ESPN Partners With Broadcasters In China, India To Air Final Four games

Friday, Apr 01, 2016

ESPN, which owns the rights to broadcast NCAA tournament games outside the United States, is hoping a series of new deals can help grow an audience for college sports in China and India where basketball is already hugely popular.

A recent partnership with Chinese digital giant Tencent, which already provides streams for NBA coverage in China, has allowed ESPN to provide nationwide coverage of the tournament for the first time this year. And in India, a new television channel in which ESPN has partnered with Sony Pictures Networks will bring coverage of the Final Four and the national championship.

“As the world becomes smaller and U.S. colleges and universities continue to grow their brands overseas and leagues like the NBA become more appealing, the exposure and growth of various college and universities can open new horizons in recruiting,” said ESPN executive vice president and managing director for ESPN International Russell Wolff. “That’s some of the excitement around what we’re doing here. We see real growth.”

Presenting major college sporting events as a premiere property overseas has long been a tricky proposition. Tying big-time amateur sports to universities isn’t analogous to anything in the rest of the world, so it can be difficult to convey the value of it to an audience that isn’t steeped in its tradition.

On the other hand, more and more colleges are looking at playing games overseas — Texas and Washington opened the college basketball season in China, for instance — and there is an increasingly foreign presence in college basketball. There were more than 500 players whose hometown is outside the U.S on Div. 1 rosters this season, a 33% increase from just five years ago.

Australian Ben Simmons, for instance, was arguably the most high-profile player in college basketball for much of the season at LSU even though his team didn’t make the NCAA tournament. ESPN-owned channels broadcast every NCAA tournament game in Australia live this year.

“When we look at the tournament itself, our bracket game on is up 81% from 3 years ago in terms of people from outside the U.S. creating brackets, which is up 38% from last year,” Wolff said.

Though ratings numbers aren’t entirely apples to apples, there is some evidence that foreign interest in the tournament is growing. The 2015 Final Four and championship game averaged a 1.2 household share in Australia, up from 0.8 in 2012, and the numbers were up significantly on a percentage basis in places like Mexico, Argentina and Chile.

Are they large audiences overall? Not necessarily, but Wolff said the numbers would be equivalent to what ESPN sees for something like an NFL game or a significant tennis tournament in those countries.

“It’s not the soccer championship of the local league, but it’s a real audience,” ESPN senior communications director Paul Melvin said.

Given the NBA’s popularity in China, it will be interesting to see how many people streamed NCAA tournament games on Tencent, which is one of the largest Internet portals in the world. Wolff said 19 games were selected for nationwide broadcast, which used voiced-over announcers from a studio in China. ESPN has a broader deal with Tencent, which includes some college football games, regular season college basketball and X Games.

“The NBA just did their new deal with Tencent and we just did our deal with them,” Wolff said “I think Tencent as a home for basketball in China is really just starting, so having the NBA there on the same platform with the March Madness tournament is really the first time you’e had those things side by side.

“This has become what we would describe as a global event of interest and you put that on par with other big events. Of course not on par with the FIFA World Cup but major tennis and major NBA games. So where I would have said 15 years ago nobody in any of these places cared at all about this, today it’s an event of note.”

ESPN runs all of its international distribution technology through a production center in Bristol, Conn., that came online in 2014 and uses a fiber network that allows large amounts of content to be delivered to numerous platforms.

“It’s a one of a kind type of facility,” Melvin said.


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