A child dribbles a basketball at a school camp

Unplayable bounce: Contrary to widespread claims, cricket is not the No. 2 sport in the world



The battle for bronze

Football and basketball take the top two spots, but what is cricket's place in the sporting universe?

Tim Wigmore  |  

The ICC's grand ambition is for cricket to become the world's favourite sport. Given football's overwhelming popularity, it is an unrealistic, if laudable, aim. But there is another problem: there is no consensus on how to measure popularity. The ICC has concerned itself with the question for over a decade now. In 2006 it commissioned Stefan Szymanski, a leading sports economist, to research the world's favourite sports and ascertain how cricket needed to improve to bolster its own standing. It then returned to the issue, commissioning similar research at the start of this year.

In a sense, the question is unanswerable, given the unreliability of viewing and participation figures, and how coy sports are about revealing commercially sensitive information. Yet for all these caveats, a clear hierarchy is detectable, with football not just undisputed as the world's No. 1 sport but basketball almost unanimously endorsed as the second.

One of the endorsers is Robin Jellis, editor of the sports media industry newsletter TV Sports Markets, who believes basketball is consistently the second most-watched sport in the world. Apart from the US, it is also a leading sport in China, and is rapidly developing in other outposts. According to SportCal's Global Sports Event Index, the cricket World Cup ranked third - way behind football and slightly behind rugby - among the most popular single-sport events from 2009 to 2016. The World Baseball Classic and the basketball World Cup were not far behind.

Online media is also instructive. Basketball is the second most followed sport on Facebook, ranked by the number of people who follow at least one page connected to the sport, with cricket in fourth place. According to Meltwater, an online media intelligence company, football was the subject of 8.5 million new articles from February 21, 2016 to February 21, 2017, a third of the total number on all sports. Basketball was second, with 4.25 million, while cricket had 1.6 million - 6% of the total, which was below baseball, tennis and rugby.

Instead of expanding the game to new territories through the World Cup, cricket's administrators have sought to restrict the event to the elite teams

Instead of expanding the game to new territories through the World Cup, cricket's administrators have sought to restrict the event to the elite teams © Getty Images

Two salient indicators of a sport's popularity - revenues generated and participation numbers - both suffer from being unreliable, rendering cross-sport comparisons difficult. But even in territories where cricket considers itself a leading sport, basketball offers stiff competition. According to Sport England figures, weekly basketball participation in England is greater than for cricket, and in Australia basketball participation is catching up.

So the salient question is, which sport is No. 3? "After the first two, it's anyone's guess," says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at the University of Salford. The oft-repeated trope that cricket is the world's second-most popular game is a myth. Indeed, according to Nielsen Sports, a marketing agency, cricket is the 14th most popular sport, with only 19% saying they are interested or very interested in the sport - compared to 46% who say the same about football and 36% about basketball. It is worth noting, though, that Bangladesh and Pakistan were not among the countries surveyed.

Go global
It is no coincidence that the world's two most popular sports are the simplest to play, both in terms of their rules and facilities required. "Just as you can take a football anywhere and people will know how to play, you can always find people to play basketball wherever you are in the world," says Tony Collins, a leading sports historian based at De Montfort University. "I doubt that you can say that about any other sport."

The two have married these advantages with successful globalisation strategies. Football's expansion is relatively recent: in 1974, the World Cup had only one team from Africa and none from Asia. That year the sport's spread was turbocharged by João Havelange's election as FIFA president. As David Goldblatt notes in The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, Havelange won by harnessing frustration in those continents, pledging to expand the World Cup from 16 countries to 24, and to direct more development funds to those regions. Subsequent FIFA leaders have followed the same template.

Kids play basketball in a village in the Sichuan province of China

Kids play basketball in a village in the Sichuan province of China © Getty Images

There was nothing inevitable about basketball's globalisation either. In 1972-73, there wasn't a single foreign player in the NBA. The transformation since has been a triumph for the league: teams have played exhibition and preseason matches in over 20 countries since 1978; the NBA organised promotional and grassroots events in 61 countries in 2016 and now has offices in 13 nations.

The NBA has an increasingly global character; 42 nations are represented in the league. In contrast, only 17 countries are represented in the franchise squads of the Australian, English and Indian domestic T20 leagues.

