Taming cricket`s wild frontier
Russell Degnan

It is fair to say, there probably no more frustrating nation for those interested in cricket development than the United States. Many associates look at the special attention afforded to them by the ICC - the extra development funds, the promotion without merit into international tournaments - as unfair and detrimental to the game. Doubly so, because its perennial dysfunctional national board, oncetwice banned by the ICC, wastes the advantages it has.

The USACA's problems are well documented, including a failure to hold elections, rampant factionalism, and an inability to host even minor ICC events. Summed up neatly by ICC advisor Inderjit Singh Bandra:

"It's in a bad shape, unfortunately. I don't hold any hope for America. I've given it up as a hopeless case. I normally do not give up, but nothing is going to happen in America because of bad management. It can be the next best market after India, more than England. But we are losing on that. Till those bodies are superseded and the ICC appoints an ad-hoc committee I don't see anything happening in the USA.

Having such pronounced disfunction is difficult to reconcile with a nation with some of the best sports administrators and entrepreneurs. But the history of "initiatives" detailed by David Mutton goes some way to explaining the problem.

The size of the US cricket market, while small in US terms, is big in world cricket terms. The built-in fan-base is attractive to the sorts of quick-buck scam artists that want to scoop the cream off the top without leaving any sort of lasting legacy. The promise of a local product for fans bereft of one has attracted a long stream of prospectors to its proverbial frontier land, without the funds or wherewithal to invest properly to create something substantive, leaving nothing but failure and fodder for literary characters.

Nevertheless, repeated failure of incompetent people doesn't detract from the fact that the market for cricket is huge, and the barriers to a successful cricket league relatively low. If only the right people were involved.

A comparison with football is instructive on this point. Detractors like to point to the long relative failure of the MLS to show how hard cricket has it. I tend to think to the contrary, the MLS overcame enormous structural barriers to create the 9th most popular football league on average attendance. The United States remains a relatively weak football nation, and the MLS a weak league, but these things are relative. That relativity matters a lot for cricket's future there.

Future Prospects for the US National Team

A strong national team is vital if cricket is to succeed in the United States. Sports popularity rests on having star players, and that means local heroes. A large proportion of football supporters in the United States only follow the national side, and its limitations keep the sport in check. Cricket, being a predominantly international sport anyway, will need a similar improvement in fortunes (and a commitment from the ICC to actually play the United States and others in high class competition, as FIFA does). In cricket's favour though, a strong US team is not as distant, nor as difficult as in football.

While a superstar player can emerge from anywhere, in a team sport, the ability to compete at the top level depends on having a comparable playing base to your rivals. Every doubling of the playing base, double the probability of a player of star quality emerging. In football, a comparison can be made with other Western nations (keeping in mind that development also takes money), by looking at their playing base. Germany and the Netherlands are perennial performers at World Cup and European level, the former consistent semi-finalist, the latter more inconsistent.

PopulationParticipants%Part.Pop
Germany8170000063000007.71114%
Netherlands1660000010767596.48650%
USA (eq. Ger)31160000063000002.02182%
USA(eq. Ned)31160000010767590.34556%

To succeed at football, the United States needs somewhere between 0.3 and 2% of their population playing football. If we assume that only a fifth of the population plays sport at all, then the German figure requires significant mainstream exposure (some 10% of the population). The United does have that, largely at youth level with some 3 million players, so future success is likely if the talented athletes stay with the sport, but it takes years to build that level of support.

By contrast, cricket is a popular sport only insofar that a few really populous nations play it. The equivalent Western nations to Germany and the Netherlands have relatively small populations and therefore small playing bases (here I'll use adult participation, as I have it to hand).

PopulationAdult Part.%Part.Pop
Australia223000001643000.73677%
New Zealand440000058,4741.32895%
USA (eq. Aus)3116000001643000.05273%
USA (eq. NZ)311600000584740.01877%

To reach the level of New Zealand - frequent World Cup semi-finalists, if somewhat weak test team - the US would need only 58 thousand adult participants. Accounting for the proportion of the population that plays adult sports, only 1 in every 500 to 1000 people need to play cricket: roughly two thirds the level of organised participation that US rugby reports. In short: cricket doesn't need to be mainstream for the United States to be competitive. If cricket ever reached the levels of soccer in the United States, they'd be a dominant team.

Future Prospects for an American Cricket League

Starting a league is a difficult proposition. It needs players with sufficient star power to attract fans of the sport, venues in markets with the wealth to support a franchise and the organisational structure for promotion and touring. We'll deal with each in turn.

Players

The MLS struggled and continues to struggle for credibility with its local fan base because it is perceived as a weak league. Faced with competition from European leagues for players and attention it is a sad second best. And that problem can be explained simply: it can't afford to pay market rates for good players.

The table below explains this succinctly. The medium team in the English Premier League has a wage roughly similar to an NBA team (approximately $60 million). Reported survey interest in the two leagues is 30% for the NBA and 45% for the EPL. Dividing the median wage by the interested population gives an interest factor that shows how much money is derived from the local sports market (both leagues make a considerable proportion of their money from off-shore). The US is a more competitive market. For US football to compete with UK football, it needs a similar market awareness to basketball: 30% of viewers, when it is currently at 15%.

PopulationWage%InterestInterested Pop.Interest Factor
UK Football514000006000000045%231300002.59
NBA3116000006000000030%934800000.64
Aus cricket1000000
US Cricket31160000020000001%31160000.64

Cricket, by contrast has several advantages in breaking the US market with star players:

  • There is limited competition for players: the vast majority of first class cricket is played October to April, whereas the US cricket season would run from May to September. Thus players are available without compromising their existing contracts.
  • Cricket players are paid meagre amounts: The salary cap for the 8-week Big Bash League is $1 million. A 16 week competition in America (which would make it the largest in the world) could afford star (non-English) players for only $2 million.

Applying the factor of interest for the NBA by that wage level gives a interest level of only 1% of Americans - some 3 million fans. A number not far from where some estimates put the American fan base without any American interest at all.

American Players

Nevertheless, a league with no American players will struggle to attract interest outside some narrow confines, so it is important to find players capable of performing close to first class level that can bolster the league. It is often suggested that lesser sports convert college players from various other sports, because a) often their skill sets will more closely match their adopted sport and b) the raw athletic talent from college programs that fails to become professional is very high.

The numbers support this proposition. In the tables below it can be seen from the populations of NZ and Australia, and the number of professional and national team cricketers in each nation that the top 0.01% of Australians (male, young adult) and 0.05% of New Zealanders make it to professional cricket. The equivalents for the a national team squad of 15 players are 0.0007% and 0.0034%.

PopulationProfessionals% Elig. Pop.National Team% Elig. Pop.
Australia223000001200.01076%150.00067%
New Zealand44000001200.05455%150.00341%

There are around 22 million Americans of college age, so we can translate an equivalent percentage of the population for selected college sports, seen in the second column below. Obviously there is some overlap in the skill-sets of different sports, so the quality of the actual athletes is well below the percentage given. To account for this, we'll consider only the top 10% who'll presumable have the most translatable skills for cricket.

Men's College ParticipationCollege% College Age Pop.Professionals% Elig. Pop.Trans. skillsAus ProfNZ Nat
Basketball51990.02384%5520.00354%0.160
Baseball100460.04606%15000.00963%0.300
Tennis26570.01218%1210.00078%0.57214
Soccer57190.02622%4800.00308%0.170
Golf29510.01353%3790.00243%0.3280
Total11214

The number of professionals is an estimate of the total number in various leagues. Basketball includes both the NBA and D-Leagues, but not Europe (although there are Europeans in the NBA, so it balances out). Baseball's league system is massive, even if only major league and triple-A is considered. While there are probably failed baseball players with decent cricket skills, getting them to cross over would be difficult. Tennis and golf are individual sports; every American ranked player as been considered a pro, despite being a gross exaggeration of the number deriving professional employment from the sport. For each sport an estimation of "translatable skills" has been applied: high for tennis, baseball and golf, low for soccer and basketball - although tall strong athletes are potential quick bowlers.

From this it can be estimated that perhaps 112 players per year, mostly from tennis, might be able to transition to Australian level first-class cricket with a system in place; approximately 14 of those might be capable of New Zealand national team representation.1 While a more stable base of players was developed, league franchises could institute a system of invitational training camps following the end of the university year, accompanied by scholarships to play in the Southern Hemisphere in preparation for an April draft.

The take home message: mainstream cricket might be a pipe-dream in the United States (or it might not), but the nation is so big compared to its rivals mainstream penetration is not necessary to find capable American players, whereas in soccer it is.

Markets and Franchises

Assessment of US sports markets are routinely done to discuss expansion franchises. Because cricket is small, and a league relatively inexpensive (equivalent to an MLS team), the number of potential markets is huge, and includes both the obvious (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Washington) and several with significant numbers of existing cricket fans, cricket history and/or no local sports team with a potentially amenable local government (San Jose, Austin, Philadelphia, Hartford, Fort Lauderdale). This is helped too, by the absence of competing sports for a large part of what would constitute the US cricket season. Assuming a May start, the league would kick off during the NBA/NHL playoffs, and middle of the MLB season as it grinds its way towards the playoffs. With an early September finish, it will both avoid the MLB and MLS playoffs and the start of the NFL juggernaut.

