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Subhash Chandra & version 2.0 of Packer?

April 06, 2007 12:12 IST

The Essel Group website calls him a "karmyogi", defined as someone who believes in action rather than worry about its consequences.

Critics say that Subhash Chandra, chairman of the Essel Group with interests in media, packaging, theme parks, films, multiplexes, education and online lottery, was being true to his "karmyogi" tag when he announced setting up of the Indian Cricket League (ICL) earlier this week. In other words, he's not done his homework and that the cricket league business is a tough nut to crack.

At a press conference in Delhi, the 56-year-old founder and chairman of Zee Telefilms announced that the cricket league will be floated with a corpus of Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) and offer top prize money of Rs 4.4 crore (Rs 44 million).

The league will have six teams of 14 players each and 35 academies across the country to pick talented cricketers. He added that there would be no restriction on the ICL players if they were selected by the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) to represent India.

Company insiders deem it a masterstroke by Chandra for several reasons. For starters, he is clearly creating content for two of his sports channels  --  Zee Sports and Ten Sports (Zee picked a 50 per cent stake in the latter) which have no cricket telecast rights to boast of.

"It is a brilliant strategy because with cricket comes merchandise, endorsements and the works. Besides, the timing is critical as the Indian team has disappointed people," says a company source.

To be sure, the media czar, who dresses in Armanis even as he puffs Bidi No. 502, always stood out for his radical thinking. His journey from Adampur village in Hisar, Haryana, to the celeb circles of Mumbai is well known. He started out by making money in rice exports to Russia.

In 1982, he set up a laminated tube unit after visiting a packaging exhibition. Today, Essel Propack is the world's number one packaging company. He saw amusement parks abroad and, back in Mumbai, Essel World and Water Kingdom were born.

He started dreaming about owning a TV channel after a visit to Doordarshan. In October 1992 he launched Zee TV by striking a satellite deal with Richard Li, then owner of Star TV. With a turnover of Rs 1,400 crore (Rs 14 billion), Zee Telefilms is among the largest media companies in India today.

Media industry experts say that Chandra is a visionary. Still, not many are buying into his cricket league vision. Says Rohit Gupta, executive vice president, Sony Entertainment Television: "As a share of voice strategy, the ICL announcement is sound. It made headlines and newspapers and TV channels covered it. But I don't know if this will work.

Yet others say that cricket is not a league game anywhere in the world. "There is just one national team that works," says a media expert and a former Zee executive. Besides, that India is a cricket-loving nation is an absolute myth. "If we did, we would have watched a good game, say, between Australia and England. Indians are not fanatic about the game.

They're only interested in the cricket stars they can idol worship," says the managing director of an advertising agency that's been closely associated with cricket.

Clearly, the belief is that nobody will watch the league matches And no viewership means no advertisers. "If it had to work it would have worked at the Ranji trophy level," he adds.

But Chandra's not to be underestimated. A former Zee CEO says he may be impatient but he's very sharp. Besides, he's not averse to taking risks. And not without reason would he have been ranked 746 among the world's richest people by Forbes last year.

Shuchi Bansal in New Delhi
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