(This article originally appeared in Dreamcricket.com)
Cricket, as a game, has everything required to make it attractive to Americans, especially now that the Twenty20 format has been adopted. All arguments made to the contrary are based on ignorance or, in some cases, a misplaced parochialism. How do I know this? I have witnessed it firsthand in my association with the Cardinal Gibbons cricketers, who were smitten by the sport from they instant they played it. My experiences with those students, when juxtaposed with the rest of non-cricketing America, also provided a roadmap to making cricket more than just a niche sport.
1. Get Kids Playing Cricket.
This, I believe, is the key element in any discussion about growing cricket in America. Typically, adults are resistant to adopting new sports; the sports one enjoyed as a child are almost always the sports one follows as an adult. This is why time and treasure invested in an attempt to introduce American adults to cricket are likely to be time and treasure wasted. Yes, there are rare exceptions, such as myself, but we represent the statistical outliers, and should not be used as examples to be emulated.
The true blueprint for success can be seen in the American soccer market, which is, itself, still developing. For decades, soccer was a sport played only by adult immigrants and ignored by everyone else in the United States. It was only when soccer began to be played in schools and recreation leagues that it moved into the American mainstream. Why? Because parents follow their children. If Billy wants to play soccer, Mom or Dad must take him to practices and games, where they will learn the sport by watching, and will develop a passion by cheering for their child’s team. (I have been through this process with my daughter, Sarah.)
As Billy learns the sport, he will become interested in its teams and players, and he will want to own things that reflect his newfound interest. This will require that Mom or Dad join him on this voyage of discovery, as they will be the ones responsible for acquiring the correct paraphernalia (apparel, posters, bedding, memorabilia, etc.). Billy will also wish to attend professional or college games, which will require an adult escort, and the escorting adult will, of course, cheer loudly for Billy’s player and team, which continues the indoctrination process.
So how do we make Billy a cricketer? Billy probably won’t choose to play a game he’s never heard of, or join a league where he has no friends. This is why it’s critical that we start by introducing him to the sport at school, where it can be taught as a part of his curriculum, and he and his friends can learn it together. (Cricket is a perfect sport for physical education classes, but I’ll leave that for another time.) My experience has been that often this is all that will be required to spark a passion for cricket. Once Billy and his friends begin to enjoy cricket at school, they’ll want to play at home, and it’ll be up to us to make sure they have the opportunity.
This brings us to the major hurdle we face in this regard: Right now, there is no coordinated national effort to introduce cricket at the elementary or middle school levels in the United States. As a matter of fact, I’ve never even heard of an organized local effort. This vacuum of leadership in the area of youth cricket creates an obstacle that will frustrate all of our desires to promote cricket, if it is not addressed. This is why USACA, as the sport’s officially sanctioned governing body, must appoint a board-level National Youth Cricket Coordinator without delay. This individual will be responsible for articulating USACA’s vision for youth sports, and developing local leaders, sponsors and programs that will effectively implement that vision. Until this is done, our hopes for youth cricket will founder and drift as a series of disconnected, directionless dreams.
Until we see children playing cricket at American beaches, in American parks and in American gym classes, little of lasting substance can be accomplished.
2. Cricket Equipment and Sets Must Be Readily Available For Purchase In Stores
Even if, in the beginning, it’s only toy cricket sets on the shelves at Walmart, having something to give Billy for his 8th birthday that will foster his love for the game is critical. Soon after, we’ll need to have real equipment on the shelves at places like Modell’s & Sports Authority. Right now, there are precious few places in America where cricket gear of any kind sits on a store shelf, and while dedicated cricketers may be willing to order online, those that are merely curious about the game (our target market) must have somewhere convenient to go to satisfy that curiosity. Also, if we want to see children playing cricket, we need to make it easy for their parents to acquire their equipment. That is not the case today.
To change this, a major push will have to be made both by the manufacturers of cricket products and by the game’s American supporters. Retailers will want to know that SKUs can be obtained easily, at a cost that will enable them to make a profit. They will also need to know that a market exists for these products. Someone at a national level will have to coordinate this joint effort if we want to see immediate results.
3. We Need To Have More Places To Play
From my experience in the Baltimore/Washington area, I can tell you that there simply aren’t enough pitches for the teams that exist already, and there are no indoor facilities closer than New Jersey. This is unacceptable if we wish to develop the game. Players need facilities at which to practice (especially in the offseason), and teams need places to play. Changing this will require both public and private funding, and the patience to wait for the market to grow to the point of full usage of the facilities.
4. Cricket Highlights Need To Be Seen On Television
One impediment to the adoption of cricket in the United States is that most Americans have never seen it played. As a result, they reject it as alien, and assume it to be unwatchable. Regular highlight clips, played on networks that are available as part of the basic cable package, are important in both introducing the sport and dispelling the stereotypes. It may seem strange, but psychologically, as the sports fan sees cricket alongside other “accepted” sports, it will seem more normal for him to have an interest in it, and his mind will be opened. (I’ve actually seen IPL highlights on ESPN Sportscenter’s Top Ten before, but there needs to be more than that, and it needs to be more than just the IPL.)
5. T20/IPL-style Leagues Must Be Used To Promote The Game
All of the buzz seems to indicate that we are very close to seeing an American professional T20 league established. If this becomes a reality, it presents a wonderful opportunity for the teams, players and coaches to get out into their local communities and promote the game. This can be accomplished through youth clinics, demonstration games, ticket donations and so forth. It would truly be a lost opportunity if the league came and went without ever leaving the cricket grounds. The individuals involved have a duty to be goodwill ambassadors for the sport, and it is my hope that they won’t fumble this golden chance.
Our success will eventually be measured not by the number of trophies won, but by the number of children playing our sport.
As you can see, when I think about growing cricket in America, my focus is squarely on developing the youth market. If we fail to do this properly, no advances made anywhere else will make a difference, including winning international matches. On the other hand, soccer has expanded vastly in the United States, despite the fact that the American men’s national team has never gotten within sniffing distance of a World Cup. This points out the fact that creating and maintaining a fan base is not dependent on world-class victories as much as it is dependent upon the adoption of the game by kids.