Around The Wicket: Could New York City Become The Cricket Capital Of The U.S.?

  @Gooch700 on February 06 2014 10:58 AM
Playing cricket in New York City
A cricket match in New York City Reuters

The elegant 500-year-old British sport of cricket is one of the most popular athletic endeavors in the world – that is, outside of the United States. With hundreds of millions of fanatical followers in the former British Commonwealth nations spanning the globe, the gentleman’s game has yet to capture the imagination of Americans.

But Ruben Wills hopes to change that. The Democratic New York City councilman, who represents neighborhoods in the borough of Queens with large South Asian, Indo-Caribbean and Afro-Caribbean communities, seeks to promote cricket and ultimately build a stadium for the sport in the city. Wills has introduced a bill that would create a nine-member task force to evaluate the “health, social and economic impacts” of cricket in New York City. The task force would also examine the feasibility of using park-lands in the city as cricket grounds.

“We have the largest and fastest-growing population of Indo-Caribbean and South Asian populations,” Wills told the New York Post. “Everywhere in the world, cricket is the No. 2 sport, only behind [soccer]. We want to make sure we can introduce this into mainstream New York and we also want to look at the end-game of creating a cricket stadium in New York.” Willis added that he wants to make sure "that this city and the state does not fall behind on the advantages that cricket brings."

The proposed legislation is now in the hands of the Council’s parks committee, the New York Daily News reported. Wills is hopeful. “We want to understand everything cricket can bring,” Wills told the Queens Courier. “I believe the stadium is possible and I don’t believe it will take light-years.”

In terms of facilities, cricket falls far behind baseball, the game it's most frequently compared with. Citing data from the New York City Parks Department, the Daily News reported that the city boasts some 634 baseball diamonds, versus only 59 cricket fields. Queens, the most ethnically diverse borough in the city, features 134 baseball leagues and just 16 devoted to cricket. These informal cricket venues attract a growing population of people from the far-flung corners of the former British Empire who have settled in New York City, primarily in Queens. “It’s an amazing network of [cricket players] that are very loosely organized,” said Gurpal Singh, who works with an immigrant advocacy group called SEVA in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens, to the Daily News. Singh has played an important role in forming cricket leagues for enthusiasts of the game. “The people are extremely passionate. But there’s no central coordination,” he added. In fact, Steve Massiah, the Guyana-born cricketer and captain of the U.S. national team, lives in Queens. Massiah told the Daily News that there are some 1,000 “cricket clubs” in New York.

Moreover, according to the Queens Courier, high schools in the borough have won the Public School Athletic League's (PSAL) cricket championship in five out of the six years since a citywide league was launched in 2008. “Cricket has the potential to get to [a high] level,” said Massiah. “Queens has the demographics and cultural diversity. This is where it’s at.”

But cricket remains in a somewhat anarchic state in the borough. “We need facilities,” said Philip Franklin, who coaches for the Melbourne Cricket Club in Springfield Gardens in Queens. Franklin even coaches in a cricket league established by the New York Police Department. Ricky Singh owns a sporting goods store in Ozone Park, Queens, which specifically sells cricket equipment. He told the Daily News that sales have surged by 30 percent over the past 10 years, reflecting the growth spurt the game has enjoyed.

Cricket also has a following in Brooklyn and the Bronx. DNAInfo reported that in Canarsie Beach Park, Marine Park and Spring Creek Park, Brooklyn cricket-lovers have found a place to play. At least 1,000 Brooklynites regularly suit up as wicket-keepers, batsmen and bowlers in 16 cricket fields in the borough. "Cricket is absolutely becoming more popular in Brooklyn," said Kranthi Bayya, CEO of Dream Cricket, a national cricket league.

The Bronx also is becoming more familiar with the sport. The New York Times reported last May that diplomats from Jamaica, Britain and other cricket-mad nations officially broke ground on ten new cricket fields in Van Cortlandt Park, part of a $13 million renovation of the property. “When you see fields like this, you want to play,” said Dolip Dhanpat, 40, a delivery driver. “It’s a blessing. The Bronx boasts at least 18 cricket fields, more than any other borough. “No other borough has promoted the game to the extent that the Bronx has,” said Lesly Lowe, a Guyanese immigrant who serves as president of the Commonwealth Cricket League, which is based in Van Cortlandt Park. “It is the borough that started the ball rolling, as they say.” Lowe’s league commenced in 1982 and now has mushroomed into 2,000 players on 100 teams.

Bronx also has a fast-growing community from Bangladesh, another country where cricket reigns supreme – meaning a new pool of players and enthusiasts are bound to emerge.

But if any cricket-centric stadium is ever to be built in Gotham, Queens would make the ideal locale. For New York City as a whole, some 10 percent of its 8.2 million residents are of South Asian or West Indian descent, and many of them are concentrated in Queens. Queens Gazette reported that some 63 percent of all Indo-Caribbeans and South Asians in New York City reside in Queens. Councilman Wills represents the New York City Council's 28th District, which covers Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park, Rochdale and Jamaica neighborhoods of Queens – all regions with high South Asian and Caribbean populations.

Despite the passion that these people hold for cricket, it might not be financially feasible to construct a cricket stadium in the city, especially for a sport that the vast majority of Americans (and New Yorkers) do not care about. Thus far, the only significant cricket facility – that is, the sole internationally certified field – in the United States is located in Lauderhill, Fla., in Broward County near Fort Lauderdale. The multipurpose 5,000-seat Central Broward Regional Park was constructed in 2007 at a cost of some $10 million, according to the Sun-Sentinel newspaper of Florida. The stadium was promoted by cricket officials in both the U.S. and the Caribbean, citing the region's large Afro-Caribbean population.

But the New York Post noted that this stadium has staged only a few international cricket matches and that it will now be transitioned to other athletic purposes, especially soccer. Last April, the Sun Sentinel reported that the park failed to attract the tourists the owners had promised to Broward County taxpayers. In fact, the stadium has generated less than $100,000 a year in rental and parking revenues, primarily by staging low-level competitions, cultural events and various sporting attractions. Tourism officials said that in 2012 cricket events generated just $3 million, only one-half of 1 percent of the county's total sports-related tourism revenues. "We told them [repeatedly] it wasn't going to draw the hype they were stating," said Lauderhill resident Alan Brown. "They focused all their energy into something they felt was going to be an economic boon."

At that time, Lauderhill Mayor Richard Kaplan blamed the stadium's disappointing performance on a tepid reaction from the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA), the sole body in the country that can sanction any matches. "Our pleas with USACA to sanction additional games in the USA have fallen on deaf ears," Kaplan wrote in a letter to David Richardson, the Dubai-based CEO of the International Cricket Council.

Indeed, Robert Boland, a professor of sports management at New York University, said that despite cricket’s immense popularity elsewhere in the world, the U.S. sports market is a difficult one to penetrate. “Cricket, a noble sport with a great global following, is competing with a large number of domestic and international sports for the hearts and minds of U.S. consumers, so bandwidth among the masses is perhaps the single biggest challenge,” he said in an interview.

“The chief challenge in the U.S. in building cricket stadia is making the economics work. Since the pitch [cricket playing field] is larger than most American stadia, seating capacity, costs and financing need to work with the sport's consumer base in the U.S. So just making the scale and costs work is likely the chief stumbling block to widespread investment into cricket development in the Americas.” Cricket may find a larger audience in the future, Boland noted, but at the moment “a crowded national sports perspective and the need to have large and potentially high-cost facilities are the biggest impediments to the sport gaining a footprint in 2014 and beyond.”

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