It’s been the conundrum rattling administrators for years. How can cricket in the U.S. emerge amid the world’s most lucrative sports market?
It’s been a hard road for cricket in the U.S. to gain mainstream traction with politicking behind the scenes often sabotaging development. The troubled USA Cricket Association (USACA) was finally expelled in 2017 after being handed three suspensions in the previous 12 years. American cricket had sadly become a punch line.
Things have been rosier on-and-off the field recently. There is optimism about the leadership of new governing body USA Cricket, while the national men’s team made history last year after achieving coveted One-Day International (ODI) status. The world No.20 ranked team were set to play ODIs this year to begin their quest for a spot in the 2023 World Cup before the coronavirus pandemic shut down cricket worldwide.
There have been many grandiose plans for American cricket, which was widely played in the U.S. before the Civil War, over the years with power brokers worldwide viewing it as an untapped gold mine. Most of the ideas were fantastical but genuine showpiece tournaments are taking shape.
A lucrative domestic professional T20 tournament is planned for 2021 and, according to sources, a World Cup is on the cards for the U.S. this decade.
It’s undoubtedly the type of razzamatazz needed to capture the imagination of the congested American sports market.
But beyond the glitz and glamour, there has been a prevailing fear that cricket in the U.S. will never properly materialize without necessary investment in the grassroots.
“Cricket won’t take over from baseball but a World Cup would certainly be a boom for the game in the U.S,” former USACA chief executive Darren Beazley once told me. “But the broader issue is to ensure cricket continues to develop in the U.S. once the show leaves town.”
The U.S. has a sizable cricket presence with it being the fourth biggest TV rights market behind cricket powerhouses India, Australia and England but much of the fandom stems from the country’s growing expatriate communities from the subcontinent.
Enticing U.S-born children to a minority sport like cricket is challenging with seemingly no obvious solutions. Maryland Youth Cricket Association (MYCA), however, might just have the formula boasting about a quarter of the juniors playing organized team cricket in the entire country.
“Before Covid-19 shut us down, we were anticipating 650 children playing on 45 teams across five divisions in the state championship competition, which was preparing for its eighth season,” MYCA chairman Jamie Harrison tells me. “In addition, there are another 200 or so who play softball cricket for their school teams, but don’t play for a club travel team.
“To my knowledge, we are the only cricket organization in America with government support.”
Harrison, an unrepentant stickler for grassroots cricket in the U.S, says Maryland has built a successful model during the past decade in an outlier amid a mishmash of a national domestic system.
“Growing the sport requires attention being paid to elementary schools, which has always been a focus of ours,” he says. “There are now dozens of elementary schools in Maryland with school teams, or that receive an annual visit from a cricket instructor. You have to pay attention to the elementary schools or stagnation sets in.”
Harrison’s passion for cricket was ignited in 2008 when during a field trip as a history teacher he was introduced to the rather baffling sport of cricket, which is mostly confined to Commonwealth countries. His initial curiosity developed into an unwavering desire to grow cricket from the bottom.
“You can predict the future of every cricket-playing nation by looking at their domestic setup,” Harrison says. “Wherever cricket is strong at the grassroots, you have strong national sides. On the other hand, if cricket is weak or chaotic at the grassroots, the national team reflects that too.
“You can’t build a strong house without a strong foundation; grassroots cricket is the foundation for everything else.”
Challenging the popularity of the major homegrown sports is a trivial pursuit. “This is where I think a lot of people have it wrong,” Harrison says. “They say cricket can’t compete with basketball or baseball, or whatever. And right now, this is true.
“But one of the advantages of being in a country of 330 million people is that we don’t have to compete with the major sports to attain a measure of success. For example, if just two per cent of Americans were cricket fans that would be more than the entire population of New Zealand.”
Harrison believes New Zealand, a leading cricket country often punching above its weight, could serve as a template for the U.S. “They manage their resources really well, they have a domestic structure that does a great job promoting the game at the grassroots and finding high performance prospects,” he says.
“Their grounds are beautiful and flexible, without being terribly expensive. They’re a model for us to emulate.”
Perhaps fueled by Maryland’s lead, an efficient national domestic system could expedite cricket in the U.S. and ensure much-needed sustainability below the elite level. Even the pragmatic Harrison can’t resist envisioning the future.
“One day, I hope to see people on the streets wearing the caps of their favorite cricket team,” he says. “People might laugh at that, but I’m old enough to remember when the conventional wisdom was that Americans would never watch soccer.
“Now the (English) Premier League dominates Saturday morning television here, and I walk past teenagers wearing Chelsea jerseys or Liverpool hoodies.