ESPN looks to score with cricket stateside

Fri Apr 4, 2014 5:41pm EDT
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By Liana B. Baker

(Reuters) - ESPN is hoping that a U.S. audience will warm up to another sport that uses a bat and a ball to score runs in innings but that isn't baseball: cricket.

The No. 1 sports cable network, which is controlled by Walt Disney Co, has decided to air live cricket for the first time on one of its fully-distributed cable networks, ESPN2, which reaches a U.S. audience of 96 million homes. This Sunday at 9 am EST, the channel will show the finals of the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh pitting Sri Lanka against India.

ESPN is experimenting to see if the sport can gain traction in the United States, where professional and college football are king while cricket, with its loyal but small fan base, is viewed as being on the fringe.

ESPN, which is the main earnings driver of Disney, faces increased U.S. competition bidding for sports rights and for viewers with new entrants such as Fox Sports 1, so it is casting a wider eye on other sports.

After learning that the 10 most highly viewed Internet streams on its Internet-only network ESPN3, were of cricket matches, regularly beating out college football and basketball, executives considered putting it on TV. On March 30, 100,000 viewers tuned into the ESPN3 stream of an India-Australia match at one time, which is more than an average audience, the network said.

"We think cricket has the chance to get out to a broader audience and be on a bigger platform," said Russell Wolff, executive vice president and managing director of ESPN International.

While it might take some educating to make U.S. viewers more familiar with wickets and hitting a sixer, ESPN said the average U.S. cricket fan is young, highly educated and has a median household income of $75,000, which should appeal to advertisers.

About 30 million people in the U.S. identify themselves as cricket fans, Wolff said. While this is tiny compared to the sport's popularity in India, Australia, England and countries in the West Indies, more people moving to the U.S. from cricket crazed parts of the world can only boost its growth.   Continued...

India's Virat Kohli celebrates after India won the semi final match against South Africa in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup at the Sher-E-Bangla National Cricket Stadium in Dhaka April 4, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj