Online Extra: Slicing And Dicing In Asia

Field hockey in India, baseball in Taiwan -- ESPN and partner STAR Sports are luring viewers all around the region with its new niche programming

Never before had spectators in the Seoul Olympic Indoor Stadium seen anything quite like this. BMX (HUFCQ ) bike riders twisting in the air like acrobats, skateboarders defying gravity with their stunts, and climbers clambering up the rock wall with uncanny speed and agility. When two Koreans took the silver and bronze medals in the men's rock-climbing event -- first place went to a Japanese climber -- the crowd of thousands went wild.

Equally pumped were executives at ESPN International, which established the annual Asian X Games championship seven years ago. The event pits athletes against one another in extreme sports -- hence the X. And that's not all the sports network has teed up for Asian fans. Together with its 50-50 joint-venture partner STAR Sports, a satellite broadcaster owned by News Corp. (NWS ), ESPN International has created a men's field hockey league in India, a pan-Asian billiards tournament, and a dedicated cricket channel.

Cricket and field hockey? They wouldn't attract many Americans. But that's precisely the point. To appeal to viewers around the world, sports broadcasters must "focus on serving the fan with local interests in a local context," says Russell Wolff, executive vice-president of ESPN International. ESPN STAR Sports offers 13 networks across 25 countries in Asia and says it reaches 164 million households. Taiwanese get their daily dose of baseball, Filipinos can load up on billiards, and cricket-mad Indians can sit for hours watching test matches.

ESPN STAR Sports still relies heavily on international sports to keep Asian viewers tuned in. One of its most popular shows is English Premier League football. And ESPN's live coverage of Wimbledon, the Formula One circuit, and the U.S. Masters Golf Tournament also draws large audiences across Asia. Does all this bring in big profits? It's not clear. ESPN and STAR decline to give figures on sales or profitability in Asia.

Sports, however, are an increasingly big business in Asia. The total take, including ticket sales, will grow from $11.2 billion in 2003 to $15.8 billion by 2008, according to PricewaterhouseCooper's Entertainment & Media Group. Much of this growth will come from events staged in the region. Korea and Japan hosted the football World Cup in 2002, and Thailand holds a world-class golf tournament every year. And of course Beijing will host the summer Olympics in 2008. ESPN can't get broadcast rights to the Olympics, which go to terrestrial stations. But it's gearing up to create Olympics-related programming. Says ESPN STAR Sports Managing Director Jamie Davis: "Beijing 2008 presents a huge opportunity for us to create programming around the Olympics."

Overall, however, China is a bit of a sore spot. ESPN STAR Sports' pay service is only available there in top hotels and foreigner compounds. And access to the market is likely to tighten following a government ruling that Chinese TV and radio stations can form no new partnerships with foreign media companies. Asked whether this is a setback, ESPN's Wolff says: "We have to adapt our model to do business anywhere." And there's always Indian cricket.

By Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong

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