Reliance is set to deploy its telecom playbook even as it takes a serious stab at the sports broadcasting market. Sources told businessline that Viacom18 intends to include the free viewing option for the digital broadcast of the 2023 season of IPL. This comes after Viacom18 tested a similar model, broadcasting the FIFA World Cup 2022 for free on Reliance’s JioCinema App.

According to sources, Viacom18, which purchased the digital media rights for the 2023-2027 seasons of IPL for ₹23,758 crore last year, is deliberating multiple strategies to execute this. This includes the likely option of making the broadcast of IPL in regional languages accessible, bundling free IPL viewing with Jio telecom subscription packages, or allowing users with rival mobile plans to access some form of free broadcast on JioCinema. While Viacom18 will continue to offer subscriptions for a superior match-viewing experience, sources indicate that for a bullish entry into the sports live-streaming genre, cash-rich Reliance will adopt the same strategy of cheap or free product offering to carve out their market share. 

After declaring the FIFA experiment to be a success, purportedly heralding a new dawn in digital viewership, Viacom is set to keep the promise it made immediately after acquiring digital rights for the IPL to take the sporting event to every nook and corner of the country, “including the 60 million free dish homes that do not have popular content”. 

With this, the sports live-streaming market is set for disruption, as this will be the first time that IPL will be available for free viewing. Viacom18 is eyeing its competitor, Disney-Star, which still holds the DTH rights to the league, and is intent on siphoning viewership from Disney’s IPL broadcast. 

While analysts note that Viacom’s free IPL offering could tempt away a portion of Disney’s viewers, a more likely consequence of this will be the fact that this move will invite new viewers to watch the league. This will not only put a dent in Disney’s sports subscription numbers, but also inform how advertisers pit Disney against Reliance while buying ad slots. Given that linear or terrestrial viewing continues to command a significant portion, if not the majority of the viewership, Disney is likely expecting a sizeable investment from advertisers. This might not be the case with IPL’s free broadcast on Viacom’s digital platforms.  

Brand valuation expert Ajimon Francis, Managing Director, India, Brand Finance, said: “In case Viacom18 offers IPL for free, the market is likely to see disruption. Advertisers will increase their allocation for Viacom. However, given that this will be the first year of IPL’s broadcast on Viacom and Disney is a seasoned broadcaster, these effects could be limited. Brands might bump up their ad spends on Viacom just to reach the new viewers that Viacom might be able to bring to the market.”

Other analysts note that the market disruption could be against the industry’s interests altogether. Karan Taurani of Elara Capital, said: “We believe the Indian Premier League moving away from paid content is a potential threat for TV advertising in the medium term. It would be difficult for Viacom 18-Jio Cinema to recover even 50 per cent of its content acquisition cost via the digital route if the content is free, at least in the near term; however, in the medium to long term, change in consumption habits and growing Smart TV penetration would lead to digital ad revenue moving closer to TV advertising if IPL content remains free of charge.”