History Of Cricinfo
In Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s first days as captain of the Indian cricket team, the men in blue upset one-day champions Australia in the semi-final of the inaugural T20 World Cup. At the post-match presentations, the young skipper picked on host Ravi Shastri, and said his team had proved the latter’s Cricinfo prediction wrong. It was a light-hearted remark, alluding to Shastri’s match-preview podcast on a cricket website whose beginnings date back to 1993. Dhoni had inadvertently told the world that Cricinfo was as popular with players as it was with readers.
Since its launch by academic Simon King, Cricinfo has survived the dotcom bust, and been through ownership changes thrice. This ranged from seed funds, including one from Satyam Infoway (Sify), to being bought out by the Wisden Group and ESPN. Still, its user base has grown exponentially to over half the online share for cricket. It declines comment on revenues, but estimates put it close to Rs 20 crore globally. This is creditable because the segment solely depends on advertising.
Interestingly, Cricinfo wasn’t born to be a business. King started it to keep track of county-cricket scores when he moved to the US. But the demand the portal has generated across the Indian subcontinent, the US (primarily among non-resident Asians), England and Australia made Cricinfo take itself more seriously—to develop a robust business over time.
"The truth is we didn’t have a bloody business plan in the formative years," recalls Badri Seshadri, a founder and trustee of the company who quit as Managing Director in 2005. "There was some correlation between product development and company development, but not wholly," he says.
Since June 2007, when California-based sportscaster ESPN (a Walt Disney company) acquired the website for about $30 million, it began to tap the commercial potential of its 11.5-million user base. This is more than double of what it was (5.6 million) in 2005, and has grown at a compounded annual rate of almost 20%. Revenues have risen 40% year-on-year since 2006. For the first time, Cricinfo is firmly treading the corporate path.
Built By Users
About 65% of Cricinfo’s visitors each month are from India, making it the 12th most-frequently visited portal in the country, ahead of even IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation), the acclaimed online railway reservation portal.
Unlike service-oriented websites like Naukri or Shaadi, though, Cricinfo’s revenues largely accrue from performance-led advertising. "Because these ads are not targeted as well as, say, on Google, the realisations on any Web publication will be low," observes Hitesh Oberoi, COO of Info Edge, whose flagship business is Naukri.com. Given Google India’s higher yield from display ads, it is steadily eating into this growing revenue pie.
Where cricket portals can make an impression is with their communities. For a captive audience having a single interest, their size is enormous. And with the cricket economy thriving, as the sport is played through the year, websites tracking the sport have developed a loyal following.
The killer application for all web portals is the live scorecard, with ball-by-ball commentary. After the home page, which generates a bulk of the advertisements, it’s the live scorecards that have won advertisers’ interest for banner ads. Cricinfo has deepened its hold on the live-scorecard following with its ball-by-ball commentary, with what is referred to in Web circles as ‘stickiness’ (See table: Eyeball By Eyeball). "Our focus is to get in users, and get them moving around the site. Commercially, that is what we try to do," asserts Tom Gleeson, VP for ESPN’s Digital Media in Europe, Middle East and Africa. The trick is to provide exclusive content like player profiles and updated match bulletins, which can interest users of the ball-by-ball commentary. "Our great strength is we can keep users there for a long time. Each of the 11.5 million users spends about 50 minutes a month on the website and each session is about 10 minutes long," adds Andrew Hall, Content Director of ESPN Digital Media.
This has made an impression on advertisers, who can reach out to cricket fans with no access to TV. The size of ad deals depends on the duration and area of presence, with deals varying between Rs 3 lakh and Rs 1.2 crore (for a series).
"Revenues can be spiky for cricket portals, depending on the amount of cricket being played and whether or not India is playing," says a digital-media planner at a leading media communications agency. "Traffic itself will be spiky because the Internet is best for cricket viewers during working hours. After office, this audience moves back to TV. That said, advertisers really value home-page visibility."
For portals like Cricketnext or Cricketnirvana, it helps to be part of larger media companies in India like Network 18 and Nimbus Communications, respectively. An advertiser’s budget, typically, has a provision for publicity on websites bundled with TV-advertising spends. By comparison, Cricinfo has to be self-sustaining. Although the joint venture ESPN-Star operates in India, Cricinfo is a business unit of Disney-ESPN in the US. What it enjoys is the first-mover advantage, what a rival CEO calls "an established brand in the segment."
So far, Cricinfo’s recall value has brought in the users—and the advertisers. When the portal was acquired by ESPN, its Editor Sambit Bal reminisced a chain of events concerning its previous owner, the Wisden Group. "Cricinfo had the users, Wisden the professional expertise. The new site operated as wisdencricinfo.com for a while. Those of us involved in wisden.com felt a sense of loss when the site became cricinfo.com again. But, with hindsight, it was the right decision. Cricinfo deserved to stand alone," he says.
