New TV channel hopes diversity will bowl over fans

MUMBAI Thu Apr 12, 2012 4:46pm IST

Vitor Belfort of Brazil (L) fights with Anthony Johnson of the U.S. during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Rio, a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) competition, in Rio de Janeiro January 14, 2012. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Vitor Belfort of Brazil (L) fights with Anthony Johnson of the U.S. during the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Rio, a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) competition, in Rio de Janeiro January 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

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MUMBAI (Reuters) - Multi Screen Media (MSM) is banking on a diverse schedule to attract viewers to its new sports channel after losing out in a bidding war against Star TV to show the Indian cricket team's matches for the next six years.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned channel paid more than $700 million for the exclusive broadcasting rights of India's home international matches and domestic tournaments, excluding the annual Twenty20 Indian Premier League (IPL).

MSM, majority-owned by Sony Pictures, broadcasts the IPL and National Basketball Association (NBA) in India and launched a dedicated sports channel called SIX last week, hoping to tap in to interest in emerging sports as an alternative to cricket.

"We have been doing some research. We sort of see that young people in the country, both men and women, are looking for more diverse sports than they are really being able to view on other channels," MSM Chief Executive Man Jit Singh told Reuters.

"We have always been called a one-sport nation that is cricket. But our survey in youth showed us there is a lot of interest in other sports.

"So we felt there was a gap. We think it's a huge opportunity to grow the sports business in India."

As India harvested medals in boxing, shooting and wrestling at Beijing four years ago, Singh said the country was witnessing a growth in interest in Olympic sports.

"The diversity they are looking for could be soccer, it could be basketball, it could be MMA (mixed martial arts), it could be tennis and it could be badminton," Singh said in a telephone interview.

According to media research agency TAM Sports, the first six games of the current IPL season have witnessed a decline in total viewership from last year, signalling a dent in the country's interest in the lucrative cricket tournament.

The sport still dominates all others in the country and MSM, which also owns the rights to the English FA Cup, will shift the IPL to its new channel from next season.

MMA KICK

The rising popularity of mixed martial arts will also help them offer a diverse programming schedule, the CEO said.

MSM signed a four-year deal with the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to broadcast the world's biggest MMA promotion in India on its channel.

MMA has become one of the world's fastest growing sports with sponsorship and media revenue starting to pour in after initially struggling to gain mainstream acceptance.

"It's the MMA that we are banking on. UFC just absolutely sweeps the audience of their feet. It's real and it's much more interesting and is hugely popular elsewhere."

With the IPL, the FA Cup, the NBA and the UFC on its content list, SIX had what it took to stand out from existing sports channels, the executive added.

"We want to have on our channel all the Indian leagues that are coming up. We are seeing new hockey leagues, new soccer leagues... We want to put the best of Indian sports and then the best of their foreign counterparts," he said.

"We think the sports channel is going to be a significant contributor to the network over time."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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