New York: Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne, two of cricket’s biggest international stars, have set their sights on the one country where they aren’t yet household names.
Tendulkar and Warne are headlining a three-city cricket tour next month with stops at baseball stadiums in New York, Houston and Los Angeles. One of the first major cricket events to be held in the US, the Cricket All-Star Tour will serve as many Americans’ first taste of the world’s second most popular sport.
They will play Twenty20 cricket, a shorter version of the game that lasts around three hours. There will be clinics with players, and fans will receive a Cricket 101 booklet.
“Americans have heard about cricket, but a lot of it is ‘Wow, that game’s been going for five days and there’s still not a result? It’s boring and it takes too long,’" Warne said in a telephone interview from London. “This format is very exciting."
For those who don’t need rules pamphlets or clinics, the tour is a chance to see some of the game’s most famous players of the past two decades. And for the lead sponsors, which include PepsiCo Inc., MasterCard Inc. and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., that means entry into South Asian communities across the US.
“That’s an important market for us," Edward Gold, State Farm’s advertising director, said in a telephone interview. “Plus, this has never been done before. It’s definitely a first-mover opportunity from our standpoint."
The event was created and organized by New York-based marketing firm Leverage Agency. While declining to say how much the events cost to run, Ben Sturner, the agency’s chief executive officer, said the tour should turn a profit in its first year if the stadiums sell out. Then the plan is to expand to other cities.
Tickets for the games at Citi Field (7 November), Minute Maid Park (11 November) and Dodgers Stadium (14 November) will go on sale this week. Prices will range from $50 to $350, according to Sturner, who said he is currently negotiating the broadcast rights.
Widely considered the world’s second most popular sport behind soccer, Cricket’s 2015 World Cup reached a broadcast audience of 1.56 billion, according to the International Cricket Council (ICC).
In the US, the sport is too small to be tracked in the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s annual participation study, and the national cricket association has a strategic plan to reach 50,000 American participants by 2017. By comparison, SFIA counts 2.4 million whitewater kayakers in the US, and 2.5 million participants in pickleball, a racquet sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.
Both Warne and Tendulkar said the growth of native South Asian, Caribbean, Australian and New Zealand populations within the US makes this the right time for an All-Start tour.
“Unfortunately they have not had a real chance to witness live cricket within a stadium," said Tendulkar, a batsman and former Indian captain. “It’s always been a delayed telecast or streaming on your laptop screen."
ESPN has expanded its US cricket rights in the past few years, including an agreement to air Indian Premier League matches on its ESPN3 digital platform and live coverage of the entire 2015 Cricket World Cup as part of a $99.99 package. During the tournament, ESPN’s cricket website saw a 19% jump in unique daily US visitors as compared with the 2011 tournament. Cricket aired on ESPN2 for the first time in 2014 with a World Twenty20 Championship final between Sri Lanka and India that drew 2.4 million viewers, or about as many as watched the 2014 Wimbledon men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
For optimism about cricket’s potential in the US, Sturner and Gold look to rugby, another foreign sport—with its own set of confusing rules—that is gaining a foothold in America. More than 61,000 people came to a rugby match last year between the New Zealand All Blacks and the US national team in Chicago, an event that drew broadcasters and sponsors banking on the sport’s domestic popularity.
“The passion of cricket fans is unlike other sports," Sturner said. “And the hope is that we also bring in new fans who haven’t experienced the game before."
An Australia native, Warne’s first exposure to basketball was the Harlem Globetrotters. He said his goal for the Cricket All-Stars is similar, to expand the reaches of the sport through an entertaining mix of exhibitions and clinics. The Twenty20 version of the sport, for example, is often played with cheerleaders, deejays and music.
“It’s the rock n’ roll version," Warne said.
Sturner said the three locations were picked specifically because of their large Caribbean or South Asian populations and cricket interest. New York’s Citi Field, for example, sits adjacent to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a popular spot for cricket leagues, including one for local teenagers run by the New York Police Department.
“I would like to see Americans picking up cricket bats along with baseball bats," Tendulkar said.
Planning the event took more than 14 months, according to Sturner. He travelled to India, China and London for meetings, secured approval from the ICC, and locked in some of the first available dates at Major League Baseball stadiums that could be hosting World Series games.
“We’re going to have a lot of eyes on this," said Gold, the State Farm advertising executive, who keeps a cricket bat and ball in his Bloomington, Illinois, office. “I’m personally very excited to see how ready the US is for cricket." Bloomberg