Cricket's large ovals have both advantages and disadvantages. The downside is there are no practical venues as of now. Unlike soccer that can use existing athletic or football fields, cricket needs to develop its own grounds, and the only potential ground partner would be Aussie Rules football - an even smaller sport. The upside is they need minimal infrastructure to cater for a large crowd: a grass bank, some corporate marquees, camera emplacements. Light towers are more difficult to organise, but the unique urban forms of the United States offer large tracts of land on the well-to-do suburban fringe, or in a number of cities, a blighted inner area; and in many places former minor league stadiums that could be converted with an expanded playing area and renovations.

Preparing a team and the ground to first class standards requires a different set of expertise however, and there is no evidence those skills are available in the USACA.

Forging Partnerships

Getting a significant number of first class players into the United States in their off season will require a commitment from the full member boards. New Zealand has already signed onto a partnership, but they are a relatively small board; a competition of requisite size to succeed with local fans will need support from Australia, South Africa and India as well. The full member boards are vital because they bring with them skills not found inside the United States that would otherwise cost a significant amount to import: the preparation of quality pitches, coaching, and in India's case: players who can be marketed into cricket's biggest market.

The list of needs particular to the United States is much longer: partnerships with ticket-agents and television broadcasters, internet sites and live streaming capacity, local marketing and researchknowledge, relationships with the press, and experience with making team travel arrangements.

There is some scope for looking at existing American franchises to partner with and provide those services. For NBA teams, specifically, there are several unique advantages:

  • The infrastructure that teams need lies fallow in the off-season. The marginal cost of using it for cricket is quite low.
  • Similarly, NBA teams get almost no value from their brands between June and November. There is precedent in other fields (Real Madrid/Barcelona) for playing multiple sports under the same colours.
  • The NBA has an interest in developing the Indian market; cross-promotion of NBA team brands with a sport with a high profile in India seeds the market: fans of the cricket team become fans of its basketball equivalent.
  • And vice versa, the large existing fan bases would mean covering costs by tapping into 3% of the existing NBA market, as well as cross-promotion through the cricket following American market.
  • As a more long-term matter, winning franchises are profitable franchises; doubling the chance to win each year would allow them to better manage the vagaries of income in a single sport
  • More generally, basketball feels similar to T20 cricket: high scoring but punctuated by spectacular scoring plays (sixes/dunks) and defensive plays (wickets/blocks), the scope for individual excellence to dominate a game, and the major point of interest coming in the last 20 minutes.
  • The potential downsides (cost) are quite low as a proportion of their revenue, while the upsides could be huge: a successful American cricket league and/or significant market penetration in India

It is difficult to see how an American league could succeed without some form of partnership with overseas cricket bodies, and the right people in the United States. Unfortunately the USACA are clearly not the right people, and nor are the types of people who've previously been associated with cricket in the United States. A concerted effort by ICC full members to forge a domestic league using their playing resources would come close to breaking even, and allow a base to build. As with the expansion of the World Cup to allow emerging markets access to the promotional benefits of major tournament access, and the playing of international games against weaker nations, the ICC full members have been derelict in their duty to promote the game outside their own narrow confines.2

The American Market and Cricket

American sports have never shied away from worldwide expansion. Australia got its introduction to top flight baseball in 1888, with a tour from the king of sporting entrepreneurs Albert Spalding. A quote from The Argus at the time is illustrative of how deeply the myths about Americans and cricket run:

"Men who are familiar with cricket and baseball consider that the former is the more pleasant game for those who play it, but the latter vastly more attractive to the spectators when they are as familiar with it as with cricket. The very fact that the great lack of interest in cricket evident in this colony for some time past is attributed to want of sufficient excitement in the game and to the issue being too long delayed, justifies the promoters of baseball in the belief that their game is likely to become popular in Australia. In it the excitement is sustained throughout. There is no blocking or what in cricket would he called "playing" the ball. Every effort is either a full force hit or a miss, and three misses with playable balls put the batsman out. Like football the game lasts for two hours only, so that the match is definitely decided one way or another in an afternoon ; while by calling play at four o'clock, as is very often done in America a match can be got through without any material interference with the ordinary duties of the day. In America it would be utterly impossible to sustain public interest through a four days' game at cricket, and inclinations of lovers of field sports in Australia would appear to lean very largely towards those of the Americans."

