For a very long time, sports and sports leagues were insular but with the world shrinking, and a lot more open flow of people across the borders, it has become imperative that the various leagues tap in to the international markets to expand their fanbase and add new revenue streams. It is not rare—in fact, quite common—to find boys walking around in the streets of India’s cities professing their allegiances to Manchester United or Chelsea in the form of expensive shirts.
In an effort spearheaded by retired Australian spin wizard Shane Warne, there is going to be a set of three Twenty20 games, exclusively featuring retired big names in cricket including Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and Muttiah Muralitharan, held across three cities in the US in early November. It’s being promoted as #SachinVsShane as the two retired legends lead their sides (Sachin’s Blasters and Shane’s Warriors) in games which will be held in Baseball stadiums in New York, Houston and Los Angeles. Warne has been telling anyone that will listen that it is a way to promote cricket to the Americans, and also an opportunity for the expat community that idolized these cricketers in their pomp, to watch them one more time.
Even a cursory look at the way the event has been arranged and promoted will show it for what it is: a marketing gimmick to add to the coffers of these retired cricketers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any person—let alone a sportsman—that wants to get paid, and wants to cash in on their past accomplishments. What this event definitely is not is a noble attempt led by Warne to bring cricket to the Americans. If it were, he wouldn’t be bringing retired cricketers, bona fide greats in their time, no question, but some of whom haven’t seen any action in several years. He would instead look to bring the best amongst the active cricketers to showcase the best that cricket can offer to the American paying public.
American sports leagues, supported by 300+ million population and a strong economy, have been some of the most successful franchise sports in the world and have led the way for other global brands in the marketing of their major sports; baseball, football and basketball. The leagues have always attracted the best athletes in these sports from around the world to American shores, but in the last fifteen years, there has been a significant push by the respective leagues—Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA)—to take the sport itself abroad. Let’s look at how they have tried to reach new audiences.
The NFL is holding three regular season games this season at Wembley Stadium in London. NFL began scheduling football games in London since the 2007 season as a way to open up that market. It began as just one game per season, and the success has been such that this season three games were scheduled. Baseball has been traditionally the most international of all the American sports, attracting following from the Far East, Australia and of course, Central and South America. MLB decided to take a few regular season games abroad in 2004 when the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays played their season opener in Tokyo. Several other teams have held their season-openers in Japan since then, and last year, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers squared off in their season opening series at the famed Sydney Cricket Ground.
To reiterate, baseball and football stages matches that are part of their regular season, meaning games that actually matter, featuring active players, rather than an exhibition of geriatric legends. If NBA decided to promote their sport to a new market by staging an exhibition game featuring Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson the tickets to which cost $200, how many fans would even look to go to these games, and more importantly, get inspired to become fans of the sport? If Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder, featuring two of the most dynamic hoopsters currently, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, were to play a few regular season games, say in Berlin, a whole new generation of German fans would take to the sport.
Cricket, with its roots and attraction in international competition, has tried several times with no great success to open itself to the American market. Cricket has been the preserve of mainly expats in America, not because Americans won’t take a liking to another bat-ball sport but there has never been a concerted, coordinated effort by the administrators at the ICC as well as those at the now suspended USA Cricket Association (USACA) to bring the sport to the local Americans. Sri Lanka took on New Zealand in a couple of T20 matches in 2010 and New Zealand played a couple more matches in 2012 against West Indies at the same venue as well. Briefly, there was a spike in interest but due to the lack of any sustainable processes that could take advantage of the curiosity, cricket once again vanished from the general American consciousness. There is talk of the Caribbean Premier League hosting a few T20s in the US as well but one can venture a guess that it will primarily be catering to West Indian expats, but at least they would be trotting out stars who are still active and close to their physical primes, unlike the #SachinVsShane participants.
Warne tweeted a couple of days ago that he was in negotiations to broadcast these T20 matches from America on Sky, Channel Nine and Star. Once again, if he were serious about promoting cricket in the US, he would be trying to speak to the local broadcasters to get the sport to a wider audience. He would also not be charging $175 and more per ticket for these glorified exhibition games, if he were really keen on bringing new fans to cricket. Let’s call it for what it is. It’s an attempt to cash in on the ‘well to do’ expats in the large metro areas—mostly Indians—who haven’t had a chance to see their childhood heroes on a cricket field in a while, and that’s okay. Who am I to complain if people are willing to fork over hundreds of dollars for an evening of not-so-competitive, ordinary cricket? But Shane, just don’t call it your altruistic effort to promote cricket in the US. That insults my intelligence.
Subash Jayaraman is an Engineer by training and a cricket writer & podcaster by choice. He hosts a popular cricket podcast Couch Talk on thecricketcouch.com and tweets as @thecricketcouch.