SBJ/April 18-24, 2011/In Depth

U.S.-based media companies eye opportunities for bigger role in India’s sports scene

John Kosner’s first job at ESPN in 1997 was to identify sports that would play at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando.

The venue had just opened in March of that year, and Kosner, the senior vice president and general manager of ESPN Digital Media, tried to secure some games from the 2007 Cricket World Cup, which would later be held in the West Indies.

“That proved to be a long shot,” Kosner said, saying that the World Cup was too big to lure to Orlando.

Not that anyone in the United States would notice. When it comes to cricket’s standing in the United States, even the sport’s staunchest supporters here hope it will one day rise to the level of a niche sport. But elsewhere in the world, the sport is a juggernaut, and U.S.-based media companies increasingly are looking to tap into that growth.

This year’s Cricket World Cup final match between India and Sri Lanka broke television records in India, with 67.6 million viewers tuning in to the match. Throughout the country, 64 percent of all cable and satellite homes were watching the match on television.

YouTube streams all IPL matches.
The sport also has garnered heavy interest online, thanks largely to a two-year deal that the popular Indian Premier League signed with YouTube in January 2010. The site streamed all matches from the league’s Twenty20 season, during which time nearly 50 million users streamed games from the site.

That kind of online popularity has helped other cricket-focused sites. ESPN, which bought the popular Cricinfo site in 2007, benefited from the amount of interest in India’s run to the World Cup title. The site logged close to 11.9 million unique users in February, nearly doubling the amount from the previous year.

ESPN bought the Cricinfo site in 2007.
Since ESPN bought the site, Cricinfo’s page views have increased by an average of 9 percent per month, culminating in the big World Cup numbers.

“The 2011 World Cup was a little like the equivalent of Michael Phelps winning all the gold medals,” Kosner said. “That India, after 28 years, reclaimed the World Cup playing in Mumbai was just an historic event. There’s no place where Cricinfo is bigger than India.”

Kosner predicts user numbers will continue to grow, thanks largely to mobile applications, which are just starting to take off, Kosner said.

“Mobile is going to explode on the subcontinent,” Kosner said. “You’re going to have many more people getting phones with Internet connectivity where cricket information is going to be the first thing they want.”

Kosner joked that when he asked friends in India to identify the country’s four most popular sports, they said they were all cricket. “In the subcontinent, it’s the equivalent of the NFL, plus every other major sport rolled into one.”

ESPN increasingly is realizing how big the sport is outside of the U.S. ESPN sent one of its writers, Wright Thompson, to India to cover the start of the World Cup. The resulting story became his most-read piece ever.

“There’s a universal appeal to this,” Kosner said.

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