SBJ/Aug. 22-28, 2016/Opinion

How cricket is swinging for ‘sixes’ in busy U.S. sports landscape

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Cricket holds its position on the global business stage as the world’s second largest sport economy but its share in the U.S. sports industry has been insignificant despite having rich history, including the honor to host the first international cricket match in 1844. However, thanks to an emerging commitment from the International Cricket Council to develop the sport in the States, cricket could find its way back into American favor.

Trailing only soccer globally, the business of cricket experienced record growth during the ICC World Twenty20 cricket competition in March and April. In India alone, the cumulative in-house viewership for the event was 730 million. In the U.S., on Willow TV, more than 1.4 million households tuned in during odd hours to watch the Twenty20. On Saturday and Sunday, the Indian national team will play matches in Florida against the West Indies team, and the viewership both globally and domestically will continue to grow.

On Twitter, the tournament generated 5.75 billion impressions of tweets related to ICC World Twenty20. In comparison, the NFL’s Super Bowl 50 generated 4.3 billion impressions on Twitter. And Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was one of 4 million unique American fans that tracked the matches online.

West Indies, which won the ICC World Twenty20 final, will play a Florida exhibition this month.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The U.S. sports landscape is a very tough one to break into but cricket seems to have the right playbook to score big in a highly competitive market. In a cricket match, hitting a “six” is the equivalent of batting a home run in baseball or scoring a touchdown in football. So here are six reasons that the business of cricket is primed for growth in the United States:

1. Big business: Broadcast rights for cricket continue to rise in the aftermath of the Indian Premier League’s $1.06 billion broadcast agreement signed in 2008 by a consortium consisting of India’s Sony Entertainment Television (Set Max) network and Singapore-based World Sport Group. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference earlier this year, Stan Kroenke was asked what team he was looking to add to his portfolio of teams that includes EPL, MLS, NBA, NHL and NFL teams. “A cricket team,” he said.

2. Desirable consumer base: According to a SportsDesk Media Fan DNA report in spring 2016, the U.S. cricket fan base is college-educated, affluent and diverse. The cricket fan is a married, 22- to 44-year-old male with a college education and an annual household income of more than $75,000. He is a white-collar executive and family-focused. The ICC believes they represent a consumer base not being fully maximized by other U.S.-based sports organizations and advertisers.

India’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni generated $27 million from endorsements in 2015.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
3.
Star power:
Mahendra Singh Dhoni generated $27 million from endorsements alone in 2015, according to Forbes. He is currently ranked 23rd on Forbes’ listing of the world’s highest-paid athletes ahead of notable athletes J.J. Watt, Peyton Manning, and Maria Sharapova.

In social media metrics, Sachin Tendulkar currently has twice as many Twitter followers as reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry. Social media is likely to be a preferred mode of communication for early U.S. cricket fans as most of the cricket stars will be based outside of the U.S.

4. Content creation and distribution: In 2015 during the ICC World Cup, ESPN sold more than 100,000 direct-to-consumer subscriptions in the U.S. for $100 apiece. ESPN President John Skipper told The Wall Street Journal that the venture was profitable and that he would insist that more consumer offerings would adhere to this model to aggregate content. The viewership figures drew the attention of NBC Sports Network, which announced last month that it will carry Cricket Australia’s Big Bash League matches live starting in January 2017.

In cricket-rich countries like Australia, England and India, cricket highlight vignettes have proved to be simple and profitable to package digitally for highlights to tell a story and customize for sponsorship partners.

5. Customizable sponsorship blueprint: The commercial vision for cricket in the U.S. is starting with a blank slate. So the ICC’s global partners, which include PepsiCo, Emirates and Nissan, will have a seat at the table to customize activations and go-to-market strategies.

The game of cricket most reflects baseball and will adopt a similar commercial path to capitalize on in-between-inning breaks and allow for authentic commercial integration.

6. Historical influence: Not many emerging sports in the U.S. can claim to have been the most popular sports in the country for almost a century, but cricket can. Cricket was an American pastime when George Washington would spend his leisure time playing cricket.

From a branding and authenticity perspective, cricket simultaneously represents the past and the future. Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox partnered with the ICC in May around the ICC Cricket Combine to stage a cricket exhibition at U.S. Cellular Field. The event capitalized on the White Sox having played their first 10 seasons at the Chicago Cricket Ground.

Combine all of these reasons with the state of the sports economy in 2016 being a truly global marketplace, and U.S.-based sports executives can understand why the ICC feels the time is now to grow the sport of cricket in this country.

Usman Shuja (@kshuja) is vice president of market development for SparkCognition and serves on the U.S. advisory board for the International Cricket Council. He was the leading wicket taker for the U.S. national cricket team, on which he played between 2006-15. Dan Migala (@DanMigala) is co-founder and chief innovation officer of PCG & SportsDesk Media and serves as the lead account strategist for the Big Bash League and the International Cricket Council.

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