So, Kalanithi Maran’s Sun TV became talking point on Twitter, not for its soap operas but for its debut into cricket.
The site was abuzz with activity within hours of Sun TV network’s successful bid for the Hyderabad franchise of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Not all of them were pleasant reactions however.
Lalith Modi, former IPL chairman and the once go-to-man for monetising cricket tweeted: So, finally Sun TV has got an IPL franchise. I had predicted three months ago it will be Sun, as BCCI president wanted it that way. Can't be a bigger scam than this. Someone should see Srinivasan and India Cements' relationships with Sun TV. Don't forget the Kalaignar TV scam.
Modi followed, saying: While Sahara pays $370 million (Rs 1,990.6 crore) for its team, this one goes for pennies. How and why?
Modi’s tweet did not fetch any response from Maran. But then Maran is a man who is extremely media-shy, despite the sweet irony of helming a media empire that posted hundreds of crores of rupees in profit (after tax) in the last fiscal.
You are more likely to have spotted his grand uncle and DMK chief M Karunanidhi enjoying a game of cricket at Chennai’s MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chepauk and if Maran enjoys cricket, it is probably a closely kept secret.
In fact not many in South India would be surprised if punters came out with odds on Maran sitting near the boundary line and cheering his IPL team like a Nita Ambani or even a Shah Rukh Khan. If he throws after-match parties, its quite likely that he would be missing in the page 3 pictures in the next day’s newspapers of that event.
So why would such a man get into cricket franchise, especially at a time when other IPL owners are not making money?
Remember what happened to Vijay Mallya’s Royal Challengers Bangalore? The very franchise that Maran picked up - Hyderabad - was up for grabs since its former owner Venkattram Reddy who successfully bid for Deccan Chargers team in 2008 after shelling out Rs 428 crores, could not come up with a Rs 100 crore bank guarantee this year, and the franchise was put up in the market, for the highest bidder. Sun TV picked up the franchise last month for Rs 85.05 crore a year, payable for the next five years.
The buy-out also allows Maran to sit at the bidding table next year, when international players are auctioned for the next edition of IPL.
It is quite likely that cameras would focus as much on him, as on the players themselves not because he is a fashion plate or because he is a party animal, but simply because many in the South believe he is the man with the Midas touch.
His critics however say he is entering the game of cricket much like how Dravid used to enter the pitch - when India was in deep trouble, and needed consolidation.
Critics say that cricket fatigue is beginning to set among the fans with Test matches, 50-over games and T20s. Reports say that six of the nine existing IPL franchisees are struggling to break even.
Within hours of Sun TV network’s purchase of the Hyderabad team, the company’ s stock slipped by 10 % . Cricket, it seems, is no big deal nowadays.
Has Kalanithi Maran picked up the cricket bat when the top and middle order have collapsed? If so, can he play a match saving innings? After all, this is the man who redefined television watching in south India , and made oodles of money while doing so.
He also forayed into aviation, and his stake in Spice Jet has been rated a success, despite the turbulence in the aviation industry. He is the 24th richest man in India, and he and his wife Kaveri, the group’s joint MD, take home a pay packet of nearly Rs 60 crore each.
Experts say money is not the issue for the network. After picking up the Hyderabad IPL team, Sun TV’s Chief Financial Officer CV Unnikrishnan said, 'We earn profits.. we will pay BCCI through accruals.'
Unnikrishnan also said "Cricket is possibly the biggest entertainment in the country. An IPL team contributes to growth and synergy," he added. Sun TV is quite a popular network in south India, with a sizable chunk of the pie-in-the-sky when it comes to entertainment. His group company SCV, has also ironed out the wrinkles and is all set to appear on the Arasu Cable Television platform, promoted originally by his granduncle Karunanidhi’s government and taken forward by the present AIADMK government.
Cricket is however a different ball game and many say that cricket fans are beginning to feel the fatigue especially with too many fixtures and too much exposure on TV.
If so, it would be Maran’s toughest challenge yet, to whip up the frenzy all over again, when cricket fans felt that an IPL franchise was the closest thing to a Real Madrid or a Manchester United (football franchises). The man who generated a revenue of over Rs 1800 crore in the last fiscal (from his television, FM, print media and aviation ventures), may have to come up with a business ‘doosra’ all his own.
Otherwise this could well turn out to be a debut best forgotten.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist