With all the three most precious cricket media rights – Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Indian Premier League (IPL) – under Star Sports’ belt, the man behind the rise of India’s biggest sports broadcast network Uday Shankar believes “our sports business is a work in progress as is the sports consciousness in this country”.
No broadcaster has dared to invest in sport in India and brake conventions as Star Sports did under the leadership of Uday Shankar, President, The Walt Disney Company, Asia Pacific, and Chairman, Star and Disney India. It was his vision and daredevilry to take Star into the sports business, which had then been the graveyard of many media companies. If investment in the highest-value cricket rights – BCCI, ICC, and IPL – was not enough, Uday Shankar took another well-calculated risk of promoting kabaddi as a professional sports league.
Uday Shankar, delivering the Advertising Agencies Association of India’s Subhas Ghosal Memorial Lecture 2019, highlighted the risks and vision that had made him stand apart at the pinnacle of the Indian media industry. The tales of risks and successes in his three-decades of media journey could not have been completed without a mention of the business of sports broadcast, which he has transformed in more than one way.
The Star India chairman narrated how he had taken the great risk to take Star India into sports, which at that time had proved to be the graveyard of many media companies. “We doubled down on cricket – ICC, BCCI and then IPL. No media company had ever invented so much in cricket or perhaps in any one sport as we had. Then we decided to double down on Indian languages. As if that wasn’t enough, we decided to risk our destiny on such sports as kabaddi. It’s worked out well…our sports business is still very much work in progress, as is the sports consciousness in India. But we are surely building one of the most exciting franchises in the world,” Uday Shankar said during his 34-minute address.
“No other media company invested in cricket as Star India did. In contrast to other networks that usually have commentaries in one or two languages, Star expanded it in seven languages which paid off as 86% of their cricket sports viewership come from languages, only 14 percent comes from English.”
Star Sports collective business may still be far from breaking even, Uday Shankar defines it as “a work in progress as is the sports consciousness in this country. We are slowly building one of the most exciting franchises in the world”.
He highlighted the launch of Hotstar as an even crazier adventure. “When India was dismissed as a data dark market and mobile was a device only for talking, we decided to launch Hotstar. As everyone thought, we were crazy indeed. But we believed in India’s surprising ability to leapfrog and we believed in ourselves. With Hotstar, once again we went by our playbook – get the best talent that you could and disrupt the ecosystem. Streaming was still supposed to be a catch-up medium. We decided to put all our live sports on it, we even decided to put our entertainment content on Hotstar.”
He also took a major risk with the Hotstar launch campaign, which ran across the Star network saying “TV is passe. Get over TV. Get Hotstar.” It was not easy to promote a new venture at the expense of your established business. “When we were launching Hotstar, a very senior executive at one of the global tech and video giants warned us that if you try, you will lose a lot of money, effort and time and then you will come begging to us to host your content on our platform. He said that we would still be kind to you. Now, it seems they can’t tire of hiring my talent. Not just one company that is hiring our talent as if it is going out of supply but every media and tech company that’s active in India seems to have one destination to pick up talent – Star India.
“I would make a lot more money if I ran a talent agency. It is annoying but it is also a tribute to our incredibly talented team that’s even more audacious than it is talented. A team that is committed to changing Indian media and content – making a difference to the lives of people. That’s why I am in media for 30 years. And it feels like I am just getting started. Over the years, we have become change agents for India. At Star, we don’t just believe in a better India, we believe in our duty to participate and shape that India. Of course, when a company like Walt Disney values and embraces the businesses we have built, it is extremely gratifying,” said Uday Shankar.
He takes pride in the fact that the Walt Disney Company values and embraces the business that is built under his leadership. Though at team man Uday Shankar refers to it as the “business we have built”.