For the past five years, the ESPN-Star Sports combine has been the veritable colossus of sports television in India. With the occasional exception of Doordarshan (DD) Sports, it has not had a real challenger. Now it may have two.On April 6, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the man who runs the Sharjah,For the past five years, the ESPN-Star Sports combine has been the veritable colossus of sports television in India. With the occasional exception of Doordarshan (DD) Sports, it has not had a real challenger. Now it may have two.On April 6, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, the man who runs the Sharjah cricket circus, launches Ten Sports, his very own sports channel. That aside, Sony Entertainment Television has upstaged ESPN-Star for rights to the 2003 and 2007 cricket World Cups and the next three ICC knock-out trophies (2002-6). While Sony only confirms “advanced negotiations”, sources indicate the deal is through.In July 2000, the International Cricket Council (ICC) sold global rights for the World Cups and knock-out trophies to Global Cricket Corporation (GCC) for $550 million (Rs 2,640 crore). GCC is a consortium primarily comprising News Corp-media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s flagship-and World Sports Group, a UK-based marketing firm.THREE CAN PLAY A GAMERupert Murdoch, STARBesieged Behemoth: With ESPN has men’s tennis, basketball, Formula 1.But if it loses five-nation CSI cricket deal, it’s on the ropes.Kunal Dasgupta, SONYGreat Gambler: Betting on cricket and possibly pay per view.Could show next World Cup on Set Max, AXN, even launch new channels.A.R. Bukhatir, TEN SPORTSDesert Dare: Cricket from Sharjah and Morocco.Has TV deals with Manchester United, WWF, women’s tennis, European golf tour.Since ESPN-Star is a south Asia-specific 50-50 partnership between Murdoch and media giant Disney, the World Cup rights were expected to flow to it.Not satisfied with the initial offer made by ESPN-Star-reportedly $120 million (Rs 576 crore)-GCC called in bids in November.advertisementSony, led by CEO Kunal Dasgupta, offered an astronomical $375 million (Rs 1,800 crore)- $265 million for the satellite rights and $110 million for the terrestrial ones.While ESPN-Star upgraded its offer, it is understood it was nowhere near Sony’s.There are murmurs that Disney-ESPN’s parent and an American entity with no great cricket focus-was not keen to make “unrealistic investments”.That ESPN-Star has reportedly lost $21 million (Rs 101 crore) in the past half-decade may have made it cautious. For News Corp, it was a tough call. The decision to sign with Sony, industry insiders say, was eventually made by Ian Frykberg, director of WSG and a long-serving Murdoch employee.Internally ESPN-Star estimates Sony may actually lose money-“as much as $100 million”-from the mega-deal it has agreed to. On his part, a Sony confidant sees cricket as a “hot property” that may pay for itself not just in terms of “advertising returns” but “perhaps in a pay-per-view format or as part of a direct-to-home system”.Ten Sports, owned by Bukhatir’s Taj Group, poses a more immediate challenge to ESPN-Star. Says Peter Hutton, who’s leaving TWI to join Ten Sports as head of programming, “If you look at other markets worldwide, Manchester United TV or the New York Yankees channel show you how sports bodies with key broadcast rights are looking to set up their own channels. You can see Ten Sports as an extension of this philosophy.”The channel will show cricket from Sharjah-a controversial venue India currently avoids-and Morocco where Bukhatir’s company has built a stadium in Tangiers. In August, the first Tangiers tournament will feature South Africa, Australia and Pakistan.DDholds the rights for cricket played in India till 2004. So ESPN-Star’s trump card has been bringing world cricket to Indian bedrooms. In 1998, it tied up with Octagon-CSI – which holds rights for cricket played in Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, South Africa and, now, England – for a fiveyear contract worth $50 million. This agreement runs out at different times in different countries.The first series of the new contract is Australia in Zimbabwe, April 2002. Currently, Ten Sports and ESPN-Star are locked in a contest to partner CSI for the next five years. If the Murdochdriven network loses, life could get thorny. At ESPN-Star, it’s time for the slog overs.