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T20 World Cup 2024 | Cricket fever in the US is low-grade at best

T20 World Cup 2024 | Cricket fever in the US is low-grade at best

Lack of interest shouldn’t surprise organisers or investors hoping to profit from cricket’s American growth. It takes more than money and one-off tournaments to go mainstream on US soil.

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Last Updated : 15 June 2024, 05:34 IST
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By Adam Minter

Cricket, the world’s second most popular sport, is making another play for America’s attention. The occasion is the International Cricket Council Men’s T20 World Cup, one of the sport’s premier events, which is being held on American soil for the first time.

So far, everything seems to be going well. Over the weekend a match between bitter rivals Pakistan and India drew 34,000 avid fans to Long Island.

Yet, despite the in-person crowds, few other American sports fans are paying attention. A list compiled by Sports Media Watch showed that a June 6 match between the American and Pakistani national teams didn’t crack a list of the 30 most-viewed sports programs on US television that day. Lack of interest shouldn’t surprise organisers or investors hoping to profit from cricket’s American growth. It takes more than money and one-off tournaments to go mainstream on US soil.

In theory, cricket had a head start. The sport has been played in America since the early 18th century, at least. Yet its gentlemanly pace worked against it, as did its association with a foreign power. In 1862 a writer for the Brooklyn Eagle complained that this most English of games “is not an American game.”

The numbers tell an anemic story. In 1850, there were 5,000 cricket players participating in matches in the US. Today, 170 years later, there are only about 200,000 US players, according to the website of USA Cricket, the sport’s governing organization in the US.

Baseball — the American bat and ball sport — makes for an unflattering contrast. Now, nearly 16.7 million Americans play it, and 8.6 million play softball, according to a 2023 Sports & Fitness Industry Association report.

For decades, cricket didn’t care. In 1926, the ICC (then known as the Imperial Cricket Conference), the British-led global governing body for cricket, voted to confine its membership to countries within the empire and, later, the Commonwealth. As a result, Americans who competed in high-level matches were now officially excluded from them. American cricket retreated to tony private clubs and cemented the sport’s elitist image.

Americans didn’t care, either. In the mid-20th century, television turned football and baseball into national passions. Youth and college sports grew in parallel with them, providing talented young athletes with a well-defined pipeline from amateur status to moneymaker. Just as important, that pipeline developed lifelong, devoted fans. As a result, the “Big Four” sports — baseball, basketball, football, and hockey — are firmly anchored in American culture and the economy.

Cricket is not. Yet USA Cricket and other proponents are making a play for mainstream status by 2030. They rightly believe that they come to the field with several advantages, starting with the avid support of a cricket-loving South and Central Asian diaspora that hit 4.6 million people in 2022. Cities with high concentrations of the demographic, such as Dallas and New York, have become regional hubs for the sport, complete with youth leagues and facilities.

Meanwhile, affluent members of the diaspora, especially from the tech industry, are investing in the sport. For example, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen are among those who have poured millions into a new US league. The T20 World Cup, it’s hoped, will help American cricket replicate the trajectory of Major League Soccer. It was formed in 1993 as part of a bid for the US to host the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The high-profile launch helped MLS evolve, over two decades, into an organization capable of attracting Lionel Messi to American shores and an Apple TV broadcasting deal.

But the 1994 World Cup was no shortcut to success. Rather it built upon nearly a century of patient grassroots growth at the youth and college levels. Those events didn’t always garner mainstream attention, but they did grow the game, especially among younger fans. In 1974, interest was so high that 100,000 kids registered for the first season of US Youth Soccer, now the largest youth sports organization in the US. By 1994, those kids — and the growing millions who followed them — were adults keen to watch the World Cup and buy into professional American soccer.

Cricket, despite its global popularity and commercial appeal, can’t claim to have anything approaching American soccer’s success. Cricket youth leagues are small and regional (USA Cricket did not respond to two requests for precise numbers), and unlike soccer, which has had an NCAA championship tournament since 1959, cricket has never been played at the NCAA Division I level. The talent pipeline that energises football, soccer and other American sports simply doesn’t exist — and neither do the fans.

The proof is in the North American media rights. In 2022, the International Cricket Council, which organizes the T20 World Cup, met with Amazon, CBS, ESPN, and NBC. No deal emerged, and this month’s World Cup will be aired exclusively on Willow TV, a channel devoted exclusively to cricket.

That's hardly a route to higher visibility and mainstream success, and it should serve as a reality check for the sport’s most optimistic American advocates.

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