October 19, 2016

American football's in the UK. Where's cricket in the USA?

The NFL has taken a long-term approach to expanding its base from North America. Cricket's globalisation plans are still to click
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Indianapolis Colts play the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium © Getty Images

Professional sport is far richer than it has ever been, and yet all sports seem united by a desire to generate even more cash. The motivation is the same, whether it is in FIFA's wish to expand the World Cup beyond 32 teams, India playing West Indies in a T20I series in Florida, or in the NFL playing three games in October in London.

While cricket attempts to take hold in America, so America's game attempts to grow in England. This year is the tenth consecutive one in which regular season games in American football have been held in London. What began as an idiosyncratic novelty has gradually become an accepted part of the British sporting calendar. The number of games per season in London has risen from one to three and will rise further, to four in 2018. Even as the number of matches has swelled, it has not been able to keep pace with demand.

Of the 15 NFL matches that have been played at Wembley Stadium to date, only one has not been a sell-out. Sky Sports now televises more than 100 live games a year, and the average audience has doubled in the past decade. Meanwhile the BBC's highlights show, which launched last year, now receives a total audience of one million. The BBC also shows four live games every year - the three in London and the Super Bowl, the NFL's annual championship game.

Games in London are "a deliberate loss leader", Alistair Kirkwood, head of NFL Europe, explained earlier this year. The matches make a loss for the NFL because of the costs of paying for the clubs to relocate for a week, and compensating the "home" club for losing revenue. But the NFL sees this as a short-term investment and envisages matches in Britain ultimately helping to make all 32 clubs richer through more lucrative sponsorship, merchandise sales and commercial rights.

Perhaps the most important part of the NFL's approach to growing the game in England is that it is about more than just monetising Americans who have settled across the pond. It is about developing new fans too.

For the last two years, the NFL has organised a fans' day in Regent's Street, central London, using everything from inflatable tackling dummies, cheerleaders and American food and drink to show off the sport to new fans. About half a million people showed up. Most stumbled across the event rather than sought it out, yet in many ways that is the point. It was designed to increase awareness of the NFL among those who knew and cared little for it.

Crowds flock to Wembley for an NFL game © Getty Images

Here there are many lessons for cricket. The raft of high-profile cricket events in the USA in the last year - the Warne-Tendulkar Legends series, the staging of Caribbean Premier League games and the West Indies-India internationals - seem to have been designed squarely to make cash out of the expat market. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. But there is a problem when a bunch of 1990s stars slugging it out in a baseball stadium is seen as a substitute for a meaningful development strategy.

Getting the NFL shown on free-to-air TV - through the BBC highlights show, which is designed for the non-hardcore fan - is central to the sport's approach to Britain. Yet so far there have been no attempts to get cricket on free-to-air TV in the States. Indeed, the India-West Indies T20Is were not shown on any TV channel in the USA at all.

Nor has there been a substantive attempt - Courtney Walsh bowling to the mayor of Indianapolis doesn't really count - to make cricket accessible, relevant or even known beyond those who already follow the game. Sadly, this is in keeping with the history of the sport in the USA.

"A lot of focus does tend to go on to the commercial side of things," an ICC source said of those in charge of US cricket two years ago. And when marquee matches have been held in Malaysia, Singapore and even the United Arab Emirates, organisers there too have rarely used them to win new converts to cricket.

There is a lack of focus on how to spread cricket in new markets. One-off high-profile bilateral series in USA will appeal to expat fans but not attract new ones © BCCI

The most successful sport yet at entering a new market has been basketball in China. It has done so through an enlightened, long-term approach, focusing both on the grassroots and professional game, and the fortuitous emergence of the superstar Yao Ming. The NFL's approach to Britain and elsewhere is being governed by this template.

Yet such sophistication has long been absent in cricket's approach to growth, which has been impatient and top-down, seldom recognising the importance of engaging children without a national affinity to the sport or the sheer time such expansionism requires before it yields financial rewards.

"Cricket in the US hasn't developed the same kind of commercial or managerial sophistication as the NBA in China or the NFL in the UK," says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford in England. "Cricket needs pitches, players and points of engagement, not just Warne and Tendulkar. The sport needs to give people in the US reasons to watch and reasons to play."

The historic failure of those running US cricket is borne out by the terrible participation rates for junior cricketers. There were only 1230 junior cricketers playing in the US in 2014, according to the ICC census. In contrast, there are now 6000 junior players in American football in Britain, plus another 5000 players at universities. This is not just vindication for a decade of matches in London, but also the work that American football has done in establishing itself at grassroots level.

Osi Umenyiora, a former NFL star who was born in England, is paid by the NFL to help identify athletes in their late teens and early 20s who could take their skills to American football.

Shaquille O'Neal plays cricket at a promotional event in Sacramento Genevieve Ross / © Associated Press

While the ICC has taken some important steps to reform American cricket over the last two years - like suspending USACA, whose leadership stymied US cricket for many years, and creating an ICC Americas team to compete in the Caribbean domestic 50-over tournament - transforming grassroots cricket and ending the exclusivity surrounding the sport will take many years.

