The Media Today

The US is hosting a World Cup. You (probably) haven’t heard about it.

June 18, 2024
The US cricket captain Monank Patel celebrates scoring fifty runs during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup cricket match against Pakistan in Grand Prairie, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

In 2016, Pradipan Thapa, a friend of mine in New York, saw a group of people playing a makeshift game of cricket on the city’s Lower East Side, using a tennis ball wrapped in tape, and asked if he could join in. Thapa had played cricket growing up in Nepal, but hadn’t done so since relocating to the US a few years earlier. As the years went by, he found different groups to play with and graduated from the taped-up ball to the real thing; he now plays in an amateur league in the Bronx, one of a number in the Tristate area. “It was mostly Indians, Pakistanis, people from Bangladesh, some guys from the Caribbean,” Thapa recalls, of the cricketing community he discovered in New York. “I’ve made a lot of friends, actually…just playing cricket.” 

Many Americans likely wouldn’t have noticed cricket being played on the streets of New York, or known what it was if they had; the sport, after all, is not considered a traditional American pastime. This is in some respects a false impression—as Simon Worrall has reported in Smithsonian magazine, cricket actually has a long history in the US, dating back to before the country’s founding. Benjamin Franklin is said to have imported a rulebook from England in the 1750s, and postrevolutionary newspapers carried accounts of “young gentlemen” taking up the sport, as well as ads for equipment; in 1844, the US played Canada in New York in a match that generated significant media interest and is now thought to have been the first international fixture in any sport, anywhere. Over time, though, cricket faded in the US and baseball—an aesthetically similar but quicker and more “democratic” sport (at least according to Major League Baseball’s official historian)—ascended. Nowadays, as The Guardian’s Aaron Timms put it last year, “talking to Americans about cricket is usually about as easy as explaining climate change to a ferret.”

When Worrall wrote in 2006, however, cricket was already “bouncing back” in North America, a phenomenon he attributed in large part to an influx of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean. Since then, that influx has continued (the South Asian American population reportedly doubled between 2010 and 2020) and the popularity of cricket in the US has surged, too; in terms of raw numbers of people who follow and watch the sport, the US is now one of its biggest markets in the world. This, of course, has made it a broadcasting opportunity: if diaspora communities from cricket-mad countries still sometimes gather to watch international matches in communal settings, US-based fans can increasingly do so in their own homes, as the New York Times has reported. (Thapa told me that he has only ever watched professional cricket in New York from his apartment.) Willow—a cricket streaming platform that was founded in North America in the early 2000s, and has since been acquired by the company that owns the Times of India newspaper—reached four million US households as of last year. CBS and ESPN have broadcast games, too. 

Mostly, games being broadcast on Willow took place overseas—but last year, its founders launched Major League Cricket (MLC) in the US, with backing from Asian American tech titans like Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft. (Another backer: Ross Perot Jr., the son of the gadfly presidential candidate. “This is year one,” Perot told The New Yorker last year, referring to MLC. “You want to take care of that dedicated fan base. And then you want to grow the fan base.”) And, this month, the US—along with various Caribbean nations—has hosted the men’s World Cup in “Twenty20” (or “T20”) cricket, a truncated form of the sport with matches similar in length to baseball games. (Matches in “test cricket,” a more traditional form of the sport, can last up to five days.) The US beat Canada in the opening match in Texas—an echo of the 1844 contest. The next day, the World Cup organizers took out a full-page ad in the Times. It showed the Statue of Liberty holding aloft a cricket bat and the words, “Cricket has arrived.”

With the launch of MLC and, particularly, the arrival of the World Cup, various major American news organizations have run versions of the same story—noting the surprising resurgence of cricket in the US and the role of immigrant communities in driving this trend, while asking what it might take for the sport to catch on among Americans who don’t have family ties to traditional cricketing nations. (In one representative segment, Amna Nawaz, of PBS, tried her hand at batting with a family of Indian descent in Maryland, calling the sport “not as easy as it looks.”)

