Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I feel the heat of the World’s Judging Glare, or Why DON’T Americans Like/Play/Follow Cricket?

As an American who is a fan of cricket, and who participates in social media as a way to help promote the sport in my own small way, one question I hear from (very few I admit) cricket fans from around the globe is: “Why don’t other Americans like Cricket?

That, it would appear, and with apologies to Wink Martindale and countless other game show hosts, is the $64 thousand question. After failed attempts to get a professional league going, get a national team have some consistent success, or even raise the profile of the game outside communities of immigrants from traditional cricket-playing countries, it really does seem to be that Americans don’t like cricket, and so we need to figure out a way to make them like it.

But is that the correct question?
I think I’d like to reframe the question. Instead of saying “Why don’t Americans like cricket?’ let’s make the question “What is keeping cricket from becoming a mainstream sport in American culture?”

Among many Americans (both naturalized and native born) who already love and follow cricket, the answer is education. To others the answer is T20, a shorter format that Americans can handle because it is about the length of a baseball game. To still others the answer is to get rid of or work without the United States of America Cricket Association, which has been variously described as corrupt, incompetent or both.

While there are elements of truth in all of these answers, as with most other things involving Americans the real situation is more complicated, I think. In this post, I will try and look at this issue of why cricket isn’t more popular in the United States, and what is keeping it from growing into a mainstream sport in American culture. Of course, this is based on my own limited experiences and views, but if people named Kardashian get to say what they think of things about which they’ve no idea, then so do I! LOL, as the kids say.

Survey Says!
The difficulty of convincing people about cricket, at least short-term, was brought home to me in recent weeks as I attempted to set up a lunchtime cricket league in my workplace. We have a small field on which to play, the time to do it and about 500 employees from which to pull players. Surely 15-20 people would be interested enough to learn about cricket and play a few overs once or twice a week? Alas, only six people signed up, so the idea never got off the ground.

So, I thought, why the lack of interest? In personal conversations things like time and unfamiliarity with the sport were mentioned. To learn even more, I put together a short survey and e-mailed it to co-workers, and also made it available via my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

Thirty-two people responded. Of those, 17 said they don’t follow cricket, three do and the rest didn’t answer. For those who don’t follow cricket, several reasons were given:
               -Complete ignorance of the sport, players or teams;
-Games are often played in vastly different time zones, when Americans are asleep;
-It is not visible in major media;
-The sport is not commonly supported or promoted in the U.S.;
-There is nowhere to follow it;
-It is boring and confusing; and
-The respondent has never been exposed to it;

Notice a common thread there? The majority of respondents say no exposure or publicity is why they personally don’t follow the sport. And seems to be backed up by their responses to the question, “What would it take for you to give cricket a try, either as a spectator, a recreational player or a TV watcher?”
               -More knowledge of the sport and its rules;
-More widespread television coverage and more U.S. teams;
-Available on television at a time when I normally watch; and
-If the game was organized for young kids, I would watch my grandchildren play.

True, two people answered it would take “leg irons and a strait jacket” or “medication,” and one respondent joked that “if there was some bizarre scandal making headlines, I might tune in out of morbid curiosity.” But I think those answers came from a couple of friends I know.

Based on those comments, the answer must be not only more media coverage, but shorter and easier-to-understand cricket such as T20, right? Interestingly, those who answered this tiny survey seem to go a bit against that conventional wisdom. Fifteen were unfamiliar with short form cricket such as T20. Twenty-one believed they definitely would or might watch cricket matches in person or on television if they had some understanding of the game, but only 10 tied that willingness to the availability of short format cricket.

So that is how Americans (32 at least) answered when put on the spot about cricket. And there are some lessons—some very obvious lessons—in there. But those answers don’t provide the entire picture. We need to know how to take those answers and develop a plan of action.

But how do we use this information?
First of all, there are some things already being done to address the needs brought up in the survey. The United States Youth Cricket Association is taking the game directly to kids, getting them exposure and experience. They are also helping to get the game out into communities, where parents and grandparents can go watch the kids play.

The need for teams and leagues is really basic. There are leagues out there, and the planned T20 pro league will hopefully be a major plus. But it has to be handled properly, and there needs to be infrstructure. In Indiana, high school basketball was king for decades. Something like 18 of the world’s largest high school basketball gymnasiums are located in Indiana. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Hoosiers,” then you know what high school basketball fans were like. High school basketball was wildly popular and inspirational to fans because the sport was obviously community-based, so there was personal investment in the teams. Also, communities wanted to host tournament games and intimidate opponents, so they built those bigger and bigger gyms to win those important tourney games.

Of course there’s more to it than just being an important part of the community. How did the NBA go from something some people liked to a hugely successful commercial and sporting enterprise? Free-to-air television. The NBA (and perhaps NFL as well?) grew because networks in need of cheap weekend programming started airing games. SO, there is a need not just for media coverage and availability—that coverage/availability needs to be FREE. Or very cheap. Americans love free stuff.

Earlier, I mentioned that several respondents to this minor survey didn’t tie their willingness to give cricket a try to the availability of short format/T20 cricket. Realistically, though, I believe that short format cricket is the way to start. And there needs to be a coordinated public relations effort to obtain big-time and consistent publicity. How about members of the national team go on Letterman and play cricket on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater? Or have Ellen DeGeneres face a couple of overs? Or give an exhibition on Rockefeller Plaza during the Today Show? Put together a barnstorming tour of State Fairs or other venues where the public can see the sport for free and learn about it.

Or try something smaller and more grassroots. Plan a national high school or college championship and get it on free TV. Develop some traveling exhibits on the history of cricket in the United States and on the current sport, and send these exhibits around the country to small museums, big museums, fairs or any other venue one can think of. Promote the sport by providing free equipment and instructional materials to corporate wellness programs.

In addition, the materials and approaches frankly need to be slicker and more professional. The governing body needs a MUCH better Web presence, a Twitter feed that isn’t a joke and simple, glossy how-to information that is free to the public and easy to access.

Finally, a word on governance. As someone (and I think I know who) said, if there is a bizarre scandal, then people will pay attention to the sport. With all the problems we’ve had in U.S. cricket in recent years, we already have that going for us! But, seriously, there is no easy answer here. There are problems and nobody—not the ICC, not players, not leagues—seems to be able to solve them. But it is time to leave behind these people who seem to have no interest in cricket other than being in charge of it. They aren’t carrying cricket forward, so it must be up to the rest of us. Cricket will carry them along until they get tired and their fingers hopefully uncurl and they drop away. Maybe then cricket can rise.

Of course these are one person’s thoughts on the dilemma. One person’s stab at a few answers to the question with which I started this rather lengthy post. What are your thoughts?


  1. Hi Terry,
    Thanks for sending this. Very interesting.
    Some of the measures you suggest are, at least in theory, a work in progress. New Zealand's tour of West Indies will begin in Florida, for example, (http://www.espncricinfo.com/west-indies-v-new-zealand-2012/content/story/560941.html) and there are plans for an IPL-style T20 league to be held every June-July in US. Can't see it starting much before 2015 and it will clash with English season - which will be an issue - but it remains a sound idea.
    There is potential. I don't have the figures to hand, but US remains a huge market for ESPNcricinfo. From memory it provides the 2nd greatest audience share (after India) with huge following from members of Asian and Caribbean diaspora. So there is, potentially, a large market for live games. Maybe if India played there....
    George Dobell

    1. And this year's World Twenty20 will be available on ESPN3 in the US - free to customers of those affiliates who take that package.

  2. Great comments! Sorry about the typos--I posted an uncorrected earlier draft by mistake.