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Indian Sports Consumer Have It Too Good

A football fan in Vietnam pays 10 times more, and in the UK 40 times more than Indian fans

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They probably don’t realise it, but Indian sports fans inhabit a sporting Eden. A sporting candy store if you will, with the best goodies available at throwaway prices. Take the Hotstar offering for example. For Rs 365 a year, one gets access to every single English Premier League and Indian Premier League match along with a bouquet of other sports ranging from tennis and badminton to kabbadi.

Shortcomings exist — Hotstar doesn’t allow for simultaneous multiple screens or HD quality streaming, for example, and the pictures cut to ads slightly faster than most fans would want — but even the greediest among us would agree that these are churlish complaints given the chump change we’re being charged.

For those still unconvinced, some comparisons may help since schadenfreude drives most of our sporting fantasises anyway. A football fan in Vietnam pays nearly 10 times more, and one in the UK over 40 times more than their Indian counterparts. Across countries rich and poor, large and small, eastern and western, the Indian consumer reigns supreme. The English Premier League makes for a better comparison across markets because of its wider popularity.

These prices do not take into account the cost of data — which in most countries is significantly higher than in India.

The cost of buying the rights to prime sporting properties like the Premier League has skyrocketed since the 90s. UK’s Sky Sports, which started the football broadcasting revolution, paid £191 million in 1992 for five seasons. In 2016, they shelled out £5.1 billion for three, nearly a 45-fold increase per season over 24 years. Those costs have predictably been passed over to the consumers such that stories about gaggles of fans watching sports while say, eating pizza, have now become a charming fable. They can only afford one of the two.

Indians though can go all out on Swiggy while taking in their favourite teams. Prices have never been lower for such a wide array of offerings. Hotstar is probably banking on two things to turn an eventual profit. First, that Internet penetration and thus subscribers will grow significantly in the next few years. Second, current subscribers will be so hooked that Hotstar can Pied Piper their way to raising costs exponentially.

Over the past two years, they have paid 22,485 crore (approximately $3.3 billion) for cricket’s TV and digital rights alone (how much they paid for EPL is not publicly available). Given such whopping numbers, can a price rise be too far away?

As PG Wodehouse put it, “It’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.”

This year was also the first time in nearly three decades that the Premier League made less than the previous cycle from the sale of broadcast rights in the UK — from £5.1 billion for the 2016-19 cycle to £4.45 billion for the 2019-22 cycle. As the UK saturates, the suits in London are bound to look further afield to continue their growth thus demanding a higher premium on relatively neglected assets like online streaming rights.

The consequences of raising costs in a price-sensitive market like India may not thrill streaming platforms if indications from other countries are anything to go by. As costs have risen, Southeast Asia has become the hub of pirated sports content. The Premier League opened its first international office in Singapore earlier this year with the express purpose of fighting “piracy of Premier League content and support broadcast partners”, according to a statement on its website. The league has succeeded in getting bans on illegal apps in Singapore and is also working with Thai police in supporting raids against suppliers of illegal streaming devices.

Combating piracy is serious business. At the same time though, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a sports fan with an Internet connection will find a way to watch what he or she wants. While the authorities trumpet their success in clamping down on illegal stream providers, their world must often feel like one never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole — get one streamer, hundreds of others pop-up to take their place.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Peer to Peer (P2P) applications and fully loaded Kodi boxes may not make much sense to those not in the know but every single day millions of fans around the world use these to gain free (likely) and illegal (definitely) access to their favourite sports. Online sports forums and message boards, 21st century speakeasies with their own languages and sub-cultures, buzz with activity prior to big matches, as users exchange information about the best ways to watch them. Indeed, the world of “bootlegged” sports streams is fascinating enough to deserve its own extended article.

While there are some who are opposed to paying for content, any content, for ideological reasons, most fans overseas use illicit means because they’ve been priced out. Indian fans haven’t had to resort to that en masse. Yet. Things could change soon though, and the best way to prepare for this change is by familiarising oneself with the big, bad world of sports streaming and in the meantime, making hay while the sun is shining. Winter may be coming.

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