For now, the future growth potential of cricket in the US is an open question. Among many other factors, the answer will depend on its appeal as a media product—for rights-holding broadcasters but also, perhaps, for sports journalists in traditional and new media alike. Recently, my colleague Josh Hersh and I have written about the decline of rigorous sports reporting as a discipline and the ascendancy of content, often produced by athletes. In the US, however, even the content space for cricket remains underdeveloped—and the number of journalists covering the sport as a beat can be counted, literally, on the fingers of one hand. It’s unclear if that footprint can grow—and whether the sport can continue to grow if it doesn’t.

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Peter Della Penna grew up in a sports-mad family in New Jersey. “I had always intended to pursue a career in sports journalism,” he told me, “once I realized I wasn’t going to play for the Giants or the Devils.” In the mid-2000s, while studying the craft at university in Nebraska, he took a semester abroad in Australia; he expected that he might get into rugby or Aussie rules more than cricket, but one of the first things he saw after touching down was a newspaper front page with the headline “Bloody hell, these Poms mean business.” As it happened, Della Penna’s time in Australia coincided with a legendary series of matches between Australia and England. (“Pom” is Australian slang for a British person.) At first, the match reports he read “might as well have been written in Chinese,” he recalls—but he came to understand the sport’s arcane rules and foibles, and got hooked. He determined to make a career covering it.

After graduating, Della Penna, recognizing a lack of opportunities to cover cricket in the US, went to England and applied for jobs—but “everybody laughed at me,” he recalls. Back in New Jersey, he joined a cricket club for something to do; one day, he was playing at an indoor facility when he got talking to the owner and was invited to appear on a radio show that he ran. Della Penna was quickly asked to cohost the show and write for its website—which, at that point, had no American contributors—and eventually landed a gig at ESPN, first as a freelancer, then as US correspondent at ESPNcricinfo, a leading cricket news site globally. He also wrote US entries for the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, a prestigious British publication known as a Bible of the sport. On a trip back to England, another member of the media boasted to Della Penna that he’d just been published in Wisden. “You probably wouldn’t have heard of it,” Della Penna recalls the man saying. Della Penna replied that he’d been contributing for over a decade.

Della Penna was the only journalist covering US cricket full-time, writing not only about on-the-pitch action but also a series of scandals that have bedeviled the sport’s governing body in the country. Such work did not bring wide recognition. “If you write similar stuff, and you cover the NBA or the NFL…you get recognized by the national media,” Della Penna says. Someone once called him “the Woodward and Bernstein of cricket journalism”; he replied, “It sure doesn’t feel like that.” Last year, he was laid off as Disney, ESPN’s owner, implemented sweeping cuts. 

Della Penna is now covering cricket in the US on a freelance basis. In that, he is not totally alone. In 2015, Nate Hays, an IT worker, got into cricket after a colleague from South Asia showed him a clip online; among other gigs, he now writes on a volunteer basis for Emerging Cricket, a website based in Australia that covers the sport in countries where it is growing in popularity but (mostly) not yet dominant. In 2019, Smit Patel, a self-described “failed cricketer” in India who moved to the US as a young man, messaged cricket editors at various international publications and eventually fell into a gig at Cricbuzz, a site owned by the Times of India group, which wanted a US correspondent after the founders of Willow won the rights to set up MLC.

Both Patel and Hays juggle cricket coverage with full-time jobs. “There’s not a lot of money [in being] solely devoted towards covering cricket in America at the moment,” Patel told me; when I asked him if anyone else is on the beat aside from him, Hays, and Della Penna, he replied, “It’s nonexistent.” This balancing act, of course, brings obvious limitations. And the beat has other challenges. Hays told me that he has struggled to win accreditation, both from US cricket authorities and the organizers of the current World Cup. “When you hear them on one side talk about how they want to spread the game…and then they don’t give you accreditation for that, it’s doublespeak,” Hays says.

