IPL Has Major Potential in US

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Over the past few years, since ESPN’s coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, international soccer has taken off in the United States.  In 2012, NBC Sports paid $250 million for the rights to broadcast the Barclays Premier League in the US for three seasons (through the 2015-16 season).  So far, NBC has reaped the rewards with their investment.

According to NBC spokesmen, TV ratings have climbed 15% this season and telecasts have averaged over 500,000 viewers per match on NBCSN.  A record 1.4 million people tuned in to a Manchester United/Liverpool match on November 22, 2014.  The network has shrewdly invested heavily to produce quality broadcasts and they have delivered on that end, from the pregame show all the way through the postgame show.

By bringing in Rebecca Lowe from England to become the face of the network’s soccer studio shows, NBC established instant credibility with the soccer audience.  Unlike Fox’s hiring of Gus Johnson, who although a great broadcaster knows extremely little about soccer, Lowe had years of experience overseas talking about the Premier League.  She combines a great on-camera presence with knowledge about the sport, which makes her a very strong host.  The lead BPL on NBC broadcasters also features all native Englishmen, with Arlo White as the top play-by-play announcer.  They help bring an authentic, native flavor to each of the broadcasts, so they respect the audience’s knowledge of the sport.

Rebecca Lowe has been a revelation on NBC's soccer coverage (Photo Credit: NBC Sports)

Rebecca Lowe has been a revelation on NBC’s soccer coverage (Photo Credit: NBC Sports)

Furthermore, NBC has made every game accessible to the American audience; all games are available to watch online via Live Extra.  Those living in the East Coast just waking up after a long night out do not even have to get out of their beds to watch live sporting events.  The games start at 7:45 AM ET, with most of the remaining games starting at 10:00 AM ET.  In America, these games compete with very few live sporting events, so NBCSN has the spotlight all to themselves.

With the success of European soccer in the United States, this begs the question: will cricket take off in America?  A good part of the Indian subcontinent –India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh – uses cricket as their primary culture.  These four countries alone account for over 1.6 billion people, or nearly 25% of the entire world’s population.  Other countries, such as Australia, England, South Africa, and West Indies have substantial cricket influence, with Australia and New Zealand posting strong viewership numbers while hosting the 2015 Cricket World Cup.

Cricket players from all over the globe have participated in the fastest growing sports league in the world – the Indian Premier League (IPL).  This league uses a modern day scoring format to appeal to the millennials, who prefer shorter matches.

In the sport, each team fields 11 players and once a player gets out, he cannot re-enter the game.  Two batters play simultaneously at once, with the pitch distanced 22 yards from the bowler to the batter.  The fielding team strives to get 10 players out before the time allotted, while the batting team attempts to score as many runs as possible.

These matches solely used to take five full days to complete, in a format known as “Test Cricket”.  The sport slowly evolved to “One Day International Cricket”, where each team batted 50 overs – 6 balls make up an over – and these matches lasted anywhere between 7 and 9 hours in a single day.  In 2003, the English Cricket Board invented Twenty20, where teams only played 20 overs each.  Matches would take only three hours, which has revolutionized the entire sport.

The IPL originated in 2008 and adopted the Twenty20 format, and the league has continued to rise to unprecedented heights, both monetarily and in viewership figures.  Despite only eight teams playing in this league, the overall value of the IPL grew from roughly $1 billion in 2008 to $7.2 billion in 2014.  The league operates in a one-and-a-half month period from early April through late May.

Viewership numbers have remained strong with the league, as Sports Business Journal reported 145 million unique viewers to the first 14 matches of the 2015 IPL season.  To put that in perspective, that represents over 40% of the entire US population.  Like the BPL, these cricket matches occur at an extremely unique time in the US…weekdays/weekends early in the morning.  The BPL plays primarily on weekend mornings, while the IPL plays throughout the entire week for a finite period of time.

Over 3 million Indians live in the United States, while the rest of the Indian subcontinent in the US accounts for nearly 500,000 people.  Combining with the other cricket-heavy countries, and an established target audience has appeared in America.  With this much outreach, cricket and the IPL have the potential to grow internationally, especially in the US.

ESPN signed a three-year deal through 2017 to broadcast the IPL in the United States.  Currently, ESPN uses a subscription package to broadcast every game to the US audience, as the network charges $80 per subscriber for the entire season.  For the next two years, ESPN should strongly consider going with a non-subscription model and airing the games on one of its network channels, in order to expand its outreach.  Most of these games come at a very unique time that does not compete with other live sporting events.

Like NBC did with their talent, ESPN has the resources to invest in knowledgeable voices for cricket.  They can conduct studio shows and provide features and further in-depth analysis to grow the sport.  ESPN currently simulcasts each broadcast with the English network.  That strategy can continue to work, as long as the network can provide its own set of resources to compliment the live broadcast.

With many folks in the East Coast already working and looking for events on TV to watch, people may consider keeping these games in the background and becoming attracted to the sport.  Remember, the FIRST TWO DAYS of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament netted an astounding 47 million live video streams alone.  Many of these games were played during standard working hours.  Thus, another live sport has a chance to attract a diverse audience, which ESPN should attempt to capitalize on next season.