All the tropes are there. The length of time to play and the advantages of a short game; the belief that multi-day cricket was dying; the excitement in seeing the ball hit as opposed to defended. The popularity of T20 cricket shows that these are not entirely without merit, but it is worth reflecting on cricket's enduring popularity in spite of its decades of struggle.

Also notable was the reference to the "temperament" for watching a four-day game being lacking in Americans, although here apparently it was also lacking in Australians, and there is no sign that is true. Personally I find it hard to fathom how people can equate a nation that supports seven game playoff series and a very rich golf tour with an aversion to multi-day events. But I also bring this up to note that the native supporters of cricket in the United States I've encountered are invariably fans of test match cricket. Because while they first encountered the one-day game, it is the test match that offers the scope for narrative and unique sporting experience. Thus, while it is quite reasonable, as shown, that America could support a T20 summer league sporting the best players from around the world, and use that to develop their own cricketers, cricket's greatest selling point remains the test match.

As a final note on this, cricket cultures are unique. Test match cricket in the United States will not be test match cricket in England, or Australia, or India. Of primary importance in marketing the game is that it is presented as an American sport. Van Bottenburg's study, Global Games on sports popularity made a very important point on this matter:

"When choosing a sport you are not merely deciding between different forms of physical exertion and competition; you are also deciding between different groups of people."

Cricket failed in the United States in the past because it was the "English village sport", popular in periods of Anglophilia, and unpopular in times of nationalism. Similarly, any modern attempts to market cricket need to avoid it being seen as the sport of immigrants - a problem that has always afflicted football in both Australia and the United States - or a sport of gimmicks (which are fads at best). What American cricket most needs, is for its fans to be treated with respect, not potential gold mines for exploitation.

1 As a side note, the numbers for AFL footballers indicate several hundred players capable of being amongst the thousand odd professional footballers. That's the perfect storm for reality TV: last-chance athletes with reasonable name awareness trying to break into obscure but immensely popular Australian basketball/football hybrid through an international draft after 8-9 months of training, overcoming cuts, injuries and their own incompetence along the way.

2 Somehow this trend has worsened in the past 10 years, progressive initiatives like the Champions' Trophy (yes, dud tournament, but still progressive) have gone by the wayside. The Champions League, for example, is the perfect vehicle for an American audience to see decent, not exhibition, cricket.

Idle Summers 19th February, 2012 21:58:38   [#] 

Comments

Taming cricket`s wild frontier
Russell,

Excellent analysis, and many important points. Broadly, I agree with you that the main impediment to the USA becoming at least a competitive affiliate nation is the mind-bending incompetency of the USACA. Afghanistan have shown that rising through the ranks quickly is possible so there is hope if and when the administrative problems are solved. I also agree that US Cricket can become competitive without it becoming a mass market sport, although presumably there are several other factors other than just the numbers playing the game that must be added into the equation (levels of coaching, good league cricket etc).

The success of the MLS always seems to dependent on what criteria is applied: it is not as big or illustrious as the major European leagues and won't be in the forseeable future but it does attract pretty good crowds - I think they get more than the Brazilian league - and can also secure marquee players (albeit near the end of their careers). However I don't think the comparisons between MLS and a hypothetical cricket league are particularly apt, after all Pele and Beckham have played in the States and the World Cup in 1994 was played in the country. Nothing like the equivalent is the case in cricket. Incidentally, soccer holds another lesson if cricket is serious about becoming a mainstream sport: its focus on introducing children to the game has created a popular image of the game as a "girl's sport", a kid's game and, because lessons costs quite a lot of money, a middle class sport.

I think more instructive than Spalding's evangelism of baseball in the States is his tours of Britain, which were notable failures. Introducing a new bat and ball game where there already is an established sport was difficult then and is no less so now. With the vast majority of cricket fans over here originating from South Asia, the challenge of "Americanising" the game is probably the toughest aspect of creating a sustainable sport. There will always be a market for cricket, seen by the costs of internet streaming rights, but expanding the base will be very, very difficult. The dominant approaches so far have been big, glitzy leagues that will somehow wow the American public into loving cricket. In reality a long, hard slog of grassroots introduction is probably the only feasible approach. This is being done by a few wonderful folk, such as the USYCA, but it still feels like needles in a haystack.

My "take home message" would be similar to yours but perhaps with a slightly different emphasis: US cricket has the potential to be competitive at the international level if it changes administrators but a big American league seems as likely as Gladstone Dainty becoming the 45th President.

Best,
David
David  21st February, 2012 01:46:31  

Taming cricket`s wild frontier
David, thankyou for the extended response.

There would be some irony if cricket became known as a "kid's sport" given baseball's image for many years in the UK as "just rounders, a kid's sport". The best local demographic for cricket, I believe, would be African Americans; they are baseball's weakest market because of its "whitebread" image; they can find ready heroes in the West Indies cricketers; and unlike baseball, cricket affords opportunities for pick-up games that eschew expensive lessons. And another good reason to approach the NBA to run the marketing/operational parts of any league.

You make an important point about FIFA and star players. FIFA has been very generous with the US, from staging the world cup to ensuring that there were enough CONCACAF places available that they'd qualify in later years. They also have a fixed system of contracts between leagues. Cricket's full members (who constitute the ICC) have really been the opposite: they reneged on playing some of the 2007 tournament in the USA, they attempt to exclude teams from the world cup/WT20, and contracts are a free-for-all for members and bans for any players who step outside. It probably got lost in the detail, but there is no way cricket can succeed in the US without support from outside. Star players are available in the months you'd expect an American T20 league to run, and there is only English cricket competing for global tv interest and contracts, which is a huge advantage for cricket in the USA (and Canada and Europe too). With other member boards involved a US league is perfectly possible, without, I fully agree with you that it is a pipe dream.
Russ  21st February, 2012 07:31:35  

Taming cricket`s wild frontier
A few things I found interesting in your article:

1. You don't see baseball players as a source of developing cricketers. This is contrary to many peoples' views, rightly or wrongly.

2. It is interesting to consider the idea of partnerships between sports, such as cricket and basketball. Have there been such partnerships in the past in the USA?

3. First step in the path: Overthrow USACA! But that is hardly a revelation, is it?

PS I recall Jamie Harrison (USYCA president) talking on an episode of the Cricket Couch, saying that for a league to succeed, it is first necessary to get the kids playing, to spread the potential fan base. Sowing the seeds, I think he said...

PPS Weren't USACA booted out by the ICC not once but twice?
Roger  21st February, 2012 11:38:41  

Taming cricket`s wild frontier
Roger, thanks for your comment.

Converting athletes from one sport to another is an interesting process. It involves finding someone who is sub-professional/elite in one sport, with the skill set to be elite/professional in another. Most often that means finding a sport with a large participation and small elite level (like gymnastics), and converting them to a low participation sport with a larger (or similar) sized elite level (like aerial skiing).

I have no doubt there are sub-professional baseball players with elite cricket skills. I just think they are harder to find. There are basically three reasons I'd focus on tennis:
1) The tennis stroke, particularly the backhand) is probably closest to the skill required to hit a bouncing cricket ball. Much more-so than hitting a baseball - converting pitchers to bowlers is probably more viable - ala JB King.
2) To be a professional tennis player you need elite level athleticism, shot-making and footwork. Any player with average athleticism, and elite levels shot-making and footwork won't make it as a tennis pro, but is a potential cricket star.
3) Because of tennis's unique economic structure, the 15th best US tennis player earns roughly what the 1500th best baseball player does. Notwithstanding the possibility that every college level tennis player is a failed baseball player, the top couple of hundred non-elite tennis players are the richest source of athletic talent with translatable cricket skills in the US (and Europe).

I can't say I'm deeply familiar with US sports economics as I might be. I do know many NFL teams traded with the same names as baseball (NY Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates etc.) in the 1920-40s. As the league developed they changed to distinguish themselves; a process I'd expect to repeat. Numerous teams share stadiums, of course, but I dont know whether any share office facilities. Gideon Haigh mentioned off hand in the Global Mail that the Melbourne Stars and Melbourne Vixens (netball) hire those capabilities from Collingwood. In its crudest terms you might say US sports franchises own the means of production and overseas cricket boards the workers; the simplest means to create a league is to bring those two elements together, not build up production for what would be, at most, a 3 month event.

Jamie is certainly not wrong. There is a chicken and egg problem with regard to children wanting to play a sport they can see, and the sport achieving that visibility. Building up through schools skirts that problem, but it is a slow process (which Jamie happily acknowledges). I'd argue that, in particular circumstances where a league is viable because of an existing fan-base, and the necessary elements (players etc.) then it certainly doesn't hurt to have a league to drive youth development. I'd argue the United States has those elements, in a way that other markets like China, Europe or South America don't.

And yes, you are right, I will amend that.
Russ  21st February, 2012 15:59:36