According to Della Penna, TV and radio opportunities in international cricket coverage tend to be monopolized by former players, unlike in many US sports, where ex-pros often sit alongside specialized broadcasters. He picked up some work for the World Cup, including as a pundit for the BBC’s famous Test Match Special broadcast, but when I asked what his freelance work has looked like since he was laid off from ESPN, he replied, “It looks like not much, to be brutally honest.” Overall, he told me that he expects to lose several thousand dollars of his own money covering the World Cup—and that he is questioning whether he has wasted years of his life covering a “dead-end sport,” and whether he should have stuck with baseball or football instead. 

“All these people are writing stuff about Cricket’s growing! Cricket’s exploding! Man, this World Cup is gonna…leave such a big legacy,” he said. “What does it say about the legacy of cricket in the country if…the only person who was a full-time paid professional journalist to cover cricket in the USA is gonna be five thousand dollars in debt at the end of the World Cup?”

After beating Canada in the tournament opener, the US team also beat Pakistan—a result that members of the international sporting press hailed as one of the greatest cricket upsets in recent memory, maybe ever. Some of those who were paying attention quipped that no one else in America likely was. “U.S. Scores Historic Cricket Win,” the Times wrote in a headline, “but Only Pakistan Notices.”

This wasn’t exactly true—the shock victory did cut through to some extent in the US, including in the mainstream press. Numerous outlets noted that Saurabh Netravalkar, a key player in the US win, also works as an engineer at the software company Oracle; the libertarian magazine Reason hailed the result as a victory for immigration, describing it as “America’s superpower.” After the US team qualified for the tournament’s quarterfinals (known as the “Super 8” stage), one reporter raised its success in the White House briefing room.

And yet the coverage has hardly been wall to wall, and aspects of its framing have frustrated Hays, for one. “It’s great that it’s brought a little more attention to the guys,” he told me in the wake of the US victory over Pakistan, but the focus on Netravalkar’s day job was “disappointing to see.” In reality, Hays said, “the fact that such a good cricketer has to work another job in order to thrive is an indictment of the state of international cricket.” 

In the years to come, cricket will have more opportunities to cut into the wider sports news cycle and gain new US followers: MLC has plans to expand, and cricket will feature in the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Already, a handful of evangelists are trying to bring cricket to American sports fans who don’t otherwise have a connection to it. Jimmy O’Brien—a baseball podcaster who is better known as “Jomboy”—has introduced cricket to his audience and was chosen to serve as a commentator at the World Cup. “Sometimes, people that are really deep in the sport, it’s hard for them to explain it on a surface level,” O’Brien told me; his role is akin to that of a translator, taking cricket terms and finding, for example, their baseball equivalents. Hays, who has worked with O’Brien, told me that if his type of coverage can bring in a few thousand new fans a year over several years, the long-term impact could be significant.

But just as the sport of cricket will face myriad challenges if it is to grow beyond its core base of popularity in the US, so will cricket as a media proposition. Covering the sport as a serious journalistic beat is financially unviable; cricket broadcasts, meanwhile, are usually paywalled, and, at least for now, no game-changing hook for American audiences—for example, a fly-on-the-wall documentary in the style of Drive to Survive, which, as I wrote recently, played a big role in attracting Americans to Formula 1—appears to be on the horizon. Ultimately, cricket media will only grow in the US if the sport does: an irony, since more cricket media could itself help grow the sport. Patel described this to me as a classic chicken-and-egg problem. 

“I think it’ll take time to reach the wider population besides your South Asian population or other countries where cricket has been played,” Thapa told me—though events such as the World Cup help by creating “hype and media attention.” When we spoke, Thapa was set to fly to Florida to see Nepal take on Sri Lanka. He was excited; “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. In the end, though, it rained torrentially, and the match was washed out.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.