In 1988, FIFA was set to announce the host of the 1994 World Cup on June 30. But three months beforehand, they notified everyone that the announcement had been moved back to July 4, Independence Day, and it was then that everyone knew that soccer’s biggest stage was set for its very first trip to the USA.
It was a curious choice for FIFA to make. The USA national team hadn’t played in the finals since 1950, and the NASL, the country’s only stab at a professional league, had veered unsteadily between festivity, fiasco, and farce before dying ignominiously in 1984. One pundit summed the announcement up: “Soccer – football, as it’s known to the rest of the world – is coming to America. The only question is, ‘Does any American really care?’”
In the near-quarter-century since, soccer has risen to become a major American sport. The MLS, the professional league that was started as a condition of the ’94 World Cup announcement, boasts nineteen teams and an ever-growing roster of cities clamoring for a hometown squad. Fourteen of these teams play in stadiums built specifically for soccer, an impressive accomplishment given the mostly-empty NFL stadiums that the league once inhabited. The men’s national team has qualified for every World Cup finals since 1990, and its stars are standouts for some of the biggest club teams in the world.
It is this explosive growth that gives hope to those who wish for a similar development curve for cricket in the United States. Cricket has never been a popular spectator sport America, and immigrants are generally reckoned to be the sport’s only possible fan base, and the rules are confusing. But those who remember the arguments in the late 1980s will realize that these are the same reasons that people gave that soccer could never be popular here.
There are 47 adult cricket leagues across America, and cricket interests have claimed so often that there are “15 million cricket fans in the United States” that it’s become accepted as fact. The similarities between American soccer 25 years ago, and American cricket today, are evident – so evident that many American cricket interests can’t help but to compare the two, and come out with high hopes for the future of cricket in the USA.
Cricket, however, is not soccer. There are four reasons that cricket will always struggle to succeed in this country – and four things that those with high hopes for USA cricket will need to address.
1 – There is no infrastructure in place to support cricket in America.
In 2002, Japan and Korea combined to build sixteen new stadiums and refurbish four others to host the soccer World Cup, spending more than $7 billion along the way. In contrast, the 1994 soccer World Cup simply borrowed nine existing stadiums, five from the NFL and four from college football. When it came time to bid for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, US soccer identified 70 – 70! – stadiums with the potential to host a World Cup game or two. These were eventually whittled down to a list of 32, with an average stadium capacity of 74,000.
Converting a football field to a soccer field involves a couple of nets and a few extra lines painted on the field. It was easy for soccer to flourish in America – every town with a high school football field, on up to cities with football stadiums empty in the summer, could host soccer with virtually no effort.
In contrast, there is exactly one purpose-built cricket stadium in the USA. Its field – circular and 500 feet in diameter – does not fit into the confines baseball or a football field. South Africa ran into the same problem after building six new stadiums for the soccer World Cup in 2010; after examining their boundaries, Cricket South Africa declared them all unfit for major cricket matches (though one did host an international match despite being far too narrow.)
Remove football fields and baseball fields from the equation, and the roster of places in America that can host cricket dwindles virtually to zero. Cricket must scrounge for stopgap solutions, like softball complexes and local parks, to make do, and as a consequence it’s difficult for cricket to grow at any level.
2 – There are virtually no Americans, at least that aren’t immigrants from cricket-playing areas, that have any experience with cricket at all.
Even in 1988, soccer was played by kids across the country. The men’s college national championship first took place in 1959, and at the time of the 1994 World Cup, there were 1.7 million adults playing soccer in the USA. Indeed, the questions about the World Cup’s viability were mostly about whether Americans that played soccer would actually watch it.
Cricket in the USA, however, is played almost exclusively by immigrants and their kids. Journalist Peter Della Penna says that the owner of a cricket training facility once told him, “You’re the first American that’s ever walked in here.” There are groups, like the US Youth Cricket Association, that aim to change this, one youth cricket program at a time. But other than the immigrant community, virtually zero Americans have any experience at all with cricket.
3 – Baseball is popular and always will be.
If not for arguments about the term “football,” soccer would seldom be compared to any other Stateside sport. Meanwhile, America already has a bat-and-ball sport in which the object is to score runs – baseball, the “national pastime.” There are thousands of baseball teams in America, from the huge stadiums of the major leagues to the fields in towns with fewer than 100 residents. In the spring and summer, there’s a baseball game somewhere, at some level, in every town in the land. Kids can start out in T-ball as toddlers and play all the way through school, whether male or female.
Rugby in America has similar problems; it will always fail in the comparison to football in this country. It makes the obvious question a very hard one to answer, even for those of us who like cricket: why would anyone watch or play cricket instead of baseball?
4 – It is quite impossible to be a cricket fan in America without having to look overseas.
To be a fan, in the abbreviation-for-fanatic original sense of the word, you need a team to cheer for. Major sports in America are ubiquitous on television and in the sports media; these days, a fan could pick any team in any league and get as much coverage as they could possibly dream.
This wasn’t true for soccer in 1988, of course. But soccer had one advantage – they had a national team, one that was on the rise, for all of America to get behind. The 1994 World Cup on home soil saw the home team earn a decent draw with Switzerland and score an improbable victory over Colombia, driving the team to advance in the tournament for the first time in 64 years. From that point on, every American had a team to follow.
Over in American cricket, there is… nothing.
Sure, there’s a national team, and there’s a national board, recognized by cricket’s governing body. But to cover all of the inexplicable decisions, back-room intrigue, and counterproductive behavior by the USA Cricket Association would take a post twice as long as this one. There’s no way to be a fan of the national team or watch them play. There’s no American league to follow. There are national championships for the local club leagues, which USACA manages to either cancel or postpone every single year.
Even if there were Americans ready to take up cricket fandom, their only choice is to pay for a premium TV or internet channel, and become a fan of someone else’s international team. It’s a poor state of affairs.
What is to be done
It’s easy to look at the four factors above and think that it’s hopeless for cricket in America. It’s certainly not in a good place, but all is not lost, because some – if not all – of the problems above are fixable.
It does not take much imagination to imagine a scenario in which American cricket is in a much better position. Begin with a governing body that can hold events when they’re scheduled and organize and publicize a national team. Move on to improved cricket infrastructure, with more than one field in the nation on which legitimate cricket can be played – including places for a national league on a small scale to play, something that’s already in the works (for the umpteenth time, but still) due to a partnership with New Zealand Cricket. And make this all available for fans and potential fans. Thanks to the internet, it’s not that hard to make broadcasts and decent coverage available.
There’s only one reason to be hopeless: all of this was true last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. And yet the country’s governing body remains in shambles, unable or unwilling to act. Until that’s not true, these four problems will remain. And cricket will remain stuck in limbo, just like American Soccer 1986.