Today I read a very interesting article at Cricinfo about the dangers of over promoting Twenty20 cricket in an attempt to engage an American audience. I responded in the comments, but I would like to explore the problem a little more here. I am not an expert on the promotion of sport in any form, but I am a convert to cricket as an adult. I also am making an effort to attract the people around me to the sport. So I speak from my experience.
First, the problem of getting Americans to watch cricket. I agree that Americans have a category in their brain for long sport-watching. Golf is a great example, but I see many people spend an entire Sunday afternoon watching football or NASCAR. The problem I see, is the difficulty of sitting someone down and explaining the game when it won’t be over for a few days. I think T20 is ideally suited for introduction to the basics of the game. On a more cynical note, let’s all just admit that Twenty20 is what will make the most money. It’s much more of a spectacle.
Another problem with promoting test cricket in particular, is the unlikelihood that America will field a test team in the foreseeable future. It will be difficult to convince Americans to get involved when they are forced to find another country to root for some other country. ODIs are a different matter. I the U.S. team can continue its success in the ICC World Division system, we have a chance for qualifying for the next World Cup. I think the groundwork needs to be laid now in order to get the country behind the U.S. team the way we have begun doing in soccer. Fans need to be invested in their teams and the most effective way of doing that is making it personal.
The personal aspect of this is why city leagues in the IPL mold need to be developed. There are a lot of problems inherent in establishing these, I admit. I do not think we can build an IPL. I don’t think we are at a stage where we can mix international players (by this I mean players who have played for their countries) with American talent. This is a serious hurdle. We must have American athletes playing in a league like this. At the same time, we need a standard of play that will draw interest from crowds. There are lessons to be learned from MLS, its longevity is impressive, but I think we need to allow the clubs to draw plenty of high class players as the years go on, and that means money. This league can offer a source of local pride in a way that rooting for the New Zealand ODI squad never could for an American.
So, I am firmly of the opinion that Twenty20 cricket is what is going to provide the foothold for the sport in the United States. That being said, I do believe that efforts must be made to promote the longer forms of the game. The biggest step in this process is making it easier to watch cricket in the U.S. I have already made posts about how to watch cricket in this country, but it is still not ideal. I think the IPL posting all its games on YouTube was inspired and I hope the business model was effective so that it can be expanded. But watching on a computer screen isn’t good enough. Willow Cricket is available on Dish Network and DirecTV, but at least with Dish, this requires a certain satellite, not the standard one. Cricket needs to be on television in an easily accessible way.
Television is not the only problem. There needs to be more opportunities to see cricket live. I would love to see an exhibition test match played in the U.S., but the primary problem there is facilities. There is only one international standard stadium in the U.S. and even it is not up to scratch for a test match. If there were 5 or 6 international standard pitches in the country, we could host an America’s Cup or some such tournament with the individual member nations of the West Indies. This would facilitate not only T20 cricket but also the 50 over format.
Back to the article I am referencing. Mr. Shah says that he is not concerned about whether or not cricket is in the Olympics. I see his point about how there are already exciting tournaments going on, and that’s true. But the Olympics offers an opportunity that those others don’t, the exposure of the Olympics and the opportunity to exploit that to explain the game. I love the commentators I hear when watching cricket, but the Olympics provides an opportunity to have the commentators operate under the assumption that most viewers are not familiar with the game. The most important thing that will expand interest in the game is an understanding of how it works. This makes all sports more interesting, but with cricket people can see just how impressive these athletes are. I am way more impressed with a Sachin Tendulkar over a Derek Jeter. The Olympics offers a time for curious viewers to pick up the game without prompting from existing fans, and T20 is the only format that will work in the Olympics.
Lastly, I want to deal with the danger of overpromoting T20. I think this is an important consideration. T20 must only provide a foothold for the sport. The expansion of cricket will not be a success if a significant number of American fans do not embrace test cricket. Not all fans, that would be asking too much, but a majority I would say.
If anyone is actually reading this, and is actually an American who doesn’t know much about cricket, it may be hard to understand why it is important for such a long game, where it’s likely no one will win, can be so important. Mr. Shah has much good to say on this subject but I will try to add my own ideas. Test cricket illustrates what is truly important in cricket – taking wickets. There can and should be no minimizing of this fact. Because this is the true goal (over scoring runs) your team must be able to do this or it does not deserve to win. A team that can’t take 20 wickets can’t win it’s that simple. There is also something incredible about watching a man keep is concentration after 4 or 5 hours of batting, even batting against mediocre bowling. The bowlers, too, show an amazing patience, delivery after delivery sometimes desperate to find a weakness, other times playing out a long term strategy.
I will admit that test cricket can have boring periods. As Mr. Shah points out, it is unusual to watch a test match in its entirety. But there is nothing in sport that is more exciting than a bowling team with 19 wickets in their pocket. Even if this lasts for 2 sessions. Every single delivery could mean victory. The suspense and excitement is my favorite part of the game. don’t get me wrong, the ebb and flow of a match has its own appeal, but I don’t think I’m alone in my love of that last wicket.
Mr. Shah proposes that a focus on T20 would mean packing the international schedule with T20 matches, which would mean less tests. This is an unacceptable situation, but not one that I think is inevitable. I think the focus of the T20 format should be limited to the United States or other countries where the sport needs a boost. This should be done with the explicit intention of expanding the cricket culture to include the longer forms of the game. (First class matches in the U. S.?) The rest of the international scene should be kept balanced to provide high quality ODIs and tests for Americans to watch and get exposed to while the standard of American cricket increases.
Nothing would make me happier than to have the second most popular sport in the world get the fanbase and attention it deserves from the American people. This can only be done by beginning with T20, but that must lead to developing an interest in the longer forms. The education of the American sports fan on the game of cricket must happen intentionally. I will never forget trying to get into curling during the last Olympics. I could tell that if someone would just explain the basic strategy, it would be a very interesting game. But the television presentation fell short. I also feel that more could have been done with the commentary of the 2 T20 matches in Florida last May. I watched the replays on ESPN3 and there was some attempt at explanation, but it needed to go further. Maybe a separate commentary screen for complete novices or something like that. Wisdom needs to be employed as efforts are made to promote cricket in this country. I hope the new USACA leadership, whoever that may be, keeps cricket’s best interests at heart as it endeavors to achieve a monumental task.