2012 AFP

Cricket to air in the U.S., but will audiences be stumped?

ESPN3 will show select matches this season from the Indian Premier League in hope of finding a U.S. following

Cricket is again trying to bat on a wicket that has proved perennially sticky* — the living rooms of America’s sports-mad public.

(*Click here for handy glossary of cricketing terms.)

Having given the nation more accustomed to a rounded bat and a bent arm a taster in the form of the recent Twenty20 World Cup final, live cricket is set to become a fixture, of sorts, with IPL matches being broadcast to the nation starting next week.

But will IPL become a household acronym, ranking alongside the likes of NFL, NBA and MLB? Probably not, especially given that few people in the U.S. know what the IPL is. (It’s short for the Indian Premier League, by the way.)

But sports media giant ESPN is hoping enough curious sports fans will join the global cricket faithful in tuning in to the IPL. Featuring the likes of the Chennai Super Kings, Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians, the competition is the glitziest cricket has to offer, complete with fireworks and cheerleaders.

The first televised game will be aired on April 27, a matchup between the Sunrisers Hyderabad and Chennai Super Kings. Network execs will be eagerly awaiting to see how it is received in America.

“Sports fans have a voracious appetite, and they take the U.S. by storm every day. We see a growth opportunity in delivering live cricket events and giving it exposure to a national U.S. audience,” Jason Bernstein, a senior programming director at ESPN, told Al Jazeera. “It will be interesting to see where fandom in the U.S. is when the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2015 comes around.”

While cricket is not a commonplace pursuit in the United States, it is hugely popular outside the country and nowhere more so than in India, where the sport is more accurately described as a national obsession than as a mere pastime.

ESPN announced earlier this month that it reached a deal to air select matches from the IPL on ESPN3, a digital channel that can be accessed online and through an ESPN app for TVs, tablets and phones. 

The plan is to carry six Game of the Week matches as well as two qualifier matches and one eliminator match during the season, which began on April 16 and runs through June 1.

“We think cricket has the chance to get out to a broader audience and be on a bigger platform,” ESPN International executive vice president and managing director Russell Wolff told Reuters earlier this month. 

But others wonder if the U.S. is ready to embrace cricket, some 170 years after it lost the first ever international test match, against its rivals to the north, Canada, by some 23 runs.

Lawrence Booth, editor of “Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack” — an annual reference book commonly referred to as the bible of cricket — told Al Jazeera that the ability to attract Americans to the sport has always been something that’s “been beyond cricket” and something akin to “trying to import baseball to the U.K.”

ESPN2 aired the World Twenty20 international championship game, between India and winner Sri Lanka, on April 6. That telecast garnered 2.4 million viewers, with over 300,000 more watching via ESPN3 and the network’s mobile app. 

“We plan to build our momentum at the conclusion of the ICC World Twenty20 Championship with the start of the IPL’s seventh season,” Bernstein said.

“It would be lovely if America fell in love with cricket, but we have to be realistic.”

Lawrence Booth

Editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack

Twenty20 is a format of the game that takes about three to three and a half hours to play — much less time than the traditional test match cricket, which can last up to five full days and often ends in a draw. Booth, who also serves as cricket writer for The Daily Mail, said that the Twenty20 format is the “most digestible form of cricket that is mostly likely to attract a nontraditional cricket audience.”

“This is closer to baseball in terms of how long it would last,” he said. “It’s kind of like a shower of home runs, one after another. It’s a very watchable.”

Whether the game can catch on in the U.S. and be successful is yet to be seen, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

“Our goal is to cast as wide a net as possible to showcase the sport to American fans,” Bernstein said. “Viewership is measured by a number of factors, but the most important metric we look at on ESPN3 is average-minute audience, the average number of people viewing a live cricket event in any given minute of the match. This is the equivalent to how we quantify television audiences. Cricket fans also rank high in engagement, spending well over an hour of time watching.”

IPL standouts like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Rohit Sharma, who enjoy star status back in India, becoming household names in the U.S. like LeBron James and Peyton Manning seems unlikely, but cricket’s TV audience remains untapped.

As Booth put it, if the Twenty20 format doesn’t hit it off in the U.S., “then cricket can give up trying to crack the American market.”

“It would be lovely if America fell in love with cricket, but we have to be realistic.”

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