The story goes that when George Washington was writing the first constitution of the United States he would take a break to play cricket,” says Tim Anderson, head of global development at the International Cricket Council (ICC). “Three-hundred years ago cricket was America’s first bat and ball sport – long before baseball was even thought of.”
Focusing on cricket’s “significant historical roots” in the US will be part of the ICC’s strategy for bringing the sport back into the mainstream of American life says Anderson – and Twenty20 (T20) cricket, with its carefully cultivated “entertainment and excitement value”, will be the body’s first weapon of choice.
“Many American sports fans have heard of cricket but they still think it’s played in white clothes over five days and that nobody wins,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of work in the US and that’s still the perception. Once we introduce T20 cricket to mainstream America we think that lots of people over there will be starting to get really excited by it.”
The ICC recently approved proposals made by the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) – the region’s primary T20 tournament – to move some of the competition’s fixtures to Florida to capitalise on the growing cricket market in the southern state.
Last October, retired legends Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting took part in three All Star games, which were played in New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and Anderson explains that the time is right to ramp up fan and market development, with plans to bring international cricket to the US.
“T20 competitions such as The CPL, the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash all learned their marketing and entertainment values from American sports, so it’s not going to be difficult for us to take that type of cricket to them,” he says.
According to Anderson 15m people are regularly watching cricket in the US – “making it about the same size as the cricket-watching public in Australia” – although the majority of those individuals are expatriates from Asia and the Caribbean.
“There are about seven or eight key markets in the US, including New York and New Jersey, Washington DC, Miami, Chicago, Houston and Dallas, and then over to the west coast in LA and San Francisco,” he explains. “Most expats live in the bigger cities, and that’s where you’ll find most of the enthusiastic cricket supporters.”
The former Australian under-19 captain wants to expand beyond that and improve both the nation’s grassroots cricket provision and elite pathway, but concedes that there will be challenges along the way. The USA Cricket Association (USACA) – the national governing body – was suspended by the ICC last summer due to “concerns about its governance, finance, reputation and cricketing activities”.
The first priority, says Anderson, is getting USACA “back on track”. Working to unify the “fragmented governance landscape” has been his focus over the past year. This will be followed by a push on youth development and participation. Despite the fact 15m people watch the sport in America, the ICC estimates that only 200,000 people play grassroots cricket.
The growth of women’s football in the US will act as inspiration to grow cricket, he says: “Women’s cricket is going through a really strong growth phase at the moment, but there’s very little women’s cricket in the US. We think it’s a really important growth area, and we can build the sport in the same way football was built off the back of the female game 15-20 years ago.”
But to develop the playing side the number of quality facilities will have to increase says Anderson, admitting the ICC and USACA are facing a “real challenge” to change the landscape. At elite level, there’s only one internationally accredited venue in the whole nation, located in Florida, while the general quality of facilities is deemed to be “low”.
“For good cricket players and teams you need good facilities,” he says. “It’s really important for us to help communities build relationships with local government to get facilities up and running.”
The ICC is auditing the best way to approach facilities management and investigating the scope for a national youth development programme.
Anderson appears to have all his bases covered, which leaves only one question unanswered: was George Washington a batsman or a bowler? “Let’s call him an all-rounder,” he replies with a chuckle.