By Sujaya Sanjay
On 9 May 2022, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) notified “events of national importance” under the Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007. The notification covers a wide range of sporting events, including key tournaments from international cricket, tennis, hockey, kabaddi, football, badminton, ‘Khelo India’ games and other such sporting events featuring India. As a result, the broadcast signals for each of the listed sporting events –which are licensed to private players – have to be compulsorily shared with Prasar Bharati, in accordance with the Act. The advertising revenues generated through sports broadcasting also have to be shared with Prasar Bharati in a 75:25 ratio.
Presumably, the scope of the 2007 Act was expanded to bring a variety of sporting events to consumers who cannot afford to pay the channel fees. Also, entire tournaments are not covered in most cases; only finals and semifinals of most games as well as fixtures featuring India are included. The Government’s intention to ensure widest possible coverage of India’s sporting successes is clear. Yet, the method followed might be lacking on several counts.
Within the notification itself, specific entries might be a cause for concern. For instance, the Indira Gandhi Gold Cup for Women (finals and semi-finals) has been included in the list of hockey events. However,the last edition of the Gold Cup tournament was in 2005, which was won by Australia. The Hockey Federation does not appear to have revived the tournament after 2005, nor has there been any mention at all about it since then. Unless there is a plan to revive the tournament, it would be fair to assume that there has been a lack of prior consultation with the Hockey Federation about the list.
Another noteworthy entry is “International events organised by National Sports Federations recognised by the Government of India”, at Item ‘H’. There is no clarity on what constitutes an “international event” – a term that is vague, overbroad and therefore likely to encompass all formats of the sports – single, team, multilateral and so on – that could be played.
On 5 December 2019, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport had released a list of 55 recognised National Sports Federations (NSFs). MIB’s notification is likely to extend to any “international events” organised by any of these 55 NSFs. For instance, after India’s historic victory at the Thomas Cup badminton world tournament in May 2022, the Badminton Association of India (BAI), one of the listed NSFs, has been considering hosting two Badminton World Federation (BWF) international challengers, which may be informal in nature. A broadcaster televising such games will likely be uncertain about their status as “international events’ ‘.
The Davis Cup – a popular world tennis tournament – has also been included under item ‘B’. Tennis fans in India may remember that in 2018, the All-India Tennis Association (AITA) took DD to court to ensure that DD covered the Davis Cup tiebreaker between India and Italy. AITA had alleged that DD had failed to air several important tennis matches for over a year, despite having exclusive broadcasting rights since 1997.
Aside from specific concerns, there is the general worry that this move will greatly dis-incentivise broadcasters in the long run. In addition to paying for broadcasting licenses which are immensely expensive, sports broadcasters also have to pay a processing fee of Rs. 1 lakh per day per channel for televising live events (a requirement that was introduced in 2017). Expanding the scope of the 2007 Act in addition to these fee requirements will drive away applicants due to lack of long-term commercial viability.Although popular sports like cricket might remain lucrative because of their immense appeal, lesser-watched sports like hockey, tennis and badminton (amongst others) might end up suffering because of fewer and fewer takers for their respective broadcasting rights.
In conclusion, it might be useful to take a second look at some of the entries in the list of sports programmes proposed to be covered by MIB’s notification. To that end, prior consultation with national sports bodies would be useful so that such a list could be properly curated. It might also be beneficial to consider the long-term viability of mandatory sharing of sports broadcasting rights with Prasar Bharati. While the consumers might benefit for a while from this arrangement which will allow them to view major sporting events for free, this is only likely to last so long as sports channels find it commercially viable to continue applying for broadcasting licenses to air India’s favourite sports programmes on TV.
(The author is a lawyer and a policy researcher at Aakhya India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is expressly prohibited).