In its first three years, Cricinfo was developed as a volunteer-driven tool, with a focus on archiving scorecards and other statistics of ODIs, test and first-class matches. "Simon (King) was the only one who had an idea of where this was going," recalls Seshadri. "It wasn’t even on the Web to start with. It was on instant messenger, then on the Gopher protocol, then on the worldwide Web. It was a true community product in the sense that everyone on the community wanted the scores, and one fellow could provide a particular piece of it," he explains.
By 1996, it became a registered company in the UK, but didn’t receive funding except for a couple of thousand pounds of grants from ICC. This enabled King to travel to South Africa and pitch the idea of having an official cricket website to a few cricket boards.
Three years later, Cricinfo had four separate deals in sight. Pangolin put in £100,000 seed funding in return for a business plan. Some months later, it got another £3 million from Michael Watt, a friend of the then ICC chief David Richards. "Money came in three tranches of a million pounds each, within a month of each other. Cricinfo first paid back the money to Pangolin," says Seshadri.
When the investments came in, King and Seshadri resisted the temptation to take the money and walk out. They felt all those (75 volunteers in total) who helped create the product ought to benefit. So, King created a formula that tried to assign shares to people based on their work for Cricinfo. Under that model, King got a 15% stake, Badri got 10%, and the remaining 73 volunteers got small individual stakes. In all, this added up to 75% of the company. At this point, Watt invested his £3 million for a 25% stake, which effectively meant the volunteers’ stakes at that time were valued at £9 million. In 2000, Satyam Infoway (Sify) came in with $37.5 million of ADRs, a substantial portion of which went to Michael Watt, who exited.
In all three instances, there was no business plan. "When we got the money, we spent it. We gave money to cricket boards in Zimbabwe and South Africa to promote cricket among the natives. We were hiring people. But there was no revenue; and nobody was bothered," recalls Seshadri.
During the dotcom bust, deals began to dry up and valuations fell. By end-2002, the Wisden Group came in. It had Wisden.com, which had been launched (as a paid service) through a joint venture with a company called Quintas. The latter wanted to exit, and proposed the merger of Wisden and Cricinfo. Sify’s exit was an option too. What resulted was an entity that US-born billionaire Paul Getty would come to own in the UK. A complex deal was then finalised. Getty’s son, Mark, sold Cricinfo to ESPN in 2007, but not before buying out Sify’s stake.
In its current avatar, Cricinfo shows few signs of the pains of its formative years. While the website has retained its user-friendliness, it has developed a corporate veil following the ESPN acquisition.
Its business model in the coming years will evolve beyond the website—onto mobile as a content platform. For this, Anil Nair was brought on board from MTV India two years ago. Seated in his cabin in Bangalore, there is an acoustic guitar by the wall, and ‘Chipku,’ a quirkily-titled glue bottle to his right. The idea of user loyalty is not lost here either.
Cricinfo is counting on a new generation of handsets and the coming 3G regime to aid replication of the online portal’s stickiness. Again, ball-by-ball commentary will be the killer app, says Nair, Creative Director, Cricinfo. "In 2007, when we started monetising, it was a trickle. Every serious mobile player who is creating valuable non-SMS properties on this platform knows it’s not time yet." In March, the user base for its WAP site crossed 1 million.
Over time, Cricinfo seeks a larger shift in the online space itself. While it won’t blink first, the idea of premium or paid-for content is not so foreign. There are painful lessons in the wisden.com experience with premium content: it lost users. "Of course, you’ll lose most of your users. But will you still have enough to fund the website?" says ESPN’s Gleeson. "With the advertising model, we are at the mercy of the markets. Apart from that, you undersell content by giving it away free," he explains.
Under a pay-per-view model, websites will need to ensure their offerings are priced in a manner commensurate with the purchasing power of the Indian consumer, says Amrut Joshi, an advocate who leads the sports practice at Bangalore-based MMB Legal. But becoming a paid website is a tough call to take, particularly in a less-mature online market like India.
For now, Cricinfo bears a more structured model than it had. It is part of a digital media group whose flagship portal (espn.com) outpaced the entire sports industry in time spent online in 2008. Users viewed an average of 120 million sports video streams per month on espn.com—more than double its nearest competitor. That kind of experience will help Cricinfo. Access to video-streams that have a live currency means a dent on its current costs, apart from the fact that not all users have the best bandwidth. (Live video footage calls for purchasing rights to it.) "There is already a market for this among cricket followers in the US, who find cricket on cable TV too expensive," notes a media planner who cites Willow TV’s live streaming of cricket events.
Parallel to the available resources for Cricinfo, there are fears in the industry if it is too low in the pecking order for ESPN, which is primarily spurred by the size of its American audience. But Gleeson points at how ESPN, even at the time of acquisition, has seen the potential of websites by sport and the size of the response—not necessarily by geography. In the family, Cricinfo is the second largest after ESPN Sportszone.
There are more benefits to accrue. Racing-Live is a multi-language site with motor-racing coverage in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. "That will soon be hosted on the same systems that have Cricinfo. That brings in a multi-language capability," says Andrew Hall of ESPN.
The experience could serve up lessons for Cricinfo to deliver scorecards in regional languages, and take it even further beyond the 11.5 million league.
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