A few days ago, Indiatimes 58888, the mobile division of Times Internet Ltd*, announced the licensing of exclusive mobile rights for the ICC World Cup 2011 from Reliance Communications for the Indian market. The right acquired include mobile content services including SMS, voice & video alerts, live audio commentary, mobile content downloads and 2G and 3G services. From our conversations with other VAS companies in the space, the sense we got was that RCOM was struggling to sell the rights because it was pricing it too high; of course, this could well be a biased take. We had a quick chat with Ajay Vaishnavi, Director (Telecom), Indiatimes, on whether it is worth it to acquire Cricket rights, on SMS rights when Cricket scores don’t come under copyright, and the state of Indiatimes’ SMS revenues:

What are you planning to do with the rights?
Reliance has the global content rights and we’ve picked up the rights for India. This covers rights across text, audio, video clips, all formats of USSD, SMS, IVR, Ringtones, CRBT (theme song) and every thing related to the ICC Cricket World Cup. We’ve got everything except the live video streaming. Those are rights not with Reliance, since they’re a part of the broadcasting rights. (ED: the press release adds that “Other services to be offered by TIL include World Cup theme as Ring Back Tone, Cricket Trivia & Predicta-based contests, Post Match Analysis and Mobile Marketing advertisements.”)

What do you carry on text – because Cricket scores not under copyright, and anyone can carry that?
Not copyright but there are many things that are trademarked. For example, Cricket World Cup is trademarked. I don’t know where there is an escape, by saying that there’s ball to ball coverage, which is generic, because that may not add value to the end consumer. If you don’t tell him ‘World Cup’ or Cricket, then what do you tell him? There’s a trademark on that.

But the score itself is not?
The score may be generic. But if you want to give the customer the complete experience, then you would have to take the rights.

Have you taken Cricket Rights in the past?
Not directly.

What will be the contribution of these rights to your business?
I think it will be significant. Cricket is a large activity, just like music. As you know, we’ve been focusing on music as well. I can’t give exact number, but they will be significant contribution.

In the past you’ve been able to carry Cricket scores…
We’ve been sub-leasing. Last time, we took an IPL license from vRock. This time we decided to not only use it for our selves, but also for distribution. We’ll be monetizing on 58888, as well as distributing to telecom operators. We are itself a very strong platform across SMS, IVR and WAP, and we wanted to monetize 58888 because we’ve got such a big reach. The second was that we didn’t want to not give content to others, so we’re talking to operators to partner with them. We’ve also got queries from third parties, and that we’re evaluating if there’s a potential or not. But fundamentally, we’d like to distribute content to whosoever can show potential of monetization. Cricket is a large activity.

Which telecom operators are you tying up with?
We’re in talks with some of them, but we have nothing to announce right now.

In your experience, has this kind of a rights activity been a profitable one?
I can’t say for others, but I feel there is a large opportunity, but it should contribute to revenues and profits. I feel Cricket is a large activity, that too, the World Cup, which his once in four years, and the whole nation will be involved over the next 40 there, so I think there will be lots of traction.

There’s a perception that the IPL is just as big. Would you agree?
I’m not doubting IPL, but what happens this year to the IPL has to be seen, whether after 40 days, people will have the appetite for more Cricket. I can’t say for sure. World Cup is different because it’s about the passion for the nation, while the IPL is more about the players and the city theme. I can already see that telecom operators are very very keen. The next three months is clearly Cricket, which means that Bollywood becomes slightly low over the next three months. The operators can’t bank as much on movies and music, because you might not see too many big releases happening. So you’ll see Cricket being the rallying point for the next three months.

Of all the rights that you’ve taken, what do you see as the primary contributor to revenues?
It will vary from deal to deal, and operator to operator. On 58888, alerts and WAP downloads will be large contributors. Alerts is still the largest business, with each operator having millions of users who consume primarily through alerts.

You did about Rs. 21 crore (Rs. 21,57,40,555) in SMS revenue in FY10, according to Indiatimes’ (Times Internet Ltd) financials, which was down from Rs. 23 crore (Rs. 23,96,02,688) the previous fiscal. How’s FY11 shaping up?

We don’t talk about financials at all. I won’t be able to talk about numbers.

Editors’ Take

A strange situation in the SMS rights space: while the concept of ‘Hot News’ is not applicable in India, during Cricket tournaments, the organizing entity has tried to enforce it one way or another. During the IPL, it was, allegedly, by directly speaking with telecom operators, some of which issued notices to other VAS companies not to push SMS Cricket Score packs during the IPL. This interview sheds a new perspective on it – that when copyright isn’t applicable, there’s the use of trademark to protect rights.

Indiatimes 58888’s primary revenue is from SMS, so we do see this as a risk:  competitors can still probably sell ‘Cricket Scores’ packs, just not Cricket World Cup packs. Check with your lawyer first, though.

From an Indiatimes’ perspective, the World Cup should help give a fillip to SMS revenues this fiscal.

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