Cricket in the USA: The Next Big Thing?
Despite having been present in the North American continent since the 1700s, cricket has long been a minor sport in the country. In the latter half of the 20th century, though, increasing numbers of immigrants from traditional cricketing strongholds were settling in the USA, helping to stimulate the growth of the game. For the game to develop further, there are ongoing challenges that must be addressed. Chiefly, the bulk of cricketers in America have family connections to countries where the sport is considerably more popular – showing that the game is yet to reach most young Americans. However, aligning with Cricket West Indies in joint hosting the T20 World Cup in 2024 sites just one example of how the sport has real potential to unlock new audiences and participants at all levels. Assessing this, as well as the increasing funding of the professional game in the USA with Major League Cricket, there are reasons to believe that Cricket in the USA has big potential to grow to new heights.
Cricket journalist Peter Della Penna has pointed out that USA Cricket has largely failed to capture the imagination of young newcomers to the sport for a long time. The game, according to Penna, has felt like a de facto ‘pay to play’, with very little presence within school’s sports curriculums. In May of this year, more funding was committed to Major League Cricket (MLC), taking the total raised to over $120m. The ambitions of the investors are clear, highlighting a new era for cricket in the USA. Soma Somasegar, one of the leading backers, believes there is a real opportunity for the US “to become one of the leading cricket nations in the world.” This tournament funding follows on from a separate but relevant investment in 2019, which saw American Cricket Enterprises (ACE) land the commercial development rights with USA Cricket to enhance the game, committing over $1bn to support cricket at all levels in the country. Clearly, the game’s evolution is not to be stalled by a lack of money.
As a T20 tournament which hopes to attract the best players from around the world, Major League Cricket is essentially the USA’s answer to the Indian Premier League (IPL). Off the back of the news that the IPL’s most recent broadcast deal has eclipsed that of the Premier League, attempting to replicate this format should be seen as a bold, exciting move. Vijay Srinivasan, co-founder of MLC, told The Athletic that the league “intends to market itself to the millions of cricket fans, particularly from South Asia, already living in the United States.” The most recent funding deploys a top-down approach, with the money scheduled to be used for the development of the professional game and MLC specifically. The refurbishment of current stadia and building of new arenas in cricketing hotspots will be the primary focus. The hope is that by initially focussing on delivering a world class professional event, revenue from commercial partnerships and media broadcasting rights will help to grow the sport at all levels.
Forming new sporting tournaments in a cluttered market comes with inherent risks. Understanding if there is a thirst for something novel is a tricky task. Indeed, when The Hundred was introduced, it was initially met with criticism, with fears that it could harm other formats of the professional game in England. The event’s subsequent success (for the first year at least) was largely attributed to the fact that the organisers successfully predicted, understood, and engaged their audience. From the commercial partnerships to the marketing strategies and the game format, women and children were the clear target audience of The Hundred. In a similar way, the locations of the franchises for MLC and the words of Vijay Srinivasan show that there is a clear understanding of the initial target market. Largely because of high numbers of expats from South Asia and the Caribbean, areas like Miami, California, and New York already have high concentrations of cricket fans and have therefore been targeted. What’s more, unlike in England, there is no real cricket establishment and therefore a disruptive, new idea is more than likely to be embraced, rather than feared.
The positive relationship with Cricket West Indies is a good sign that cricket in the USA has a strong chance of reaching the next level. The West Indies have committed to playing matches in the USA and will be facing India in Miami in August 2022. Without even being involved, USA Cricket is set to benefit from the huge audience that will tune in to watch arguably the two most loved teams on the planet. It provides an opportunity for locals to see world class cricket in their country, the perfect way to help inspire new fans. Cricket West Indies Chief Executive, Johnny Grave, describes a responsibility of more established cricketing nations to foster the growth of the overall game. Talking to Forbes in 2020 off the back of the bid to host the T20 World Cup in 2024, Grave said, “We have made a conscious effort that cricket needs to grow beyond its traditional base and into markets like the U.S, Canada and South America”. A positive approach makes sense here, the West Indies are already most cricket fan’s second favourite team. They will likely go further than the USA in the upcoming World Cup, building bridges now and cementing a strong relationship could well extend their fanbase further in the US.
Cricket is the 2nd most popular sport in the world, with over 1bn recognised fans. The USA is the largest professional sports market, and so cricket’s current lack of presence in the region is perhaps somewhat surprising. What the MLC provides is an opportunity to put a spotlight on the sport. Organizers are reportedly working with the IPL to ensure there are no date clashes, in the hope of enticing some of the world’s best players to play in both competitions. With the ongoing support of the West Indies, a joint world cup in two years and the very real possibility that cricket could feature in the LA Olympics in 2028 – the next few years are essential to the development of the game stateside. By aligning with the West Indies or USA Cricket, sponsors can tap into new, specific audiences. From a growth point of view, the MLC will only be truly successful if it inspires grassroots changes to cricket in the USA, making the game more accessible to those who are drawn in from the upcoming world class matches on display.