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'Free sports channels from Trai pricing'
MUMBAI: 2009 was the year to be in a different industry. ESPN-Star's billion dollar investment in cricket's Champions League made the Dubai property market look a safe bet. The IPL riches were diverted into the pockets of South African travel agents. In the ICC's showpiece event, India's world champion 20-20 team batted so slowly they turned into the No. 1 Test team. India's hockey team fell so low, the world rankings needed a second page. The Commonwealth Games promises India Gold medals for bad publicity and even WWE's Khali lost whatever it was he'd won the year before.

Add that to world economic woes, rampant news channel piracy, illegal websites, Pakistan cricket, rain in the West Indies and having to move house, and you've got my year to forget.

On the positive side, 2010 is the year of the big event for Indian sports channels. The Hero Honda hockey World Cup, the IPL, the ICC 20-20, the FIFA soccer World Cup, the Commonwealth Games, India's tour of South Africa and the Asian Games all tumble after each other.

The advertising incomes are looking healthier, DTH numbers are growing month on month and the range of big non cricket events can help change the perception that only cricket delivers value.

2009 was the year when hardly any major new sports deals were done in India. The one exception was Nimbus's extension of the BCCI contract, a smart piece of negotiating by the Nimbus team that perhaps signifies a levelling of expectation from the cricket boards. That reality check on price is needed, but the doom and gloom on the value of Test and ODI cricket has been overplayed. The ratings still deliver remarkably consistently for meaningful cricket between well balanced teams in whatever format of the game.

One of the less heralded legacies of the "Lalit Modi era" has been the quiet removal of the concept of each Test playing side playing each other Test playing side home and away. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh's best chance of seeing India these days is by booking a holiday in Goa. The BCCI is happy to travel to the smaller cricketing nations (giving Bangladesh and Zimbabwe the boost of TV and sponsor income), but they're not going to waste their precious home games on one-sided matches. It might not suit the ICC, but it works for both the BCCI and the other boards.

2010 should finally see the unveiling of cricket's next six-year plan of fixtures, and what will hopefully see a "flight to quality". More matches that promise even contests between well matched sides rather than meaningless three-day Tests and ODIs that are won by the toss.

2009's seen plenty of talk of defending Test match cricket. My pet obsession is seeing how many Test matches are being scheduled to play Monday-Friday, as if designed to stop people watching them. The only people these matches suit are the administrators who get home for the weekend. Hopefully 2010 will see success in the pink ball, day night experiments and we will be on the way to Test cricket being played in prime time.

The best piece of rescheduling I've seen for some time is the Pakistan-Australia Tests in July 2010, which will now happen in England and will make the matches happen in prime time for the sub-continent audience. At a stroke, they become much more valuable for the sport as so many more people will be able to watch them.

Pakistan's varied itinerary also saw the debut of Dubai Sports city as an international stadium. It's round the corner from my house, so I am slightly biased, but I believe it's the best cricket stadium in Asia for the viewing public. One of my hopes for 2010 is that it gets to see some regular cricket rather than sit as a dusty monument to Dubai's dreams.

Away from cricket in 2009, the world hockey federation (the FIH) have shown faith in India to deliver a hockey World Cup that can revitalise the sport in the country. The evidence so far has been remarkably positive. Investment from sponsors (via the Commune agency) has poured in and the Hero Honda World Cup will be a true opportunity for the Indian game.

The Indian team are showing signs of progress (third in the champions challenge). Hopefully, home conditions and passionate crowds can work in their favour and the final of the tournament in March will overshadow the start of the IPL on the same day.

Zee Sports deserves full marks for bravery in their attempt to showcase Indian football. Plenty have tried and failed to turn the undoubted passion for Indian football into a marketable property. The emotion and quality on show at the Nehru Cup in 2009 is an indication that this is not a lost cause. However, the sport needs to learn from the positive qualities of the Nehru Cup. Full crowds, matches to care about, prime time content all come together as part of the equation that can make the sport work.

International football is certainly gaining ground in some areas of India, even if the viewing figures don't really back that statement up. Premium Indian advertisers are beginning to spend on the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and the BPL. Wealthy Delhi and Mumbai kids all seem to have an English or Spanish football shirt in their wardrobe, and the FIFA world Cup in South Africa should be a superb event.

The international football market is licking its lips at the prospect of an Indian audience buying more of those shirts. The research doesn't currently support the emotion. Premier league and UEFA Champions League figures are showing no signs of growth, but they are showing signs that people care more.

The soccer World Cup can only help the process in 2010. I do believe ESPN-Star overpaid with their $48 million bid for three years of Premier League football from 2010-2012, but I remain very happy to watch them every weekend.

One of the sporting stories of the year for 2009 came in a sport that I care very little about. Formula 1 tends to leave me cold, but I love an underdog. As a result Vijay Mallya's Force India perked even my interest with their achievements in 2009. To take a podium place and come so close to a first place was remarkable, particularly when you see the sort of funding that the big teams have. As we move towards an Indian Grand Prix and the new circuit on the edge of Delhi, then there is considerable potential for growth around Indian motorsport and its talented young drivers.

Indian golf has some passionate supporters in the industry and 2010 promises more Asian tour events in the country as well as more Indian golfers succeeding on a world stage. Again, from a television industry perspective, we don't really see the numbers on a weekly basis but the passionate and committed golf viewer certainly wants more, and the current structure of Indian sports channels does not fulfil that need.

Though sporting prowess on the field has a remarkable effect on the value of what we show, the real test for the Indian market is how quickly television sport is allowed to move away from being an advertising supported industry to a subscriber supported industry.

The lack of accountability and the issues with collections in the cable industry has frustrated the growth of the Indian television sports business. DTH is a true sign of hope, with a viewer choosing and paying for his channel rather than a cable operator choosing for a viewer, and only occasionally paying. The closer that paying relationship between the end consumer and the sports channel, the more chance we have of justifying varied and stimulating content that people actually want to watch.

Indian sports television has come a long way in the last 15 years since I sat watching Chinese football on Prime Sports but unable to watch the Premier league. Yet there is still huge amount of quality sport inside and outside India that is not seen on TV by an Indian audience. The World Athletics Championships, the Spanish football league, the Ultimate Fighting Championships, the European hockey league, the American NFL are all events that some people in India want to watch, but currently cannot do so. The rest of the world is now watching in HD, but India is watching in 4:3, not even in widescreen.

Free the sports channels from the limitations of Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) pricing, and the doors will open to even better experiences. Control the piracy, encourage innovation. Allow variety of sporting experience, encourage quality of production. Filling each hour of live sport programming with advertising, squeezing back the screen every ball of a cricket match does not deliver the quality of viewing experience that an audience deserves.

Let's hope that 2010 allows sports channels the legislative freedoms to offer premium products at premium prices and take Indian sports TV into the 21st century.

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