LONDON Walt Disney Co's sports network ESPN is buying cricinfo, the world's largest specialist cricket Web site, as it expands beyond its traditional strengths of American football, basketball, baseball and Nascar.
The purchase from UK-based Wisden Group, best known for its Cricketers' Almanac, a sporting statistics bible which has been published every year since 1864, marks an important strategic move internationally by ESPN.
"We don't think of ourselves as an American sports television company. We think of ourselves as a large sports and media entertainment company that operates around the world," Russell Wolff, ESPN International executive vice president and managing director told Reuters.
"Cricket is growing in popularity inside the United States among a growing south Asian expatriate population".
The Bangalore-based (www.cricinfo.com) Web site was founded in 1993 and has more than 7 million monthly users.
Cricket for Walt Disney has traditionally meant a tiny green character with a top hat called Jiminy, the moral conscience of Pinochio in the 1940 cartoon of the same name.
Now, the U.S.-based entertainment giant is aiming to serve the growing interest in the sport in the United States among Asian expatriates, while also catering to its existing fan base in countries such as Britain, Pakistan, Australia and India.
Financial terms for the deal were not disclosed.
Cricket does not feature among the dozen-plus sports highlighted on the home page of www.espn.com Web site, but that could soon change.
In December, sports broadcaster ESPN Star Sports won the right to telecast matches organized by the International Cricket Council for eight years starting late 2007.
Unconfirmed reports at the time said the broadcaster, in which ESPN is a 50:50 joint venture partner with News Corp.'s Star TV, paid around $1.1 billion for the rights.
GROWING IN POPULARITY
ESPN Star Sports is already a large rights holder for cricketing matches globally and is the largest broadcaster of the sport in India, while ESPN itself has had exposure to the Indian cricket market via an exclusive rights deal with the Board of Control for Cricket in India in the early 1990s.
ESPN has 33 television networks outside the United States as well as Web sites and radio businesses around the world.
ESPN Europe, Middle East and Africa Managing Director Lynne Frank said cricinfo had around 100 staff, adding that Wisden CEO Tom Gleeson would continue to run the site as managing director.
The business, which also publishes on mobiles and Internet portals, has been growing its statistics database involving ball-by-ball coverage of test and one-day internationals along with news and features by leading cricket writers.
Connecticut-based ESPN is 80-percent owned by the ABC network, a Disney subsidiary, with the Hearst Corp. owning the remaining 20 percent.
Disney's Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs told journalists while on a visit to London on Friday that a core part of the company's Internet activities and acquisitions strategy was to marry key content and brands.
"Since we are a content company one of the things we are trying to make sure is that we have got vibrant content, creation engines around the company," Staggs said.
Mark Getty, a director of Wisden and a son of deceased cricket-loving billionaire philanthropist Paul Getty, said in a statement that the group would continue to focus on its Hawk-Eye sports technology business, primarily in cricket and tennis.
Hawk-Eye is a ball-tracking technology which will be used for the first time later this month at London's Wimbledon tennis tournament as a aide to help umpires making calls on serves.
(Additional reporting by Rina Chandran in Mumbai)