Billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s conglomerate will stream Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket games for free, according to people familiar with the matter, using its exclusive rights to one of the world’s most-watched sporting events to challenge Walt Disney Co. and Amazon.com Inc. in India’s booming media market. Viacom18 Media Pvt., the joint venture between Paramount Global and Ambani’s conglomerate Reliance Industries Ltd., licensed the IPL streaming rights last year for $2.7 billion, fending off competitors Disney and Sony Group Corp. Disney previously had those rights, and used them to drive subscribers to its streaming service, Disney+ Hotstar.
Viacom18 is taking a different approach, offering the games to as many people as possible in order to generate advertising sales, said the people, who declined to be identified because the move hasn’t been announced publicly. Free media services such as Google and Facebook generate billions of dollars in advertising sales in the country, and have had far more success than paid premium products like Netflix.
Viacom18 executives have estimated that an audience in excess of 550 million will watch the weeks-long IPL games, which will boost the conglomerate’s technology and internet ambitions, ranging from online retail to entertainment.
This year’s series of matches, each lasting a relatively short three hours in length, will kick off on March 31 and go on for nearly eight weeks. Viacom18 will allow users to watch any number of games for any length time on any internet-connected device.
It’s a familiar playbook for Reliance, which offered mobile service at prices far below the competition, signing up hundreds of millions of customers and putting rivals out of business. Ambani’s conglomerate owns Reliance Jio, the country’s largest telecom operator by market share, closing in on a half-billion subscribers. The five-year IPL contract gives it a reach like no other to capitalize on a tournament described as the Super Bowl of cricket.
The cost of cricket rights soared last year as several media companies sought them to boost their nascent streaming businesses. Internet adoption is scaling at rocket speed in India, and global and domestic media giants see the country as a catalyst to boost their subscriber bases. Disney, which previously owned the IPL streaming rights, lost that auction but bagged TV broadcast rights after out-gunning Sony. Amazon, another contender, pulled out of the bids at the last hour after completing the initial auction paperwork.
Ambani won by paying nearly three times what Disney had paid in the previous deal. Disney in turn paid even more — about $3 billion — for the traditional TV package. Ambani bid for the IPL rights in conjunction with Paramount, billionaire James Murdoch and Uday Shankar, the former head of Hotstar.