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The Future of Cricket in America - Three Lessons From the Past
by Tom Melville
Mar 30, 2010

The Future of Cricket in America - Three Lessons From the Past

By Tom Melville

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1.Know What You’re Up Against

This is the business of cross-cultural sports promotion, the toughest business to be in and the sweep of history is against you.  Survey the history of sports anywhere around the world and what do you find?  In all instances sports that are now popular became popular in those countries right from the start and have remained popular. 

Pic (Right):  "Cricket can hope to become a successful niche sport," says Tom Melville.  He has been introducing cricket to Americans for over 25 years.  [Pic Courtesy: Jamie Harrison]

Those sports that did not become popular  in those countries have never become popular  no matter how much effort has been made to make them popular (as the NFL discovered in Europe). 

These are sobering thoughts for those cricket entrepreneurs who see a “vast market potential” for cricket in America, and if anyone thinks they can take this country by storm they’ll have to singlehandedly change the course of history.

Personally, I don’t think cricket will ever be anything except a niche sport in America.  But there are successful niche sports and unsuccessful ones.  Cricket remains the poster boy for an unsuccessful one.  Rugby, by contrast, is an example of a successful one; responsive, well organized, and well financed ($8 million dollar annual budget).  This, realistically, is the best cricket can hope for in this country and I, for one, would be more than satisfied with that since it’d represent nothing less than a quantum leap from where the game is now.  You’re never going to get all Americans interested in cricket.  You’re not even going to get a lot interested.  But there’s no reason you can’t get some interested.


2.The Game Must be Grown, Not Transplanted

Cricket in the United States today is basically in the same situation it’s been in for the last 150 years; what sports historians call an “established outsider,” an institution that’s secured a place in American society but isn’t part of that society.  In the 19th century American cricket was an extension of the English immigrant community.  In the 21st century it’s an extension of the South Asian/Caribbean community.

Now this raises the sensitive issue of “ex-pats vs mainstream Americans” and, to me, this has never been an issue of where one was born, how long someone’s lived in this country or what passport you’re carrying.  It’s an issue of orientation, and with the ex-pat community today, as it has been in the past, cricket’s orientated away from America.  Those few hours of cricket in the parks on the weekend are a time to temporarily block out American culture.  Its inspiration, its models are in India, Pakistan, and the West Indies. 

Now it’s only natural someone’s going to play and organize cricket the way they grew up with it, but unless  something is done to change this mentality cricket will be forever doomed to being an “underground sport”; in American society but not of it.

I can’t see cricket ever appealing to Americans as transplanted Indian, Caribbean, New Zealand, or any other form of cricket, no matter how much effort is put into this.  The game will only grow by building it from the ground up, firmly rooted, every step of the way, in the tastes and customs Americans are comfortable with through their own sporting traditions.


3. Play The Game Like An American

In my history of American cricket I concluded that cricket eventually failed in the one place where it had been popular with Americans - Philadelphia - because, for all their enthusiasm, these Philadelphians themselves never fully came to terms with the game as Americans.

It’s a problem that continues to this day.   Many Americans who take to cricket do so as a well-intentioned - perhaps even unconscious - protest to Americans sports culture.  They’re attracted to the “gentleman’s game” because they don’t like the “over commercialization” or “winning is everything” character of American sports.  They don’t seem to understand that cricket, if it’s ever to be popular with mainstream Americans, must become all these things!  Americans want excitement and moral release with their sports not a catechism lesson (does anyone really believe - to give the most obvious example - that Americans would warm up to a sport where they’d have to accept, without question, the umpire’s every decision?).

I’ve run into Americans who believed test cricket is the only “real cricket” and scoffed at the T20 game.  These people are welcome to their opinions, but if you can’t package cricket in a way that it’ll “play in Peoria” it will be a game permanently confined, even with Americans, to the oddball fringe.


(Tom Melville is an American cricket player and popularizer who’s been introducing cricket to Americans for over twenty five years.  He’s the author of 'Cricket For Americans' and 'The Tented Field: A History of Cricket in America').

 

 

By Tom Melville

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More Views by Tom Melville
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