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Money versus match record
- Zee and ESPN battle over cricket telecast rights
Who will catch Sachin at play'

Calcutta, Aug. 16: Survival for one and revival for the other.

ESPN-STAR Sports’ experience in sports broadcast versus Zee Telefilms’ money-spin. Who will win will only be known tomorrow when the Board of Control for Cricket in India announces the result of the bidding for telecast rights to cricket matches played in India over the next four years.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the audit firm that is evaluating the bidding, sent its report to the BCCI this evening. Tomorrow, the board’s marketing committee will meet here to take a decision.

When they gather, the members of the committee will have a clear choice before them — whether to opt for ESPN’s proven skill in handling assignments such as this or pick Zee which has offered to pay $260 million but cannot match its rival in experience. ESPN’s bid is $230 million, followed by Prasar Bharati’s $150 million, Sony Entertainment Television’s $132 million and TEN Sports’ $115 million.

Given the bid amounts, it’s quite clear that the contest is really between ESPN and Zee.

Market buzz favours an ESPN victory, but the Zee group is confident of a cricket-telecast coup. “Rumours will be rumours, we’re just waiting for the good news that’s due tomorrow,” said Ashish Kaul, the vice-president of corporate brand development, Essel Group, the corporate entity of Zee Telefilms.

“We are very hopeful that the BCCI will consider our case and give more weight to quality and experience rather than the monetary power,” said R.C. Venkateish, the managing director of ESPN-STAR Sports, who is camping in Calcutta for the battle.

The sports bouquet has already said that its rival, whose business is entertainment, does not qualify since it lacks two years of experience in cricket broadcast, a key clause in the BCCI terms for bidders.

The “restriction & eligibility” section of the tender reads: “Only entities that have existing own in-house production and telecasting units and channel network and have successfully telecast live and delayed international cricket events of international standard having at least two years’ experience (not as a licensee) shall be entitled to the invitation to tender.”

“Giving it to Zee would be experimenting with something on such a big scale as this,” added Venkateish.

Zee has a ready answer: “The BCCI is best placed to say that we don’t qualify and not the competition,” points out Kaul. “In fact, if we didn’t meet the requirements, the BCCI would not entertain the bid.”

The broadcaster says it has been telecasting matches in the UK, rest of Europe and the US since 1995.

The deal is important to Zee as it has been steadily losing share in its core business of entertainment to STAR and Sony. It needs cricket to revive its fortune.

For ESPN, missing out these rights could spell disaster as a number of money-spinning tournaments, like the upcoming ICC Champions Trophy in England and the three-nation series, involving India, Pakistan and Australia, have been mopped up by rivals.

Zee hasn’t stopped at bidding alone. It has promised an additional amount (around Rs 100 crore) to develop cricket in India partnering the BCCI. ESPN is more than willing to match that. “If need be, we’ll match Zee’s offer for cricket development and maybe put in even more. Price is not the factor here; it must be considered whether promises made will be delivered or not,” Venkateish said.

Kaul said if Zee won the rights, it planned to use its existing network to beam cricket in the first year and float a separate sports channel in the second year.

Would Zee acknowledge that on the rights rest its hopes of revival' Not quite. “A positive product like this is very important for business but it’s not a make-or-break for us like some of the other channels,” offered Kaul.

Which other channels — ESPN, for instance' Here’s what Venkateish has to say: “It’s extremely important for us, that’s why we have put so much money on the table. But in case we don’t get it, we have other things to fall back on.”

The umpire in the contest, the BCCI, is possibly the biggest winner, though. For five years of domestic rights, Prasar Bharati had paid Rs 230 crore in 1999, a contract that is expiring now. The highest bid now is four times that amount.

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