By Benjamin Dettmar
With the start of the NBA and NHL seasons, college football and the NFL gearing up for the playoffs, and baseball in the midst of an historic world series, I will forgive you for not noticing the tour by the England Cricket team who are currently taking on Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates. The teams will play 3 Tests Matches (the first was drawn, the second won by Pakistan, and the third is happening right now), 4 One Day Internationals, and 3 Twenty20 games. Whilst a US audience may not be interested in the outcome of these games (personally I still can’t believe England didn’t win the first Test!); what might be of interest is why the series is being played in the UAE, how cricket in the middle-east and the Indian sub-continent has become Americanized, and how the US has a role to play not only in the historic growth of the game but also in its continued development.
Cricket in the United Arab Emirates
Cricket is played by an odd assortment of nations around the world. There are 10 Test playing nations (England, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh) and many more (including Ireland, Netherlands, Afghanistan, and the UAE) play the game at the international level in One Day and Twenty20 cricket. Pakistan has been forced by the International Cricket Council to play all of their home Test matches in the UAE since a 2009 attack on a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Interestingly, the move has proved successful for Pakistan on the field. They have won 3 and drawn 4 of their Test series in the UAE since they first played there in 2010. Crowds, however, have proven to be sparse with only 54 people turning up at the 20,000 seater Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi to watch the start of the first day of the First Test.
Sport Around the World
There is a lesson here for US sport as the big four try to increase their marketability in a world were coverage is becoming saturated within the US. The Jacksonville Jaguars have seen the success of the NFL in London and are seen as the obvious team to relocate should the NFL place a team in Europe. Winning in Europe probably would not prove to be a problem. Visiting teams would have to cope with unfamiliar surroundings, a different time zone, long flights, and unfamiliar toilet paper! How an NFL team fares as a long term resident of London, however, rather than a novelty once or twice a season is yet to be seen. As we can see from cricket in the UAE, just because the best players in the world are playing in your backyard does not mean that people will come to watch.
What’s fascinating in general about international cricket is that it is one of the only sports in the world (maybe the only sport in the world) where the money flows away from the western world.
For example, in soccer, the best players in the world play in Europe. Whether that is European players such as Christiano Ronaldo moving from Portugal to England to Spain, or Zlatan Ibrahimović moving from Sweden to the Netherlands to Italy to Spain to France; Lionel Messi moving from Argentina to Spain, or Sergio Agüero moving from Argentina to Spain to England; Keisuke Honda moving from Japan to the Netherlands to Russia to Italy; Yaya Touré moving from the Ivory Coast to Belgium to Ukraine to Greece to France to Spain to England—all the money comes from the west!
The same is true in Rugby. The best players in the world play in the French, English, or Celtic leagues in the northern hemisphere or the Super 15 (dominated by Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) in the southern hemisphere.
In Track and Field, the major events are held in Europe, Formula One is dominated by European teams and drivers, Golf is predominately a European and American sport, the big four American sports all see major player movement west to the US with very little going in the opposite direction. The west dominates sports, right? Then what about Cricket?
The Indian Premier League
The Indian Premier League (IPL) is where the big four US sports should look for an example of how to create and dominate a sport space. From its inaugural season in 2008 through the 2016 season, the IPL has drawn the best players in the world (from the Caribbean, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and of course, Asia) to India to play in a shortened format of traditional cricket. The IPL is by far the biggest money making tournament in the cricketing world. The league was valued by London-based valuation company Brand Finance at 4 billion dollars in 2010 and has grown exponentially since then. Its highest paid players make more than 3 million dollars a year (for a 2-3 month contract), and most games have a larger TV viewing audience than the Super Bowl.
There are many elements of Americanization in the IPL. Teams have cheerleaders, there are 11 total IPL teams who are franchised with no element of promotion or relegation, and there are playoffs to determine the champion team of the season. But the most fascinating aspect of the league is the movement of capital to the east. Players, such as England’s Kevin Pietersen, can make more in a few months than they would representing their nation (Pietersen has famously been frozen out of the England squad). Australia’s Shane Warne, perhaps the greatest bowler of all-time, made as much in his last few seasons of cricket by playing in the IPL (and other regional Twenty20 leagues) as he did throughout his entire career playing for Australia. The IPL has taken what works in American sport and “glocalized” it extremely successfully for a national and, more and more, an international audience. The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL could learn a lot, and potentially make a lot of money, by recognizing and adopting this approach.
