Disney To Offer Free Cricket As It Fights Back In India’s Streaming Wars

Disney is planning to offer free cricket on smartphones and tablets in India as it fights back against subscriber loss at its Indian streaming service Disney+ Hotstar. 

The company will stream live matches of the Asia Cup from August 30, as well as the World Cup, which is being hosted by India, in October and November. 

Described by Disney+ Hotstar head Sajith Sivanandan as a new “hybrid model”, the strategy is aimed at boosting advertising revenues by increasing the volume of smartphone users accessing the service for free, while at the same time pulling in new subscribers for its paid plans. 

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Disney+ Hotstar is Disney’s biggest streaming service globally in terms of users, but started shedding subscribers after losing the Indian Premier League Cricket (IPL) to JioCinema in a $2.9BN deal last year. JioCinema is jointly owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio, Paramount Global and James Murdoch and Uday Shankar’s Bodhi Tree Systems. 

Disney executives said the studio had miscalculated the appetite of Indian consumers to switch from free viewing to premium plans. 

“We were bullish on Indian subscribers’ propensity to pay. That’s not worked out,” an internal source told Reuters. “Free cricket is the only bullet left.”

Disney acquired Hotstar, which already owned IPL rights, as part of its $71BN acquisition of 21st Century Fox global assets in 2019. While IPL matches were previously offered for free, Disney made them part of a paid service in 2020. 

But after JioCinema bagged the IPL rights, it started streaming matches for free, and subscribers started leaving Hotstar. The service had lost around 21 million users from a base of 61 million by July 2023, according to a Reuters report. 

JioCinema also acquired rights from Warner Bros Discovery for HBO content that was previously streamed by Hotstar, although those mostly English-language films and series reached a much smaller audience in India. 

Disney is also reportedly seeking a joint venture partner for its India business or even selling the business outright. 

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