandemic-led movement curbs forced people to watch more content over the internet.

Shah is confident the upcoming auctions will be a money spinner.

“There will be a strong four-cornered fight for the media rights of the game,” he said, referring to Amazon, Viacom18 Media, Disney, Sony. “The more money we raise, the better it gets for cricket as we will be investing it all back.”

With assistance from Sanjit Das

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