Why isn't cricket popular in America?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 24 2011 7:06 AM

Why Don't Americans Play Cricket?

All the other former British colonies seem to.

How did cricket lose its U.S. following?
How did cricket lose its U.S. following?

The Cricket World Cup kicked off Saturday, with India defeating Bangladesh by 87 runs. Fourteen teams, including many former British colonies—but not the United States—are contesting this year's cup. Why isn't cricket more popular in this country?

It lost out to baseball. Cricket was among the more popular sports in America in the mid-19th century, but baseball's rapid postbellum expansion came at the expense of cricket. Some have argued that the shorter duration of a baseball game, its simpler rules (at least initially), and the fact that it didn't require dedicated fields helped kill cricket, but these claims are hard to evaluate. What's more clear is that marketing played a major role. When a sense of American national identity began to emerge in the decades following the Civil War, along with new communication and transportation technologies, baseball promoters recognized an opportunity. They stitched together some of the existing traveling clubs into the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1871, and young athletes and fans flocked to the unified league. Cricket clubs, by contrast, stayed regional and let the historical moment slip. Many of the top players switched to baseball, and the fans went with them. Cricket did maintain a significant following through the early 20th century in some urban areas, notably Philadelphia.

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Baseball and cricket were too similar to coexist on the main stage. From a fan's perspective, the leisurely pace made either one an appealing accompaniment for a glass of cider on a lazy Saturday afternoon. From a player's viewpoint, the skills required to play the game were nearly identical. Setting aside differences in jargon, both sports feature pitchers, batters, and fielders. Top athletes moved easily between the two sports—and, when baseball became more lucrative, many of them left cricket permanently. Traveling baseball teams even played series against cricket clubs, alternating between the two games.

Baseball's melting-pot culture was another advantage the sport had over cricket. Cricket was the game Anglo-Americans played to keep their heritage alive. As generations passed, newer immigrants and their children adopted America's game, and its ascendancy was aided by a rising sense of U.S. nationalism. New Yorkers who wanted equal time for baseball on the cricket fields of Central Park in 1865 emphasized cricket's Englishness.

Today, there are periodic reports of an American cricket revival, and foreign promoters occasionally try to grab a piece of the U.S. market. But useful statistics are hard to come by. The annual Harris poll of sports fans, which ranks football and baseball as America's favorite sports, doesn't even offer cricket as an option. A Columbia University survey estimated there are 15 million cricket fans nationwide, but it's not clear how actively engaged those people are in the sport.

The financial numbers aren't favorable to cricket. As of 2006, one-half of the USA Cricket Association's $200,000 annual budget is paid by the International Cricket Association, as an investment in growing the sport here. By comparison, the annual revenue of the New York Yankees alone tops $300 million, and the team's total value is $1.2 billion.

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Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.