This summer has certainly been an eventful one for cricket, particularly in the UK. England won the ICC ODI World Cup, while Ben Stokes single-handedly almost saved England’s Ashes campaign, and no-one can forget Steve Smith’s phenomenal and all-too-consistent (for an Englishman) heroics with the bat. But, in the wider context of the game of cricket, there was perhaps a far bigger event this summer: India played the West Indies in an international T20 match in Florida, USA. This is surprising as it is an example of an international cricket match being played in a country with a very minor cricket following.
By many measures, cricket is widely seen as the world’s second most popular sport, with football taking the number one spot. Yet football can perhaps be the only sport which is truly considered to be a global game, as demonstrated by the viewing figures of the World Cup, in the sense that, within any given country, most people will be able to explain how the game is played, and the majority of them will watch it, too. In contrast, cricket, whilst statistically popular, fails to maintain its popularity outside of its high status in the UK. Whilst the sport is immensely popular in India (with a population of 1.3 billion people), little is understood of the game in most countries outside of India. Countries such as the United States of America, and even full continents such as South America, only have the vaguest of understanding of the sport of cricket.
Yet, is this beginning to change?
This year was not the first time that two international cricket sides have played matches in minor cricket countries, or even in USA for that matter. For example, the West Indies played a previous international match in Florida in 2008. However, attempts to grow cricket in North America do not stop at the USA. In 2018, a Canadian professional cricket league was founded. It included big-name players such as Steve Smith, David Warner, and Chris Gayle playing in the new league. So clearly, the cricketing world and governing bodies like the ICC have a clear interest in spreading the game beyond the already established cricket nations. However, doing so has proven more problematic than an Australian wicket to the English test team.
Firstly, whilst USA was the host of the first test match ever played (back in the nineteenth century), it is hard to spin the sports current popularity into a positive light. Interest in the sport is almost non-existent. During the 2018 International between the West Indies and India, there was less then 1,000 people in attendance at the stadium (according to Cricinfo). Further, in total according to Cricket Country, just 30,000 people follow or play cricket in USA, completely unreflective of the size of the population. Of course, it is worth remembering that there are over 330 million people in USA. So spreading the sport will prove an upward battle to create a fan base as, to a large numer of people, the sport is utterly bewildering or just unintersting. Further, it is worth noting that the cricket matches which take place in North America typically concentrate in a few areas, and the matches don’t span as wide a geographical area as in the UK. Likewise, the Canadian cricket league played all their matches in just one stadium (the Maple Leaf Cricket Ground in Ontario). Similarly, matches which have taken place in USA have typically taken place in Florida. Greater still, exposure is short.
Unlike an NFL season, a franchise cricket league lasts a relatively short period of time in comparison. For example, the Canadian cricket league lasted just over one month. Further, in USA matches which are played by international sides are relatively ad hoc in occurrence, which makes it less likely that people will follow it. This short and limited exposure to the sport makes it difficult to gain a significant following in North America. Yet it is unrealistic to argue that a wider and longer term season is possible. This is a result of the fact that finances would be very difficult to obtain. The franchise cricket wages of Steve Smith or Chris Gayle would be hard to sustain for any longer than a month. Furthermore, hosting internationals in USA comes at a cost.
For teams like the West Indies, it deprives their supporters of being able to see their team play, which would further weaken the already low viewership that the sport receives around the globe.
Moreover, cricket is a sport which is notorious for having “home-field advantage,” meaning people would be less inclined to watch if they feel their team is likely to lose. The climate and weather of a foreign country make it difficult for a visiting team to play effectively, substantially more so than in other sports, so it favours a home side. This means a country such as the West Indies choosing to play many of its home internationals in a foreign country puts them at the same disadvantage as the away side.
Clearly though, there is increasing commitment to growing the game in North America. The West Indies have suggested that they will continue to host a certain number of their fixtures in USA until 2022. Global T20 Canada (the official name of the Canadian cricket league) also attracted some of the biggest names in cricket to join its league, which wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t have faith in the sport. So perhaps whilst difficult to do, the cricket world is no longer dabbling but instead increasingly committed to spreading cricket in North America. Perhaps though the ICC should look to grass-root projects in North America.
A potentially big issue facing North American cricket is limited resources. Cricket wickets and areas to explain how cricket is played are undoubtedly needed to teach and spread cricket. Perhaps it is also a more sustainable way forward in comparison to having to try and attract the biggest cricket stars in the world to North America each year.
So USA becoming the 105th member of the ICC in January 2019, which will entitle it to funding from the cricket governing body, is promising for grassroots growth of the game in North America. It is worth looking at how a sport from North America has managed to grow internationally. The NFL is fast becoming one of Britain’s more popular sports to watch.
North American students in St Andrews can probably relate to the fact it was not just North Americans who attended the Super Bowl parties this year. Attempts to spread the NFL following have been long and committed. The first attempt was a pre-season game in the 1980s. But, since 2007, regular-season games have been played in London. Now the NFL games in London regularly sell out. SKY even broadcasts NFL fixtures and dabbles in some College Football games. Whilst there are significant obstacles in the way of growing cricket in new countries, it will clearly be a long process and a number of different policies will need to be tried. But if cricket and the ICC take a leaf out of the NFL’s book, persistence and hard work could be the key tools.