Times Internet acquires US-based cricket broadcaster Willow TV
Other | Photo Credit: Reuters

Bennett, Coleman and Company Ltd's (BCCL) digital arm Times Internet Ltd has acquired US-based cricket broadcaster, Willow TV International Inc.

While the exact valuation of the US firm was not disclosed, Times Internet director Satyan Gajwani in an email response to VCCircle said the $100 million payout includes the cost of acquiring the sport content rights, promoting Willow TV as well as cricket in the US besides the amount paid to the founder of Willow TV.

“Cricket is one of the most popular sports in the world, and has the potential to become a major sport in the US,” said Gajwani.

Willow is the first international acquisition by Times Internet, and the second overseas acquisition for media company BCCL. In 2008, BCCL had bought UK-based radio services firm Absolute Radio (erstwhile Virgin Radio) for around £53.2 million (Rs 445 crore or $100 million back then). However, the Indian media company was not able to monetise it properly and five years later sold  it to Bauer Media UK, a division of the Bauer Media Group. 

Sports analysts in India call the latest acquisition a smart move by Times Internet. “Probably bought at a nominal cost, at some point Times Internet will use Willow TV to enter the business of sports broadcast in India,” says Indranil Das Blah, partner, CAA KWAN, a sports and celebrity management agency.

Blah adds that with the Indian broadcast industry including digital gradually moving towards the pay-per-view model, the US experience will help Times Internet in planning its move here.

“As a bootstrapped company, we launched the Willow cricket channel just over five years ago. With the backing of BCCL and its assets, I am confident that we can jointly build one of the premier sports businesses in the US,” said Vijay Srinivasan, founder and CEO of Willow TV International.

Interestingly, the acquisition comes right before the start of the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup, for which Willow TV is the official broadcaster in the US. ICC T20 World is scheduled to start from March 8, 2016. According to Gajwani, TIL, in addition to cashing in on Willow's popularity as a cricket broadcaster in the US, will be using its digital platform Cricbuzz to further provide scores and other details such as highlights of the matches.

Cricbuzz will exclusively show pre-match, in-match, and post-match highlights and coverage of the entire tournament to US digital audiences. Additionally, Times Internet will use the cricket broadcaster's digital service - along with Cricbuzz to telecast premium content from the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in the US.

Gajwani points that besides airing the current cricket tourney, Times Internet will invest in production of original pre- and post-match content for tournaments in the future.

In November 2014, Times Internet had acquired cricket news and information portal from Bangalore-based Akuate Internet Services Pvt Ltd. Post acquisition, Cricbuzz was merged with Times Internet’s cricket news portal GoCricket.

The digital firm of BCCL claims that last year, during the ICC World Cup 2015, Cricbuzz saw over 1 billion visits in a span of 40 days, 96 per cent on mobile. Between Willow, Cricbuzz, and Times of India’s digital assets, the group expects to reach out to about 15 million people in the US with an interest in cricket.

Unlike India, where sports broadcasters earn their revenue from advertising and sponsorship, US follows the pay-per-view model with broadcasters earning revenue from subscription. For example, sports broadcaster ESPN has expanded its US cricket content in the past few years. The broadcaster last year aired Indian Premier League (IPL) matches on its ESPN3 digital platform and provided live coverage of the entire 2015 Cricket World Cup as part of a $99.99 package.

The 2015 World Cup reached a broadcast audience of 1.56 billion.

Last December, several news organisations reported that the ICC's local advisory group in the US had offered an outline for its strategic plan to grow the game in that country. The advisory group was appointed after the USA Cricket Association was suspended in June.

The outline included goals such as USA qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, 2020 World Twenty20, apart from a proposal to host the 2024 World Twenty20 when allocations are made following the conclusion of the current ICC rights cycle from 2015-2023. The broad plan is to reach 50,000 American viewers by 2017.

Sports critics dub the US and Canada as the next big market for the game of cricket. “The All Star series, which had Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and Brian Lara, was like Pele’s arrival in the US in the '70s. This is the first trigger and it will definitely work, thanks to the Asian diaspora,” says Shantanu Guha Ray, India editor, Central European News (CEN), and author of the book, Mahi: The Story of India's Most Successful Captain.

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