Cricket and the Internet, 2007

A marriage made in cyberspace

Alastair McLellan

"To all of us who love cricket, Cricinfo is a phenomenon, a cult, a faith." So wrote the website's editor Sambit Bal on an eventful day in June 2007, when Wisden, publishers of this almanack, sold cricket's most pervasive internet voice to one of the world's largest sports broadcasters, ESPN.

At first glance ESPN appear an unlikely owner for Cricinfo. They lie at the heart of the US media world. Their cable sports channels are available in 100 million American homes, and countless Hollywood movies such as Dodgeball and Jerry Maguire use ESPN reports or programmes as a cultural reference point for US viewers. In 1984, ESPN were bought by ABC, which in turn was acquired 11 years later by another American organisation - Walt Disney, the world's second-largest media and entertainment corporation.

Cultural differences apart, a Cricinfo-ESPN deal makes increasing sense. In 2002 the broadcaster formed a 50-50 joint venture with Asian media giant Star; four years later ESPN-Star paid over $1bn for the global broadcast rights for all ICC tournaments, including the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

ESPN began to understand the pull of cricket to its millions of followers, particularly those among the burgeoning Asian middle class and its ex-pat diaspora. From there it was a short leap to Cricinfo and its dominance of cricket's cyberspace: it is eighth among the world's most popular sports websites. The sport's next busiest online destination, the cricket section of Indian portal Rediff, lies 41st. The BBC's online cricket coverage just squeezes into the top 100.

Every month an average of seven million people visit Cricinfo and, when England, Australia or (especially) India are playing, it can top ten million. That number could continue to rise exponentially as populous, cricket-mad countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh improve internet connectivity.

ESPN also believe the sport is evolving in a way that will make it easier to sell to audiences in countries without a cricket tradition. The company's vice-president for new media John Kosner claimed: "The duration of the T20 match now is more like US sports and, just as food and cuisine have moved beyond boundaries, the same can happen with sports." During the World Twenty20 in September 2007 the tournament was the "number three search term" on ESPN.com, the USA's (and world's) most visited sports site.

Sambit Bal is confident Cricinfo will retain its identity, which rests on the twin pillars of Wisden-inspired journalistic integrity and Cricinfo's commitment to covering as many games as possible. That remains to be seen, but six months after the acquisition there is little sign of Cricinfo dumbing down or reining in its ambition. The ESPN acquisition is another curious twist in Cricinfo's eventful story, the first ten years of which appeared in Wisden 2003, pages 1689-93. Under Wisden's management, a commercial rigour brought rapid growth and rising revenues from the emergent south Asian market, pushing Cricinfo into profitability.

However, Wisden's sale of Cricinfo to ESPN is timely. With broadband access becoming much more widespread, it is increasingly possible to deliver high-quality video over the internet. TV companies have reacted to this perceived threat by snapping up internet broadcast rights, which commercially savvy national cricket boards have priced highly in response. Trying to play in this new market without the backing of a major broadcaster is like taking guard to Brett Lee without pads, boots and box - likely to be a painful and doomed experience.

The web already teems with cricket-related video content - often posted by fans and free to view. Internet video phenomenon YouTube has over 50,000 cricket-related clips, ranging from home-made "best-of " compilations to a typically toe-curling attempt by Kazakhstan's most controversial cultural export, TV reporter Borat, to learn the game on Hambledon Down. A web search on "cricket videos" reveals many longer clips and in some cases entire highlight packages - albeit of dubious legality and varying quality, and delivered via a window smaller than a cigarette packet.

However, you will search in vain for anything significant from the 2007 World Cup after the ICC insisted that the footage infringed copyright. But the ICC police don't always win. The most watched cricket clip on YouTube captures Yuvraj Singh blasting Stuart Broad for six sixes in another ICC event - the World Twenty20. It received one million views in the first week. Through ECB TV the England and Wales Cricket Board streams live coverage of home internationals to territories such as continental Europe and South America that are not covered by its current broadcast contracts. The deal the ECB struck with Sky also means it has exclusive rights to offer UK visitors to ECB TV brief highlight packages after each session of a home international, with more extensive reviews after the close of play.

To date, users of ECB TV have had the choice of various price packages ranging from £2.99 for 24 hours' access to £25 for a year. As well as highlights, subscribers get exclusive behind-the-scenes features, interviews with England players and archive footage dating from 1999. The programming includes Simon Hughes dissecting the key moment of a day's play - a service also available through the Daily Telegraph's impressive online cricket coverage.

During summer 2007 up to 10,000 people were putting their hands in their pockets to watch coverage of the West Indies and India tours: a decent number, but below expectations. From April 2008, more video content on ECB TV will be free to view, and full access will be rolled into the membership benefits of the England Supporters Club.

Some counties are also getting into online video. The ECB provides funding for a static camera behind the bowler at one end of every county match. The primary purpose is to allow the counties' cricket analysts to download footage on to their laptops to aid in the coaching of players. But Sussex realised it could also attract fans to the club's website. With the board's permission, the county created Sussex TV, which offered a mix of highlights from the static camera, archive footage, interviews and features that reflect the eclectic and often eccentric nature of the club. The success of Sussex TV led to its producer, Barney Douglas, being poached by ECB TV. Others are already getting in on the act: 2007 saw the launch of similar TV stations by Surrey and Lancashire.

© John Wisden & Co.