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The auction of media rights for the 2023-27 cycle of the Indian Premier League (IPL) marks a watershed in India’s media history, and not just for the mind-boggling sums that IPL’s owner, the Board of Control for Cricket in India manage to extract from the bidders. It marks the beginning of the end of broadcast television as we knew it. And the beginning of a new chapter in the India Growth Story – one that will be written in digital ink.  

Not that the money’s anything to sneeze at. At 48,390 crore ($6.2 billion), the IPL is now more valuable as a sports franchise than the English Premier League, US Major League Baseball (MLB) and The National Basketball Association (NBA) in the US and Canada and behind only the US National Football League’s Superbowl. For an idea that took birth just a decade and a half ago, this is incredible going – after all, major league baseball started in 1876, NBA in 1946 and even the EPL is now thirty years old.  

But the money is not the story. Not even the rapidity of IPL’s success or the fact that the per match media value of an IPL game is now a staggering 118 crore. No. The real story in this IPL auction is that this round of bidding possibly marks the exit of traditional television broadcasters and the entry of new digital media barons.   

In fact, television has already ceded first place in the value sweepstakes to digital. While Disney Hotstar bagged the Indian sub-continent television rights for 23,575 crore, The Mukesh Ambani-owned Viacom 18 grabbed the Indian sub-continent digital rights, as well as the non-exclusive package of high-profile games and TV and digital rights across Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom for a total of 23,758 crore. Clearly, the digital Indian is worth much more than the television-watching Indian.  

This is a massive change from the last auction just five years ago. Star had paid 16,348 crore for the combined digital and broadcast television rights for IPL’s 2017-2022 cycle. This time around, Viacom 18 has paid 20,500 crore for the digital rights for the Indian sub-continent alone.  

Why?  

Simple. Indians are consuming data at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. The number of mobile broadband subscribers more than doubled from 345 million to 765 million between 2016 and 2021. According to Nokia’s Mobile Broadband Index report 2022, average mobile data consumption is now around 17GB per user per month. The Indian mobile broadband market logged the fastest growth rate in the world. India was the world’s fastest-growing mobile data market in 2021. And it is shifting upwards to higher quality and speeds rapidly, with 4G mobile data growing by 31%. India’s average monthly data traffic per user is now growing at 26.6% year on year. With the stage set for 5G spectrum auctions, this could witness a quantum jump – in data speeds, data consumption and of course, spending.  

Because, while entertainment is driving this consumption, other businesses are catching up. The government-built Unified Payments Interface (UPI) saw a staggering 558 crore transactions in April 2022, with transaction value approaching the 10 lakh crore per month mark. From a cigarette and cup of tea at the corner shop to big-ticket mortgage payments, Indians are using their smartphones for everything from timepass to timeshares. With 169 million units shipped in 2021, India is a $38 billion smartphone market, growing at over 22% CAGR. And customers are already ready for 5G – 5G smartphone shipments grew more than 500% last year in India and now account for one in five smartphones sold.  

This means that no consumer-facing industry – whether retail, financial services or products – can hope to succeed in purely offline mode. If they cannot reach the digital Indian, they cannot reach the Indian consumer. Period.  

And IPL, with its unparalleled ability to deliver wide, dense and deep reach across all geographic areas and socio-economic categories in India, represents this new India in the macrocosm. That is why Big Tech mega players like Amazon and Apple and Meta and Google were more than passingly interested in IPL. They may have dropped out of the bidding this time around. But they will be back. 

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