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ESPN Takes Another Step Outside the Bundle, Starts Selling Streaming Cricket World Cup Subscriptions

Small sport (in the U.S.). Big move.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

ESPN is going to try selling sports directly to viewers over the Internet: The cable giant will sell live and on-demand access to the Cricket World Cup, a 49-game, six-week tournament, over the Web for $100.

The tournament, which takes place in Australia and New Zealand and features teams from 14 countries, starts Feb. 13. Starting Feb. 3, U.S. cricket fans can sign up for a subscription at, and then access streams on the Web; ESPN says it will have iOS and Android apps available by Feb. 11.

A crucial element to the plan, which I told you about back in November, is that the matches won’t appear on any of ESPN’s traditional cable channels or on WatchESPN, the streaming service that ESPN bundles with its TV subscriptions. ESPN wants to be clear that it’s selling an additional service, not carving up its existing content offering.

For some of the same reasons, ESPN is also letting some pay-TV providers sell the package of games via their video-on-demand services, directly to their own subscribers. Dish Network, Mediacom and Time Warner Cable will sell the package as a pay-per-view offering, but haven’t announced pricing yet.

The big picture: The move is important because it’s the first time ESPN will sell some of its stuff directly to consumers instead of wholesaling it to pay-TV providers. And we are going to see more of this: ESPN already plans to sell a package of NBA games to fans in a couple of years, and may do the same with Major League Soccer (though not this year).

ESPN, which makes an enormous amount of money selling bundled TV subscriptions to pay-TV providers, wants to keep doing that. But the pay-TV subscriber base isn’t growing, and may well be shrinking, as people cut the cord or never sign up for it in the first place.

So ESPN wants new revenue streams, and is looking beyond the bundle for them. This week’s launch of Sling TV, the Dish Network service that lets people watch ESPN and a handful of other channels over the Web, is part of the same strategy.

Cricket is huge worldwide, but a niche sport in the U.S. ESPN Executive Vice President Russell Wolff, who is in charge of the cricket venture, has previously suggested that the sport could have 30 million fans in the U.S., which may be pushing it. But this also makes it a good choice for a first move into direct sales.

ESPN says it will use Major League Baseball Advanced Media, pro baseball’s digital arm, to help process the video for the cricket tournament; MLBAM already works with ESPN on WatchESPN, and will be providing the back-end services for HBO’s up-coming Web-only subscription service.

The company says it will use CSG International, which helps it sell subscriptions to its ESPN Insider premium service, to handle payments for the tournament.

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