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

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Indianapolis Colts play the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium  •  Getty Images

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.
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.
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.
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