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Football’s cry: it’s not cricket!

The diversity of sports and exigencies of sports scheduling necessitate identifying certain content propositions…

Anthony Gonsalves might have made more sense to the sports fan with his “…whole country of the system is juxtaposition by the haemoglobin in the atmosphere” than this justification for recorded cricket getting precedence over live top-class football.

STAR Sports owns the rights to telecast Premier League matches live but has reserved three of its four standard-definition channels — STAR Sports 1, 2 and 3 — primarily for cricket and cricket-based shows. Football, whose fan base globally outnumbers that of most sports, has been relegated to STAR Sports 4.

In the event of prime-time football matches being held simultaneously, one is shown on STAR Sports 4 and the others on STAR Sports HD1 and HD2, which the vast majority of Calcuttans don’t have access to.

So if Manchester United and Arsenal kick off their respective matches at the same time, only one would be broadcast on a standard-definition channel (STAR Sports 4). The other three STAR Sports channels would probably be showing reruns of old cricket matches.

That means a football fan in Calcutta who wants to watch Mesut Ozil weave his way through the Chelsea defence has to watch “Outstanding Ojha” wreaking havoc on a defenceless West Indies or Navjot Singh Sidhu talking up a storm. Sometimes it’s a hockey match played to an empty stadium or a replay of an old badminton tournament.

Case in point: the Premiership matches on January 29. While Liverpool decimating Everton was on STAR Sports 4, Arsenal and Manchester United’s matches were relegated to HD1 and HD2 respectively.

Manchester City fans will miss the lethal pair of Aguero and Negredo in action on Saturday and it is unlikely that supporters of Liverpool will get to watch the season’s best striker, Luis Suarez, weave his magic next Wednesday night because Arsenal versus Man United is also on the menu.

Since Friday, the Winter Olympics is on STAR Sports 4 and football lovers are keeping their fingers crossed about Premiership coverage continuing uninterrupted. The good news is that STAR Sports has moved the Winter Olympics telecast to STAR Sports 2 for Saturday so that football fans don’t miss Liverpool versus Arsenal.

But with the Olympics continuing till February 23, football could yet be a casualty on some nights.

Prior to the network being recast as STAR Sports in November 2013, ESPN-STAR, the old joint venture in India, would broadcast two football matches simultaneously, one each on ESPN and STAR Sports. Cricket matches would be telecast on STAR Cricket. When the 2013-14 Premier League season started in August, a few football matches were shown on STAR Cricket too.

The selective telecast and the broadcaster’s apparent reluctance to modify its programming policy also strike a blow at the root of the reasoning that had led to digitisation of TV signals in India: to give the viewer more choice over content.

For the legion of football lovers, the opposite has happened. While the broadcaster says the matches are available live on their HD channels, cable operators and DTH providers are unable to beam those signals through SD set-top boxes installed in the majority of homes. Worse, most cable operators are unable to provide HD set-top boxes to subscribers ready to pay three times the price of a standard box for the sake of Premiership football.

To watch the HD channels, a subscriber needs an HD set-top box priced Rs 3,500. This is in addition to the fee charged by the network for the HD package.

According to the major MSOs, HD set-top boxes are available but cable operators in many parts of the city say they are not sure when they would be able to provide these to willing customers. Of the 33 lakh cable homes in Calcutta, only 50,000 have HD set-top boxes. The majority of the 6 lakh DTH homes in the city have standard set-top boxes.

Many football fans are venting their frustration on social networking platforms or by mailing complaint after complaint to the network. The quote at the start of this report is from an emailed response to a complaint from Gariahat resident Rudhir Barma, a passionate Liverpool supporter.

Rudhir, 26, had missed yet another Liverpool match on January 1 because STAR Sports 4 was showing Chelsea versus Southampton while the other three standard definition channels were showing Outstanding Ojha, Sachiiiiiiiiin…Sachin and Masterclass: Kapil Dev.

“I simply can’t understand why STAR Sports won’t utilise their four non-HD channels to telecast at least two football matches,” Rudhir said.

The frustration of fans has manifested itself in satire. A Twitter account called STAR Not Sports is dedicated to lampooning the cricket-heavy schedule of STAR Sports. A tweet on the fake twitter account of Pragyan Ojha says: @STARSportsIndia: if you broadcast ‘Outstanding Ojha’ one more time, I swear to God I will sue you myself.

Logging into the network’s website for live streaming doesn’t help either. One can watch only 10 minutes of live action, after which STAR charges a subscription fee. “Why should one have to pay extra after having subscribed to a paid digital channel?” demanded Arjun Sen, 26, a resident of Jodhpur Park.

Some third-party websites do provide links to live football streaming but it might not be legal. “I follow Arsenal but at least 10 matches have not been telecast on STAR Sports 4 so far. I have had to watch them online, where the quality of streaming is poor,” said young Pratik Bhattacharya.

STAR Sports says HD is the best platform to watch football. “Globally it has been proven that sports is best seen in HD and a discerning Indian fan should also have the option to enjoy his favourite sports in the best possible format,” a spokesperson for the channel said in an email to Metro.

A senior official of another sports network that broadcasts European football said STAR Sports could be “restricted” by the nature of its agreement with the Premier League. “The terms and conditions in the agreements for telecast of sports properties as big as the Premier League are intricate. The property is also very expensive, needless to say,” he said.

But for those who had thought that the introduction of Hindi commentary and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s induction as ambassador meant more coverage of Premiership football, STAR Sports has just missed the goal.

Additional reporting by Rith Basu

How many matches of your favourite Premiership club have you missed? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com