Mukesh Ambani’s big bet on cricket

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If you’re a fraudster, a human rights abuser or a violent criminal, then we’ve got some bad news: the Premier League wants to make it a bit harder for you to own a football club.

All 20 members of the league voted this week to tighten rules for owners and directors, the latest move to beef up governance before the UK brings in an independent football regulator. However, critics point out that the new rules still outsource the screening process to other bodies eg financial regulators. Even with these changes, the test looks pretty easy to pass.

Away from football, FT South Asia correspondent Benjamin Parkin sends a dispatch from New Delhi on the return of the Indian Premier League, the multibillion-dollar cricket extravaganza that is pitting some of the world’s biggest media companies against each other. And it’s been a banner week for women’s sport in the US, as shown by the breakout basketball star of this year’s March Madness. Do read on — Josh Noble, sport editor

IPL sparks heavyweight scrap for advertising

Sticky wicket: Dry spell for advertising © AP

The Indian Premier League, the fast-paced cricket tournament that has revolutionised the game since it launched in 2008, is back for a two-month tournament that will bring the world’s best players to India.

The IPL is more lucrative than ever after the media rights for 2023-2027 sold for a record $6.2bn last year, making it the world’s second-most valuable sports league on a per game basis. This year also saw the launch of the women’s game, something many expect to grow into a big business — watch our recent Scoreboard video to find out more.

While Disney will broadcast the league on TV, the digital rights were secured by Viacom18, a partnership between Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries, Paramount and an investment group run by James Murdoch and former Disney executive Uday Shankar. Viacom18 will stream the series for free on its JioCinema platform.

Yet, for all the big spending, the IPL is not immune to economic realities. A global slowdown is likely to weigh on advertising budgets, with consultancy Media Partners Asia estimating IPL ad outlay to be flat from last year at around $550mn.

IPL advertising has in recent years been driven by tech start-ups and other new businesses like crypto exchanges. But Indian tech companies have been hard hit by a funding crunch while — fearing a regulatory backlash — crypto start-ups have opted not to advertise this season, according to local media.

In their absence, valuation firm D and P Advisory’s managing partner Santosh N expects traditional brands like consumer goods companies or carmakers to lead advertising spending, but to be more conservative with their budgets.

This will make the competition between Disney and Viacom18 even fiercer. In a report this week, MPA estimated that Viacom18 will come out on top. It expects advertising spend on TV to halve from last year to $220mn while spending on digital advertising will nearly triple to $350mn.

Viacom18 believes making the tournament free to watch online will give it unparalleled reach among smartphone users, which many analysts see as the future of India’s entertainment market.

Disney disputed MPA’s analysis. It said that its Star TV network reaches over 700mn people, making it larger than the country’s entire digital video market. It hopes to be a safer bet for advertisers during difficult times.

Only one thing is sure: Having spent billions on the rights, both companies need to be prepared to burn cash if they want to win the off-field battle for IPL victory.

March Madness: spotlight falls on female athletes

Flying high: Record breaker Caitlin Clark © AP

For the first time, the breakout star of March Madness is a woman.

Caitlin Clark, a junior at the University of Iowa, last week became the first US college basketball player — male or female — to record a more than 40 point triple-double in NCAA tournament history. Her performance, which sent the Hawkeyes to Friday’s Final Four semi-finals, came atop a season in which she’s already scored nearly 1,000 points.

Expressive, aggressive, and electrifying, Clark has been such a compelling draw not only for her scoring prowess but her engaging personality on the court, hyping herself and the crowd. National Basketball Association star Kevin Durant gave an interview to the Washington Post saying Clark “has that dog in her”.

Clark’s star turn comes in a pivotal year for the annual US college basketball tournament, which is equal parts a revenue juggernaut for the entire collegiate sport system, a television ratings bonanza, and a tradition as quirky and singularly American as anything in sport. For the first time in 2023, the women’s tournament final will air on ABC, Disney’s free to air national network, following the recent extension of NCAA’s “March Madness” marketing machine to the women’s game.

Following robust criticism by student athletes at the 2021 tournament who exposed inequalities in treatment and resources allocated by the NCAA to the men’s and women’s tournaments, the governing body commissioned an independent review of gender equity in the two events by the law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink. It found that at the 2021 tournament alone, the NCAA spent $2.4mn on signage for the men’s tournament “and only $783,000 on signage for the women’s tournament”. 

More staggering still, the Kaplan report concluded broadcast rights agreements between the NCAA and its media partners contributed to gender disparity. The NCAA collects an average annual fee of $1.1bn from CBS and Turner to air the men’s tournaments, while Disney’s ESPN paid just $34mn per year for the women — far below the report’s independent analysis that found the women’s games should be worth between $85mn-$112mn. 

The NCAA, itself going through a paradigm shift in the era of name, image, and likeness rights for athletes, agreed to extend “March Madness” branding for the first time to the women’s games in 2022. Disney moving the final to ABC is likely to set a new viewership record for the tournament; last year’s final reached some 4.85mn viewers, which for those keeping score at home, is more than double the audience who watches cult HBO hit Succession.

To be sure, Clark’s success on the court is a credit to her own skill, and comes in spite of recent efforts to better showcase the women’s game. Luckily for her, there’s a (somewhat) better platform on which to shine.

Russia’s Daniil Medvedev playing at Wimbledon in 2021
Back on court: Russians return to Wimbledon © AP
  • Russian and Belarusian tennis players will be back at Wimbledon this year after the Lawn Tennis Association agreed to lift its ban in place since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • The computers have come for horseracing. So what happens when AI takes control of a betting market? Read this week’s FT Magazine cover story to find out.

  • Fifa has agreed to pay clubs more money for sending their players to the men’s World Cup. The compensation pot will grow by 70 per cent at the enlarged tournament in 2026.

  • At 27, Ed Craven is Australia’s youngest billionaire. Crypto betting site, the business he co-founded, has seen revenue grow from $105mn in 2020 to $2.6bn last year. This week the FT explored how Craven and his business partner did it.

  • Italy’s plan to use EU recovery funds to renovate a football stadium has been challenged by the European Commission. Leaders in Rome want the money to help finance work on Florence’s crumbling, 40,000-seat Artemio Franchi stadium — the home of ACF Fiorentina.

  • The American Gaming Association updated its sports betting marketing guidelines this week, urging constituents to ban all uses of the words “risk free” and to prohibit name, image, and likeness agreements between college athletes and sportsbooks.

  • Former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan has been cleared of using racist language by the sport’s disciplinary body.

  • Roger Federer and comedian Trevor Noah sat down with FT Globetrotter this week to provide their tips on what do to in Switzerland. You can watch the video here.

Final whistle

Proposing at a major sporting event is, apparently, still a thing. One plucky romantic decided to make his move at Dodgers Stadium in LA on opening day of the baseball season. However, it didn’t quite go to plan thanks to one eagle-eyed (and iron-shouldered) security guard. And we do not yet know whether she said yes.

Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team

Cryptofinance — Scott Chipolina filters out the noise of the global cryptocurrency industry. Sign up here

Unhedged — Robert Armstrong dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them. Sign up here

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