Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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


This is a corrected version. I apologize for earlier mistakenly uploading an early draft. For a really interesting comment, though, see the comments section of the earlier draft, which I have left up.
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 cricket fans from around the globe is: “Why don’t 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 to have some consistent success or to 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. SO the obvious solution is 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 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 on subjects 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, a time set aside to do it, company support and about 500 employees. 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 this 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 don’t follow the sport. And that seems to be backed up by 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;
-Availability on television at a time when I normally watch; and
-Games organized for young kids, so I could 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 (and I know who you are).

Based on those comments, the answer must be more media coverage, plus short 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. 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 in schools, 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 infrastructure in place. 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. I live in New Castle, home of the world’s largest high school basketball gym. It seats nearly 10,000 people in a town of maybe 15,000.

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 going on Letterman and playing cricket on the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater? Or having Ellen DeGeneres face a couple of overs? Or giving an exhibition on Rockefeller Plaza during the Today Show? Or putting together a national high school or college championship and getting it on free TV? Another idea: 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. 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. Choose a member of the national team through a reality show—or get one of the team members to appear on one. Can you imagine the residents of the Big Brother house (is Big Brother still on, by the way?) playing the national team in a short game of cricket on national TV (heavily edited of course)?

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 people who appear 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 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. Or maybe you could just add elements from pro wrestling. (just kidding)

  2. I am American cricketer and therefore feel I am qualified to speak on this subject!
    I am a third-generation American who was born in Texas, and have no real ties to any of the cricketing nations. I started paying attention to cricket 20 years ago in college and was intrigued immediately and my interest has progressed steadily ever since, to the point of finally attempting to play the game a few years ago, the progress of which has also been steady. Now I can safely say that I am a medium-paced bowler and a good enough batsman to score a few runs and keep a more experienced batsman on strike for several overs. I play in a a competitive league, so I feel this is an amazing accomplishment for an American like myself. The good news is that I got through the most difficult part of all, the first step, so now it will only keep getting better for me. I learn something new after every game and nets session. there seems to be no end to all the new things you learn with this game.

    The more I learn to play the game, the more I notice more differences it has to baseball, and find more reasons why Americans don't care for it, or rather don't even recognize it exists. The Americans I know find it to be "freakish" or "weird" and really have no idea how popular it is in other countries, and the high caliber of athelticism that is required to play at the international level. It's just totally and profoundly off their radar entirely. It is true that the game isn't played on television, but in this day and age you can easily watch it online and even plug your laptop into a television! bold concept!

  3. ...the core problem is that the game isn't very easy to immediately grasp, and it takes a serious and committed effort jsut to achieve a basic appreciation for the game. With cricket, it's very important to understand the history of the sport and why people are bowling the way they do. The evolution of the game is very important to understand, but most can't even begin to do it. So unless an American just feels a very strong level of passion and enthusiasm for understanding the basics of cricket, there is very little they will ever know about it. Impatience also continues to stymie the average American sports fan, because most cricket games are so long, Americans don't have the patience to sit and watch an entire cricket match. I know of Americans who know a little about cricket, but I don't know any who have sat down and watched an entire day of cricket, much less a T20. I've needed to watch entire test matches in order to understand the sport on a fundamental level, and only then did I appreciate the purpose of limited-overs cricket, which also confuses Americans. No one in this country has the patience, time or desire to watch and learn from an entire test match, so the limited overs formats will not really make much sense to them. Sports games don't last very long in this country, and people simply fail to see the all-day event that is cricket, with the picnic baskets, tea and lunch breaks. A cricket match is a sporting event, sure, but it's also an all-day event, like going to the county fair or taking the kids to the zoo. this concept doesn't resonate at all with Americans.

    Then, assuming an American has taken the time to patiently learn about cricket and understand it with a high-degree of interest, the "baseball problem" comes up. The truth is this sport has actually very little to do with baseball. The more I learn to play it, the more I realize this to be true. Other than some areas of fielding, there really isn't too much about cricket that resembles baseball, and my biggest hurdle with learning cricket is overcoming what I call "the baseball curse", which mostly has to do with my batting. It will take me a very long time to finally exorcise baseball from my psyche when it comes to batting. Everything about the posture, the swing, the footwork, everything is just different. It's so much more defensive and there are no "foul balls"; the entire field is in play. in baseball you aren't glancing the ball, or using the pace of the ball to hit a 4. it still amazes me how easy it his to hit a boundary in cricket. When I think the equivilant of a "boundary" in baseball, I picture someone knocking the crap out of the ball for a home run, or a crashing off the wall for a double. Then there is the issue with the pads. In baseball you aren't supposed to get hit by the ball! in fact, you do everything you can to avoid it! In cricket, the pads are in play and are meant to be hit. Sure, they are for protection, but they are supposed to be hit by the ball in a lot of cases. I still struggle with that! I struggle with hitting or glancing a ball away at my legs. My instincts are to jump out of the way. I could keep going on forever in regards to baseball batting vs. cricket, but it's already giving me a headache...

  4. Then there is the bizarre act of bowling, an entirely foreign body movement that has absolutely nothing in common with any other sport or activity we have grown up with here in America. I can only compare it to bowling at pins in a bowling alley, except the
    ball is delivered 180-degrees higher overhead. This is where it's important to understand the history of cricket. In the way-olden days, the cricket ball was bowled like a bowling ball, on the ground, but that wasn't very fun for bowlers, or anyone (great fun when you're bored on the farm, though!). Over time bowlers started bowling higher and higher, in order to have more of an advantage, and batsman benefit too with more run production. in the mid-1800's it eventually became a rule that you must bowl the ball with a straight arm and over your shoulder. Now the game really turned into a major sport. I finally "got it" but all most Americans see is someone running up and tossing a ball with all these weird gyrations and silly faces. It looks silly because that's not how they "pitch" in baseball. It just doesn't make sense to most people here so they dismiss it quickly.

