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ESPN is attempting the impossible: Convincing Americans to watch cricket

ESPN, the juggernaut sports network controlled by Disney, tried something completely different on Sunday.

It aired a cricket match, live, to millions of US viewers, at a time when excitement around the arrival of the new Major League Baseball season is at a fever pitch (pun intended).

OK, so the broadcast of the world T20 final between India and Sri Lanka was hardly in primetime (it started at 9am US ET, on Sunday morning) but it was still a watershed moment for the ancient sport, which is tremendously popular in parts of the British Commonwealth including India, Australia, and England but has had a negligible presence in North America for centuries.

Just how the broadcast fared on ESPN2, ratings wise, remains to be seen (audience figures won’t be out till Wednesday.) But it looks as though airing live cricket wasn’t just a one-off experiment for ESPN, whose channels are in 96 million American homes. “We think cricket has the chance to get out to a broader audience and be on a bigger platform,” Russell Wolff, ESPN International’s executive vice president told Reuters last week.

There are some 30 million self-identified cricket fans in America, Wolff said. They typically have above-average income and levels of education, making reaching them attractive to advertisers. Cricket has consistently been the most-watched sport on ESPN’s online channel, ESPN3.

ESPN has a long history of introducing and televising relatively obscure sports (like competitive fishing) and non-sports (like poker) to American audiences. The market for broadcast rights for traditional American sports continues to defy gravity, making international sports a cheap option to fill up vacant programming hours.

At the same time, there are signs that American audiences, historically insular when it comes to their games, are warming up to international sports. NBC Universal has been airing English Premier League soccer matches on its various channels (including the NBC network) each week this season and ratings have been healthy.

Cricket, which in various forms can last for three hours to five days, is never going to seriously challenge America’s native ballgame, baseball. But it might well attract niche audiences in the world’s largest economy and be a viable programming option for ESPN.

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