In many countries cricket is a minority sport at the very margins of cultural awareness. This can make it difficult to build participation and secure recognition and support. Even in a high ranked nation such as The Netherlands who regularly participate in global events there is little media coverage or awareness outside the cricket community. If that is the case for The Netherlands you can appreciate the challenge for a country like the Czech Republic.
So building profile and broadening the appeal of the game are critical to development plans for associate nations. In some countries, with Germany and Sweden two good examples, demographic trends provide their own momentum. Immigration from traditional cricket playing cultures brings potential players and supporters who in many cases actively seek opportunities. In Germany these demographic trends have seen participation levels rocket from 800 to over 6,000 within a decade. This gives cricket in those countries a huge boost but isn’t without its challenges. Unfortunately, it can lead other communities to consider cricket a foreign sport and this can make outreach initiatives to broaden appeal difficult.
Whatever the demographic trends and circumstances of a country clever use of traditional and social media is critical. Platforms like Facebook have undoubtedly helped energise cricket communities across the globe and provide a popular, accessible means of generating interest and scheduling activity (such as open days, trials etc). But it is arguable that they haven’t had the hoped-for impact in raising profile and broadening appeal. Generally this is because cricket hasn’t entered the general sporting consciousness and therefore the message struggles to gain traction. Traditional media channels such as television and print media provide an excellent opportunity, but much coverage in associates emphasises its difference, its funny rules and amusing terms. This can help reinforce views that cricket is somehow a foreign sport rather a game that can be played and enjoyed by all. Increased coverage is good but how the coverage is pitched is also important. Many put the strong growth of the Dutch game in the 70s and 80s down to access to BBC coverage of cricket. Many became hooked on Test Match Special and this translated into an increase in players, interest and profile. A 2 minute piece gently mocking amusing field placings like fine leg doesn’t have quite the same impact!
So the challenges and constraints are clear, but what are the solutions? The first stage is recognition. If cricket can be officially recognised as a sport by government this endorsement can lay the foundations for growth. It is often critical to getting cricket into schools and securing grounds and facilities, not to mention public funding. In this context the Nordic model is interesting. Official sports get a healthy annual grant, an office in the national sports complex and access to legal, communications and marketing support. Inclusion of cricket as an Olympic sport would be a huge breakthrough in many countries giving them access to funding and facilities that could change the profile of cricket overnight!
Once official recognition has been achieved the next stage is implementing a coordinated marketing and outreach plan and/or expanding the strategy which achieved initial recognition. This can’t just be a development officer posting occasionally on Facebook but a thorough, concerted strategy delivered across a range of platforms and aligned with school and youth group participation initiatives. Clubs, schools and other groups should all help deliver a coordinated plan. This can help the sport reach a tipping point where broad and genuine interest is achieved. This combined approach also allows a tailored regional or localised focus that can be more effective than a diluted, general campaign.
Building partnerships is crucial as most associates don’t have the staff or funding to do all this themselves. Relationships need to be forged with local journalists so they can understand the range of cricket trusted coverage available and can make a case to their editors/producers. So for instance rather than the typical ‘funny field placings’ coverage, they also run development features, Human interest stories with a link to cricket, build anticipation and awareness of international fixtures etc. This is done very well in the Channel Islands which in part explains why such small islands have been competitive on the global stage. But it needs investment of time and patience. A lot of patience. Coverage also needs to be balanced so that cricket is presented as of natural interest to all not just specific interest to certain communities.
These initiatives will lay the platform but what is sometimes needed is luck or inspiration. Perhaps a cricket photo that goes viral, a celebrity endorsement, the head of a TV channel who just happens to be passionate about the game. Beyond its traditional heartlands cricket is often a marginal sport struggling for attention in the shadows and it needs a moment in the sun. And critically this moment needs to be capitalised on. When the Dutch beat England at Lords in 2009 the players were briefly celebrities, featuring on chat shows and in magazines. That was such a moment. But it didn’t take cricket into the mainstream of cricket consciousness and that illustrates the scale of the challenge for associates.