The most important lesson that cricket can learn from this NFL story is that other sports are coming into cricket's traditional territories - from the NFL in Britain, to European club football in India - while making a concerted effort to grow in the most lucrative untapped sports market of them all: China.

There comes a point when the growth of sports is a zero-sum game. Someone choosing to watch the NFL in Britain or the Premier League in India is doing so instead of watching cricket at that time. Other sports' increased popularity could thereby undermine the commercial value of cricket.

This is why cricket's approach, in the US and beyond, must be about long-term development more than short-term profits. Expanding the sport's global footprint is ultimately an insurance policy, a way of reducing a financial over-dependence on India and guarding against a drop in interest in cricket's traditional powerhouses.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sheela on October 24, 2016, 1:58 GMT

    Rugby Football is not popular in India. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have considerable following in rugby. Association Football is not so popular in USA.

  • wolf777 on October 23, 2016, 21:58 GMT

    More high profile bilateral series will certainly help....may be T20 WC could be held in the US...

  • espn52929619 on October 23, 2016, 15:13 GMT

    I don't think the ICC gives s stuff about expanding the game globally. I think all they care about is making money, which is why they are focussing on England, India and Australia, where there is no need to grow the game, but cricket is lucrative already.

  • CheeseVanTonder on October 23, 2016, 9:40 GMT

    NFL is not as successful as this article makes it out to be. It has major issues itself in competing with the every increasing sport called - Football / Soccer. Soccer as we all know is globally dominate and is eating more and more into the NFLs viewing figures.

    Getting back to the article, these recent games hosted in the US with Sachin and ex-players were blatant money making schemes. Raking in easy cash from the huge Indian expat community that lives in the US. It takes investment from a central board like the ICC to develop the game in the US. With barely being able to keep associate Test nations alive, how on earth are they going to grow the game in the US.

  • wpbus13 on October 22, 2016, 21:30 GMT

    While I agree with the premise of this article and many of the comments below, it's not all hunky-dory with the NFL. It is the most popular sport in the US by a long mile but not immune from its own problems. The current season has seen a huge drop off in viewership, some estimates have it at 12% to 15% overall. A recent prime time game had 35% less viewers compared to the same time slot a year ago. NFL officials are scrambling for reasons why? NFL now has to reimburse companies with free ads due to the fact that fewer eyes are watching. In MLB, the Florida Marlins (not the only team) rarely ever sell out. Free tickets are frequently given away! On some nights they even have live concerts to attract fans. The NHL and NBA have their own problems. The point is the American market is already saturated with sports; therefore it will take commitment, shrewd marketing and deep pockets for cricket to make it, but not impossible! The grass is not always greener on the other side!

  • John-Price on October 22, 2016, 18:19 GMT

    @baghels.a - cricket, especially international cricket, pays pretty well in comparison with average wages in the UK. Add to that the pleasure and status of earning a living playing sport and it is is a attractive prospect for most.

  • PratUSA on October 22, 2016, 17:31 GMT

    Scheduling India - West Indies T20Is at 10 AM to suite the TV audience in India tells you that event wasn't to promote cricket in USA but make more money for BCCI. And Tendulkar-Warne's was a private attempt by some players to cash on some more, clearly evident by timing (November) and exorbitant ticket prices. I won't even qualify those two events as a try to popularize the sport in a new market. Currently however ICC is doing good work but it may all unravel because they are still in talks with Dainty and USACA. Until the time USACA exists with its current administration and has anything to do with ICC and official cricket, forget it man.

  • baghels.a on October 22, 2016, 15:43 GMT

    Money is a very important factor and no kid in Western/developed/ First world Nation is going to seriously pursue Cricket as a career because it does not pay well unless you have a fat IPL contract or you are an International Cricketer from IND,AUS.ENG . Even the best IPL contract which is 3 or 4 million Euros pales in comparison to 40 million Euros (After Taxes) annually earned by the likes of Christiano Ronaldo and Messi. To put this income disparity further into context 6 year domestic TV rights for Cricket in India is 750 million dollars while corresponding figures for English Premier League ,NFL is nearly 10 Billion Dollars !!! lastly kids of today relate more to clubs and franchises than bilateral Nation v/s Nation contests , only time they fancy International contest is when Football WC, Euros,Summer/Winter Olympics is on . .

  • Rakerjnam on October 22, 2016, 14:26 GMT

    Why is cricket so bent on spreading cricket to USA? The only cricket we might be able to get Americans interested in is T20 but then who cares about T20? Americans are never going to watch Test cricket and everyone knows test cricket is real cricket.

  • cricfanolly on October 22, 2016, 14:18 GMT

    I believe this article is a little insincere. American football in the U.K. has had 35 years to progress. It is still a very niche sport. The figures have really not grown as it's a very difficult sport to understand. The NFL produce stats on its popularity in the U.K. that really don't add up. On SKy they regularly get 60,000 people watching. Which is nothing! Darts gets over 300,000. What I am saying is that mature sports markets are hard to crack.I believe cricket does need to learn from the NFL in taking over to the states a good product (IPL games). But I believe most countries have their sports and it's difficult to break into the market. The best market for cricket would be China.

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