As North American-based sports look to branch out more globally, a number of global sports not as popular in the U.S. are looking to gain a foothold with the changing population. Soccer has obviously made the most impact, and Formula 1 will return to the U.S. in Austin next month. Rugby has made some noise, especially with its admission on to the Olympic program for Rio 2016. Now cricket, a stick and ball sport wildly popular in many Asian countries as well as in Australia, the Caribbean, Great Britain and South Africa, is trying to make its own inroads. The impetus is fueled by changes made in the structure and presentation of the game as well as by the massive numbers the sport has gotten on ESPN 3 and ESPN International around the cricket World Cup and all the attention the sport has gotten in digital media.
We caught up with Jon Long, Head of Executive Programmes, International Cricket Council, to find out about why cricket now, and what Manny Ramirez is doing with a wicket, among other things.
Cricket is ultra-popular in most of the world, why is the U.S. so important to the marketing of the sport today vs. 20 years ago?
Cricket is the number one sport in four countries that account for over a fifth of the world’s population – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – and has strong pockets of popularity across four other continents.
The already high levels of interest in cricket means that future growth in these mature markets is likely to be organic so in order to build the ‘bigger, better, global game’ that we aspire to achieve, it seems sensible to explore opportunities in other markets such as North America, the Middle East and China.
The introduction of an exciting new format of cricket – Twenty20 – combined with the increasing globalization of the sports and media industries and the growing size and influence of the Asian diaspora presents cricket with a much stronger platform from which to target growth in these markets than it has had in the past.
The game has evolved into a faster, and slightly simpler game today, what was the reason for the change?
The main innovation with Twenty20 cricket is, quite simply, the shortening of the duration of a match, bringing it into line with other team sports – notably baseball in the U.S.. Twenty20 has its roots in a piece of market research conducted in England that sought to identify why people interested in cricket were not attending domestic matches and its instant popularity over there persuaded other countries to launch similar leagues. It has been played internationally since 2005 and the ICC World Twenty20 was launched in 2007.
Twenty20 really is a great sporting spectacle. The matches involve athleticism, skill, tension and strategy and have proved to be very appealing to new and established fans in stadiums around the world and television audiences in non-traditional markets.
The has been a group that recently announced plans for a cricket league in the U.S. as soon as 2013, with a very hefty price tag for clubs. What is the reason for trying to launch a professional league when the game is not really in place yet at the grassroots?
There’s a good amount of grassroots cricket already taking place in the U.S. Our formal research recognizes over 20,000 participants in the sport in the US and, informally, these numbers seem to be even higher. The U.S. has also been a source of broadcast revenue for the game over the past decade with fans tuning in to global events to follow the fortunes of teams such as India, Pakistan and the West Indies. Hopefully some of these local players and fans will form part of a core audience that, over time, will grow as more people find out about the game and its qualities.
How has social and digital media expedited the growth of the sport into new territories like the U.S.?
Digital and social media are helping drive the globalization of the sports industry and cricket rights holders and consumers have both been benefiting from this trend. From a digital perspective we’ve been able to provide match highlights and commentary as part of an event app for the recently concluded ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka while from a social media perspective we are bringing fans closer to the players by offering them the chance to tweet in questions for the post-match press conferences and select the images that will be put up on the changing room walls. The beauty of these innovations is their democracy – it doesn’t matter where in the world you’re following the tournament, you can still be an active participant and join the debate on the second screen.
Baseball remains king in the States for stick and ball sports, has there ever been talk of a cross-promotional platform for baseball and cricket?
There have been some cross-promotional initiatives over the years – Manny Ramirez’s efforts with a cricket bat can be seen on YouTube and a couple of the USA national cricket team spent some time with the Arizona Diamondbacks last year.
Rugby got into the Olympics be adapting to sevens, is the change in cricket format in hopes of a similar acceptance, even on an Olympic level?
Twenty20 is certainly the format of cricket most suitable for new audiences. We have expanded the number of teams that will take part in the next ICC World Twenty20 event in 2014 and the global qualifying process for this event provides a great incentive for countries like the U.S. to improve.
Whether cricket seeks to follow rugby into the Olympic Games is still open to debate. As an international federation we are in the process of evaluating the benefits and drawbacks of cricket’s potential involvement in the Olympics.
Many of the changes to cricket seem to attract a new, younger and more diverse audience. How do you mix that approach while not alienating a very strong core global audience?
We closely monitor viewership trends and public interest in the sport’s core markets for cricket generally and the three main formats in particular. What we’ve found to date is that the total audience for cricket is growing while the audience size for the longer formats of the game is not falling. Obviously this varies from market to market but, to date, the signs are that, if effectively differentiated and well-managed, the three international formats can co-exist and thrive.
We are also taking steps to protect and promote the other formats such as five-day Test matches. These steps include increasing the annual prize money for the team that tops the official Reliance ICC Test rankings from 2013 and introducing a World Test Championship from 2017.
Where would you see cricket growing quickest in the states…is there any anecdotal evidence that the time for cricket in the States is now?
Cricket participation is currently focused around areas of high immigration from Asia and the Caribbean, including New York, Chicago and parts of California while the only ICC-approved international-standard venue is in Florida.
We think this is a good time to target growth in the U.S.. If we don’t capture the attention of this generation of people of Asian and Caribbean descent they will in all likelihood drift towards other sports and entertainment opportunities. Furthermore, in Twenty20 we feel we have a highly-attractive format that, if effectively marketed, can appeal to sports fans throughout the world, regardless of their historic or cultural connections to cricket.