Why Disney and Viacom Spent Nearly $6 Billion Fighting Over a Game Most Americans Will Never Watch

The streaming wars began in the U.S., but it's no longer our game: Disney lost the right to stream a sport that's more valuable per match than baseball.
Royal Challengers Banglore's C de Grandhomme plays a shot against Sunrisers Hyderabad during the VIVO IPL T20 cricket match in Hyderabad, India, Sunday, March 31, 2019. (AP Photo/ Mahesh Kumar A.)
Royal Challengers Banglore's C de Grandhomme at an Indian Premier League match.
AP Photo/ Mahesh Kumar A.

Disney just whiffed in the fourth inning of a first-class cricket match. The company lost its effort to retain the streaming portion of its multi-platform rights for the Indian Premier League (IPL), the popular cricket league it carried both linearly and direct-to-consumer since 2019.

That news might not resonate if you’re not among the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide who follow cricket, but here’s why it’s important: On last month’s quarterly earnings call, executives said that 36 percent of the 137.7 million overall Disney+ subscribers were from Disney+ Hotstar, Disney’s Indian streaming service. Of the nearly 8 million subscribers that signed up for Disney+ in the last quarter, “a little over half” were from Disney+ Hotstar, “which benefited from the start of the new IPL season,” Disney CFO Christine McCarthy said on the May 11 call. (Hotstar is also offered in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.)

In India, cricket is the most popular sport. The IPL is the cricket league. And now, Disney lost IPL streaming rights to Viacom18, a joint venture between competitor Paramount and India’s Reliance Industries. Disney Star did win the IPL’s linear-TV rights, paying $3.02 billion in an auction for a deal that covers the next five years. Viacom18 paid $2.62 billion for the digital rights, according to the Times of India.

While Paramount Global plans to launch Paramount+ in India next year, IPL matches will not be shown on that service, according to the Wall Street Journal. Viacom18 will instead stream matches on a separate platform that will be bundled with Paramount+ in order to drive subscriptions to the overall Paramount Global streaming mountain. Paramount has previously stated a global streaming-subscription goal of 100 million members between Paramount+ and Showtime by the end of 2024. IndieWire reached out to Paramount to see if the unnamed IPL platform would count toward that lofty number or be additive, but did not immediately receive a response.

It’s a huge loss for Disney on a key platform, but McCarthy and her CEO Bob Chapek have laid the groundwork to assure investors that a loss of IPL rights won’t hurt Disney’s goal of reaching 230 million to 260 million global subscribers by 2024.

“We’re certainly going to try to extend our rights on the IPL,” Chapek said on a previous earnings call. “But we’re very confident that even if we were not to go ahead and win that auction that we could still be able to achieve our 230 to 260.”

Still, the numbers speak for themselves. Disney and Viacom18 spent a combined $5.64 billion on cricket rights and their ability to capture Indian audiences. That puts IPL’s per-match value at $13.5 million, which would make it the second-most valuable sports game behind the NFL ($36 million), ahead of the English Premier League ($11.23 million) and Major League Baseball ($9.57 million), according to Forbes.

The outcome of an auction that will award a smaller package of nonexclusive IPL streaming rights has not yet been determined, according to a New York Times’ report. IndieWire reached out reps for both Disney, Paramount Global, and the IPL for this story, but we did not immediately hear back. (In other words, crickets.)

With a population of 1.38 billion, India is the world’s second-largest country. Internet use — and streaming — is skyrocketing there; it’s on track to increase 45 percent between 2021 to 2025 to 900 million users, according to The Economic Times. For comparison, over 90 percent of the 332.78 million people in the U.S. use the internet.

In addition to cricket, cheap subscriptions bolster Disney’s growth in India. In December, Disney+ Hotstar slashed prices, with subscriptions now starting at less than $1. Fortunately, advertising supplements that, and viewers in poorer nations like India have proven a willingness to sit through commercials for affordable access. In the U.S., Disney+ is launching a cheaper AVOD (advertising-supported video on demand) option later this year.

We should get more info on that tier — and an update on Disney’s lofty streaming-subscriber goal — this summer.

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