Thursday, June 20, 2024

America, Cricket’s Next Frontier

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Tomorrow, a cricket match will take place in a pop-up stadium on Long Island with turf flown in from Australia. From the venue’s north stand, you can just about discern the tallest skyscrapers and bridges of New York City. At least 30,000 spectators, most of them wearing the light-blue shirt of India, will pack the bleachers. What happens next—a match in the T20 Cricket World Cup between India and the U.S.A.—will be viewed by a huge audience on digital and TV platforms. Games of the 2023 Major League Baseball World Series were watched, on average, by 9.1 million. The 2024 Super Bowl drew 123.7 million viewers in the United States—the largest such audience ever. The worldwide viewership for India versus U.S.A. will almost certainly surpass that of the Super Bowl, quite possibly by tens of millions of viewers.

Simply to state the names of prominent U.S. cricketers—Saurabh Netravalkar, Steven Taylor, Monank Patel, Nosthush Kenjige, Aaron Jones—is to reveal their utter obscurity in the eyes of most Americans, even those who are acquainted with cricket. American cricketers are not stars; they are cultural ciphers. Their exploits, to the native eye, are as cryptic as the game they play. But it just so happens that the above-named nobodies belong to the most successful U.S. cricket team in history, a team that has just defeated Pakistan and Canada and needs only one more victory—against India or Ireland—to guarantee U.S. qualification to the final Super Eight, round-robin stage of the World Cup. Could the U.S. win the Cricket World Cup? No, not a chance. But the potential for cricket’s growth in America has never looked stronger.

The English introduced cricket to the U.S. in the 1700s. It became a popular pastime, especially with immigrants from England, and matches could attract thousands of spectators and, as with modern sporting events, prompt a lot of betting. Cricket was especially favored by the Anglophile upper crust of Philadelphia. Some of the clubs these citizens founded in the 1850s and ’60s—the Philadelphia Cricket Club, the Merion Cricket Club, the Germantown Cricket Club—still exist, along with their magnificent cricket fields, which are now almost exclusively given over to lawn tennis.

The golden era of American cricket ended in the early 20th century, when the popularity of golf and tennis—games that, unlike cricket at the time, were played by both men and women—changed the recreational preferences of the American elites. The masses, meanwhile, had long since adopted the “national pastime,” baseball.

The old colonial sport became marginalized, kept afloat only by tiny clubs populated by immigrants and expats from the British Commonwealth, most notably (my own) Staten Island Cricket Club, established in 1872 and now the longest continuously active cricket club in America. In the 1960s, things began to look up. Increased immigration from the West Indies reinvigorated cricket, in the New York region especially; and in the decades that followed, immigration from South Asia also dramatically increased.

There are now more than 5 million Americans of South Asian descent, the majority being Indian American. Many of them are crazy for cricket, but have almost nowhere local to play or watch the game. The gap between the new demand and the old infrastructure has created what business types call a market opportunity. To understand this market opportunity, one must understand the transformation of cricket from a genteel, uncommercial, English-dominated summer ritual to a raucous, money-spinning, Indian-dominated bat-and-ball party.

To appear for one’s national side in test-match cricket, as the traditional, days-long international games are known, used to be the pinnacle of a player’s career. In 2003, a much shorter, more instantly spectacular format of competition was introduced—T20 cricket, in which each team faces 120 balls and tries to slug runs as quickly as possible. Purists disdained this new format, which shares traits with a home-run derby, but fans loved it.

In 2007, the Indian Premier League launched in the T20 format. This soon became the most popular and most lucrative cricket enterprise on Earth. The league expanded the market for cricket, not only in India (population 1.4 billion), but globally. Copycat T20 leagues sprang up in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Australia, and other places. In 2023, a T20 venture called Major League Cricket began in the United States.

Major League Cricket offers a familiar business model: globe-trotting professional cricketers, grouped into six brand-new franchises with such names as the Los Angeles Knight Riders and the Seattle Orcas, playing in brightly colored outfits for the entertainment of domestic and international media audiences. Only a tiny number of U.S.-born cricketers participate. But MLC lays claim to a radical ambition: not just making money but making cricket the next big thing to penetrate the mainstream of American sports culture.

This seems optimistic. No more than a handful of regulation cricket fields exist in the United States. The game is played on improvised, multiuse spaces in public parks. Practice facilities are virtually nonexistent, as is funding (either public or private) for youth cricket. For the sport to thrive—that is, to gradually approach the prominence and participation enjoyed by that other global game to which the U.S. was a relative latecomer, soccer—it would have to receive enormous grassroots investments, political as well as financial, in American cities where space is limited, costly, and bitterly contested. Collegiate competition, complete with new sports scholarships and sports fields and international recruitment networks, would have to find institutional enthusiasts and financial backers. And yet: This is America. We can always dream.

In that dream, Team USA advances in the World Cup to the intensely exciting Super Eight stage; it attracts the attention and admiration of ordinary American sports fans; a craze ensues; the team captain, Netravalkar, an H1-B visa holder who works at Oracle as a software engineer, becomes a national hero and an inspiration for boys and girls around the country; and Major League Cricket wins over sports fans. The colossal wealth and goodwill of America, at once charmed and stirred by entrepreneurial visions, could make room in the national imagination for a game enjoyed and monetized by hundreds of millions in South Asia, Australasia, and southern Africa. Let it be so.

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