    If baseball had never existed, then maybe Americans would be more curious about it. Instead, it's dismissed as being freakish and silly. Learning the basics of how to bowl was a major accomplishment itself. understanding the run-up, what the body parts are doing, when to release the ball, how to keep moving in a line, everything was absolutely foreign to me. I had muscles hurting that have never hurt before. I took the time to video tape myself for months just to get some kind of technique.

  5. Robert, thank you for your fine comments! They offer another glimpse onto this subject which wasn't quite covered in the comments I received in the survey, or from talking with people I know. The funny thing about cricket is, when you talk to people who have looked into it with an open mind, they love it. They just need to give it a chance. I think that the youth programs are really the way to go, becuase young people have fewer hangups about learning something new or different--as long as it is something they can get into. As an almost-48-year-old, I wish and hope things could go faster and we could get people on board now, so I might see improvement in my lifetime. But it is porbably college kids on down to my three-year-old who will be behind any cricket successes in this country. Still, lots of people say we're just a couple of years away from major inroads ... who knows? It'll be interesting, that is for sure! Thank you again for your great comments!

  6. In regards to the kids, the only answer is tennis-ball cricket. playing cricket with a specially-loaded tennis ball and a set of toy stumps, or beach cricket stumps. That is the best way to introduce the game to American kids. it can be set up anywhere. just measure out 22 yards on the middle of an old soccer field and you're set. all you need is a bat. all the other equipment isn't necessary. and kids can see the basic elements of the game. as a newcomer to cricket, I still love playing with the loaded tennis ball. it's great "little cricket" and easy to do. gets you back to basics. Working with the USYCA, our club donated several kits to local Charlotte-area schools here in NC last year, but who knows what they are doing with those! the schools who are including it in their curriculum probably aren't teaching it the right way. I volunteered at my kid's school to help them teach the basics. It's got to start small and easy like that and hopefully some kids catch onto it and build it up to the real thing in a high-school club sport or something. There's probably a lot of pressure on me to do more as an American cricketer who can translate the foreigness of the game to kids. I remember trying to learn how to bowl and begging for advice from a South African friend and mostly what I got was "Bob, it's just bowling, mate! you just bowl the ball!" It's very second-nature to these guys who've been playing since they were kids. Only Americans who "speak cricket" can translate and relate to American kids surrounded by baseball. there just aren't very many of us.

  7. Yes, the wonderful few who I occasionally meet who seem to genuinely have that true spark of interest in the sport never are able to move very far past the "first step". the first step is a real doozie, though, so I can understand why. In my case, I was exposed to it just like anyone else might be in this country, but it took many years for me to work through the "first step". Once I saw the light at the end of the "first step tunnel", everything really started to click and make sense, then I was officially hooked and have been ever since. I wish it would've clicked sooner, but it's just not that kind of game. That's why the seeds need to be planted while American kids are young, then I guarantee you there will be kids who catch on and get through the lengthy first step, especially considering how much cricket is on the internet these days, unlike 20 years ago when I was first exposed to it.

  8. the ideal scenario would be for American kids to learn cricket in parallel with baseball.

  9. Terry, great topic. I sent you an email with a few thoughts, but I'll summarise it for the comments. What Robert says is absolutely correct, and highlights one of the key differences between America and Australia. In the USA there is quite a large competitive cricket environment, but almost no "social cricket", played with tennis ball, that develops kids skills and provides an easy entry into "getting" cricket. Whereas, in Australia, having a game of cricket at a BBQ, or in the drive-way, or wherever is a fundamental part of summer.

    In terms of developing cricket in the USA, I believe clubs will need to be more proactive in creating "social cricket" opportunities. Where by social cricket I mean games where everybody gets to bowl, and everybody gets a decent chance to bat; as in indoor cricket, which is the preferred format for competitive social cricket in Australia.

    Optimally, clubs should start a social evening, open to parents and kids, where the two generations can bat as a "pair" - though kids should face under-arm bowling from parents - played with a soft ball (indoor cricket/rubber ball). That would create both an outlet for both kids exposed to USYCA programs to get into cricket, and for interested adult Americans like yourselves to progress from social cricket, to competitive pairs, to actual competitive cricket; instead of being put off by the unforgiving nature of XI vs XI cricket, which tends to confine weak players to fielding duties.

  10. Great points there, idlesummers! To be honest, one of the main reasons I took up cricket in my 30's is that I refuse to play softball!! In America, grown-ups don't just casually play baseball in a club environment. Adults aren't really allowed to play baseball at all in this country, unless you are a former pro baseball player or a college player playing in a semi-pro type of league. To me, that's another huge difference between the American culture vs. cricketing nations when it comes to their respective pastimes.

  11. Robert, I've always been curious about why that is? Australia has school sports, but they aren't well developed. Kids play in clubs, where junior programs are an adjunct to adult sport - a useful logistical one too, because it means you can call up U16 players for senior games when you are short. In the US it seems that, past the early teens, if you want a competitive game of most sports you need to be elite for your age.

    The question arises for developing kids. Should cricket pursue the typical American model, trying to find space in school and college programs; or develop junior programs through the adult clubs, despite the limited experience with that model?

  12. I would love to know why that is. you would think that the great American Pastime would be alive and well as a club sport played by regular adults, but society here hasn't allowed it. not sure why. American society makes most adults play softball. However, there is something called the National Adult Baseball Association, and they promote a social league around the country. maybe that will grow in popularity as people get tired of softball and miss playing baseball the way they did as kids.