New Delhi: Times Internet Ltd (TIL), the digital arm of the Times Group, on Thursday said it had reached a definitive agreement to acquire Willow TV International, a leading cricket broadcaster in the US.

Willow is one of the fastest growing sports networks in the US, featuring popular cricket matches and events. TIL has committed $100 million to the purchase of Willow as its primary investment into the business, namely rights acquisitions and marketing, said Satyan Gajwani, director, TIL.

Although Gajwani did not divulge if TIL was acquiring a 100% stake in Willow TV, he added that the company’s founders—Sameer Mehta and Vijay Srinivasan—“will stay with the business." The deal is being funded by Times Group’s cash reserves, Gajwani said.

Named after the English willow tree from which cricket bats are made, Willow is the only channel in the US that is dedicated to cricket. The television channel has an aligned digital service at www.willow.tv. Both the TV channel and its digital service are widely distributed by satellite, cable, Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) and OTT (over-the-top) platforms in the US.

TIL, the digital network of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL), owns and operates media and technology assets across news, music and sports, and claims to reach more than 140 million users each month. For TIL, Willow complements the existing audience of cricbuzz.com, a property that the company acquired in November 2014 for its cricket content.

Last year, during the ICC World Cup 2015, Cricbuzz saw more than one billion visits in a span of 40 days with 96% of these on the mobile, a statement from TIL said.

Cricket is one of the fastest growing sports in the US, and the second most popular sport in the world behind soccer. In the last few years, cricket’s popularity has increased with the addition of the newer, shorter Twenty20 format.

The timing of the deal between TIL and Willow TV is also significant because starting 8 March, Willow will provide a live US television broadcast and live streaming of the ICC World Twenty20, the world’s premier Twenty20 cricket tournament.

Cricbuzz, meanwhile, will exclusively deliver pre-match, in-match, and post-match highlights and coverage of the entire tournament to US digital audiences, having won the rights for the US and Canada for all International Cricket Council events scheduled between 2016 and 2019.

Gajwani said that cricket had the potential to become a major sport in the US. “We’re excited to expand and strengthen our offerings for South Asians living in the US, and to grow interest in cricket across the US, both with loyal fans and new consumers."

“As a bootstrapped company, we launched the Willow cricket channel just over 5 years ago…With the backing of The Times of India Group and its assets, I’m 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.

Sports marketing experts say that there is synergy between Cricbuzz and Willow TV. “Times Internet has already got the digital video clip rights to all ICC events till 2019 for US and Canada. Acquiring a network in the US is a natural fit," said Tuhin Mishra, co-founder of Baseline Ventures, a sports marketing firm.

Vinit Karnik, national director—entertainment, sports and live events, at media agency GroupM, sees the acquisition of Willow TV as a smart move as the US is predominantly a pay-TV market with high subscription rates where viewers have a propensity to pay.

Although Gajwani said that Willow TV will not be launched in India, Karnik said the company may want to exploit the property in the country later.

HT Media Ltd which published Mint competes with Times Internet Ltd.

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