(Repeats story that originally ran on Friday)
By Liana B. Baker
April 4 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
"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
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.
"You have a growing cricket interested population through
straight population growth and through immigration patterns. You
have a big and growing universe of people," Wolff said.
Cricket is available to watch on networks such as Willow TV,
but that's a specialty channel that costs subscribers $15 a
month. ESPN's first big push into cricket came in 2007 when
executives identified it as a global sport it wanted more
exposure to and it bought Cricinfo - a cricket news website.
Last year, Cricinfo was the second most googled website in
India, trailing only the national train service, according to
While ESPN has shown all three versions of cricket online,
including the format that lasts five days, it has made bets on
the rights for the newer, faster growing formats. The T-20
format that will be shown on ESPN2, introduced about 10 years
ago, lasts about three hours. The 2015 ICC World Cup, for which
ESPN has locked up the U.S. rights, is the one day international
ESPN has been trying to woo Madison Avenue by hosting events
such as a viewing party for the India-Pakistan match at Hearst
Tower in Manhattan attended by ESPN president John Skipper. But
it still faces an uphill battle with advertisers like Hyundai,
which said it has to do more research before investing.
Selling the sport will be a challenge in a crowded U.S.
marketplace where there's a major sport being played 12 months a
year, said Jason Maltby, director of national broadcast TV at
media buying firm MindShare.
Still, Wells Fargo, which has done U.S. ads for cricket for
six years and has previously placed ads on cricket on ESPN3,
said it has increased its U.S. cricket budget this year,
according to Michael Lacorazza, head of the company's integrated
"Cricket may not be ready for prime time but with the world
getting smaller, there's a realization that sports like these
that are huge outside the U.S. can grow here," Lacorazza said.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in New York; Editing by Christian
Plumb, Bernard Orr)