Cricket in America
If the IPL could somehow manage to capture an American audience, it would be primed to become one of the biggest sports leagues in the world. So far the IPL and indeed cricket in general has not taken off in the United States. The IPL is shown on an ESPN subscription channel in the US meaning that while it can be watched, it is likely to be only viewed by those who expressly want to watch cricket.
Interestingly, there is a tour happening in the fall of 2015 organized by perhaps the two greatest cricketers of the past few decades. India’s Sachin Tendulka and Australia’s Shane Warne are headlining the “Cricket All-Stars Series 2015” which will feature three Twenty20 matches to be played in New York, Houston, and Los Angeles. It is unlikely that this tour will start a groundswell of cricketing culture in the US, but it cannot be any worse than the most high-profile recent attempt to bring cricket to the shores of the US. The Stanford Super Series was a disaster from the start and only served to harm the image of cricket when its founder, Allen Stanford, was charged with fraud and sentenced to over 100 years in prison.
Cricket does, however, have a rich history in the US. The first international cricket match was played in New York in 1844 between the US and Canada at St. George’s Cricket Club in Bloomingdale Park New York; the game was watched by over 10,000 fans who saw Canada win a close match[i]. Many of the fans placed bets on the outcome of the game, as was the norm in the mid-nineteenth century, and for a few decades around the time of the Civil War, cricket and baseball were equally popular in America. Legendary English player W.G. Grace led a tour to the US in 1872 and cricket continued to be played on the east coast, especially by ex-pats and in the Ivy League colleges, in the mid-late nineteenth century.
Cricket began to wane in popularity as baseball began to resonate more with the working and middle classes of America and cricket, seen as an elitist sport, was largely forgotten in the US by the 1920s. For the rest of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, cricket remained in the shadows in the US. In fact, just this year the ICC suspended the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) because of “significant concerns about the governance, finance, reputation and cricketing activities of USACA”. This coupled with saturated sports coverage of the big four sports in the US and the recent failed attempts to bring cricket to America means that we should not expect to hear the sound of leather on willow in US suburbs any time soon. However, cricket fans in the US can now watch the sport on their televisions, legends of the game are bringing a version of the sport to major cities and, importantly, cricket has adopted many lessons learned by US sports and adapted them to create a brand new league that has quickly become one of the richest in the world.
Cricket may no longer be an influential part of the sport space of the US, but it has taken lessons from the American sporting landscape to establish itself as arguably the second most popular team sport (after soccer) in the world.[iI] The success of the IPL coupled with the difficulties the sport has had branching out into new territories can be both a lesson and a warning for US sport. America’s sport space is saturated; but there is room to expand across the globe. The success of the IPL (and the difficulties in bringing cricket to the UAE) could be a blueprint for the big four American sport leagues as they continue efforts to globalize their brands.[iiI]
Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @olympicsprof.
[i] If like me you enjoy obsolete and long-forgotten sport venues then next time you are in New York City be sure to check out the New York University Medical Center at 31st St and First Avenue on Manhattan. It is on this spot that the aforementioned cricket match between the US and Canada took place in 1844.
[iI] This is a personal opinion based on the population of the countries in which cricket is popular and the fact that it is played at a world-class level in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. It also has a successful One Day International World Cup and a Twenty20 World Cup. The IPL has only served to heighten this claim.
[iiI] For anyone interested in cricket in the US, P. David Sentence’s Cricket in America. 1710–2000 is an excellent start and Tom Melville’s The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America is particularly useful for those interested in nineteenth century US sport history. For more information on the IPL, Indian cricket, and movement of sporting superstars from west to east Amit Gupta’s article “The IPL and the Indian domination of global cricket” from Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics Volume 14, Issue 10, 2011; is a fantastic place to start.