ESPN has a history of taking nonsporting events and packaging them on television, creating audiences seemingly out of thin air. Now, the Worldwide Leader thinks it can pull off the opposite magic trick: televising a real sport with a huge global following and convincing U.S. audiences to watch it.
No, not soccer: I'm talking about cricket. You know, cricket -- it's that thing that's like baseball in that there's pitching, fielding and runs scored, yet it confuses American baseball fans with its overs, wickets and amusingly named statistics such as "not outs." It also happens to be the second-most-popular sport in the world, so ESPN is smart to try to tap into its potentially vast audience. And if anyone can get Americans tuning into test matches, it's the network that brought you manufactured "sports" such as competitive fishing and the World Series of Poker.
The media giant's foray into cricket actually began back in 2006, when ESPN's Asian network, ESPN Star Sports, struck a $1.1 billion deal with the International Cricket Council for exclusive broadcast and marketing rights for ICC events until 2015. The following year, ESPN acquired the website CricInfo from as part of the breakup of its parent company, the Wisden Group. In 2010, the readership potential of CricInfo -- which had become a go-to resource for cricket fans -- was demonstrated when Indian cricket star Sachin Tendulkar set a record for hitting the highest score ever in a one-day international match. CricInfo crashed, unable to sustain its 45 million page views -- also a record.
ESPN has recently stepped up its push to capture the cricket audience in the U.S. The network boldly aired a cricket match on ESPN2 on what happened to be baseball's Opening Day. The world T20 final between India and Sri Lanka aired in the morning and thus had no risk of interfering with the prime-time Major League Baseball opener (not that it would), averaging just 216,000 viewers, per Nielsen. Sure, the average "Law and Order" rerun garners more viewers, but ESPN has made it clear that it intends to take cricket seriously back home.
"We think cricket has the chance to get out to a broader audience and be on a bigger platform," ESPN International's Russell Wolff told Reuters, noting that about 30 million people in the U.S. identify themselves as cricket fans.
It seems ESPN believes the bridge between the sport's global following and a potential American audience lies in the Internet. The decision to air the T20 final came after network executives learned that the 10 most highly viewed programs on ESPN3, the company's streaming network, were all cricket matches -- more than even college football and basketball. On Monday, ESPN announced that it had signed a deal for exclusive digital rights to Indian Premier League matches, which will to be streamed on ESPN3 to viewers in the U.S. from the start of the season on April 16.
It's an interesting experiment, one that has the potential to pay great dividends. ESPN has already signed on to be a part of soccer's growing popularity in the U.S.; after it adds cricket to its already stacked arsenal, it can truly call itself the Worldwide Leader.
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