As the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams prepare to meet in their much-anticipated World Cup semifinals match today, another battle is under way off the playing field - the fight for advertising visibility.
Media agencies complain that ESPN Star Sports, the official broadcaster, has jacked up last-minute spot rates from 350,000 rupees (Dh28,755) for 10 seconds to between 1.8 million and 2m rupees for this match, expected to attract more viewers in the subcontinent than any match in the tournament so far.
Sameer Bajaj, the associate director for corporate communications at ESPN Star Sports, said the broadcaster had sold 95 per cent of its ad slots even before the start of the World Cup.
The remaining slots, reserved for last-minute sales in the knockout stages of the tournament, would be sold at a premium. Mr Bajaj expressed confidence the slots would be filled but declined to comment about the broadcaster's prices.
"The price they are demanding is totally justified," said Naveen Khemka, the senior vice president at ZenithOptimedia, a global media services company.
Mr Khemka was negotiating last-minute ad deals with ESPN Star Sports on behalf of two brands.
"The viewership for this match is expected to touch a new high," he said. "Brands will have to pay through their nose for airtime."
In the subcontinent, which is hosting the sporting event for the first time since 1996, cricket enjoys a cult-like popularity rivalled only by Bollywood films.
During the tournament, which began last month, advertisers and marketing companies launched a high-decibel, multibillion-rupee advertising blitz to cash in on the growing excitement.
An India-Pakistan cricket encounter is a spectacle like no other. Today's match, dubbed by the local media as the "mother of all contests", is a potential powder keg that is igniting passions among hundreds of millions of enthusiasts in the subcontinent.
There has been a mad scramble for stadium tickets. The premium seats, officially priced at 15,000 rupees, are being sold on the black market for more than 100,000 rupees, local media reports say. Hotels at Mohali, the northern Indian town hosting today's match, are completely booked.
Corporate tsars, showbiz celebrities and politicians from both nations are vying for space at the local airport to park their private jets.
According to TAM Media Research, a television viewership analysis company in Mumbai, cricket dominated television ratings last year, with about 176 million viewers compared with 57 million in 2003.
Cricket is the biggest driver of revenues for India's TV industry, accounting for 85 per cent of the total TV sports ad spending.
Last year, 13 billion rupees - out of a total television ad pie of 105.3bn rupees - was spent on cricket, 20 per cent higher than the previous year.
This year, with the World Cup, which will be followed immediately by the Indian Premier League (IPL), total ad spending on cricket is expected to climb to 30bn rupees.
"The calendar year 2011 is poised to be the biggest in the history of ESPN Star Sports in India," Rathindra Basu, the senior director for business development at the broadcaster, said before the start of the tournament. "It cannot get bigger than this."
During the World Cup, matches not involving India garnered an average of 1.5 television rating points (TRPs) - an industry measure that gauges how popular a programme is by using sample audience figures - while viewership of matches involving India shot to 9.51 TRPs. For today's match, the ratings are expected to go through the roof.
ESPN Star Sports, for which this is the best opportunity in the tournament to earn a windfall, is unwilling to compromise on rates, according to media agencies involved in last-minute negotiations.
Most brands view the match as a lucrative marketing opportunity and are keen to acquire ad slots, but most have already spent a large chunk of their annual marketing budget and cannot afford ESPN's inflated last-minute rates. Castrol, an industrial and automotive lubricants manufacturer, has spent one-third of its advertising budget for this year on the World Cup alone.
LG Electronics, a South Korean maker of consumer durables, increased its marketing budget by 15 per cent this year to buy TV ad time during the World Cup and IPL.
"Every brand wants its logo to be counted among the sponsors on this day," Mr Khemka said. "Whether ESPN Star Sports brings down its rates depends on the demand-supply scenario. For now, demand outstrips supply."