Basketball's most spectacular growth has been in China, where over 750 million viewers watched NBA programming last year, and estimates of playing numbers are as high as 300 million. Much of this surge can be attributed to Yao Ming, the Hall of Fame center who forged a successful NBA career in the noughties. But the NBA had a structure in place to exploit this: of their four offices in greater China, the first two were established in 1992 (Hong Kong) and 1997 (Taipei) before Ming became big, and they have pushed visits by teams and star players. "They went aggressively at a critical juncture in China's history, and used Yao Ming," explains Lars Rensmann, co-author of Gaming the World.

Like football, basketball has also benefited from an inclusive World Cup, which will include 32 teams from 2019. The women's event has included 16 countries since 1990. Rugby's World Cup has 20 teams, with the most recent edition witnessing the smallest average points margin between elite (Tier 1) nations and the rest. The World Baseball Classic, launched in 2006, already features 16 nations. Qualification for this year's tournament was expanded to include the sport's heavyweight countries, guaranteeing prestigious matches for emerging nations. The contrasts between these sports and cricket are stark. In 2003 cricket's World Cup had only two teams fewer than the basketball World Cup; by 2019 it will have 22 teams fewer.

Year-wise size of World Cups
Year Baseball Basketball Cricket Football Rugby union
1975     8    
1978   14   16  
1979     8    
1982   13   24  
1983     8    
1986   24   24  
1987     8   16
1990   16
1991         16
1992     9    
1994   16   24  
1995         16
1996     12    
1998   16   32  
1999     12   20
2002   16   32  
2003     14   20
2006 16 24   32  
2007     16   20
2009 16        
2010   24   32  
2011     14   20
2013 16        
2014   24      
2015     14   20
2016 16        
2018       32  
2019   32 10

World Cups can also spur the development of women's sports. FIFA has recognised the potential of women's football in China and the US, and since the first edition in 1991, both have hosted two World Cups each. The women's basketball World Cup has been running since 1953 and comprises 16 teams, twice as many as the women's cricket World Cup.

Much the same is true of Olympic participation. Men's basketball has featured in every Games since 1936, and women's basketball since 1976. Rugby returned to the Olympics after 96 years in 2016, and the benefits have exceeded World Rugby's expectations. Olympic inclusion means that rugby is now on the curriculum in Brazil, China and the US, and that national Olympic federations spent over US$30 million in preparation for the Games - effectively free money for the sport.

"Rugby is an excellent case study in how inclusion in the Olympic programme can drive growth, particularly in non-traditional markets," says William Glenwright, the ICC's new Head of Global Development, who formerly worked for World Rugby. The Olympics are a particular boon for women's sport. Since rugby's return to the Games was confirmed in 2009, overall participation numbers have doubled, but the gains have been even more spectacular at women's level: according to World Rugby, participation has soared from 200,000 to 2.2 million.

The governance structures of a sport shape its approach to globalisation. While the ICC's actions are often dictated by the decisions of a tiny cartel of ten countries, FIFA has a one-member, one-vote system. Admittedly FIFA has become a byword for corruption, but by giving smaller countries a vote the structure has steered football towards expansionism. The organisation also has a relatively egalitarian funding model; as with baseball and basketball, it is easier for an international federation to distribute cash equitably when the largest countries make vast sums from their domestic leagues (unlike cricket before the IPL). At the 2007 cricket World Cup, Ireland received just $56,000 in prize money while Zimbabwe, who they knocked out en route to the Super Eights, received $11 million. Cricket's funding is distributed according to membership status, not merit or need.

The Yao factor: having a home-grown international superstar helped basketball catch China's imagination

The Yao factor: having a home-grown international superstar helped basketball catch China's imagination © AFP

Long-term growth or short-term moolah?
Increasingly sports are seeking to boost their growth through global events. Football has done so since the 1994 World Cup, held in the US. Rugby has awarded the 2019 World Cup to Japan, while basketball's last three World Cups have been held in Japan, Turkey and Spain (and the next is in China, in 2019). The World Baseball Classic is played across continents, with this year's tournament co-hosted by Japan, Mexico, South Korea and the US. Here cricket stands apart: it is actually reducing the geographical footprint of its leading tournaments, with all six major global events from 2015 to 2023 scheduled to be held in Australia, England or India.

Taking a global event to a relatively untested market might aid growth but does not necessarily maximise revenue. In a sense, the allocation of events is a window into a much broader question: how to balance the need for short-term cash with a sport's long-term interests?

The question applies equally to TV coverage and online streaming. "Do you seek to maximise your broadcast revenue or exposure?" asks Kevin Alavy of Futures Sport, a sports consultancy. "Those two goals have an inherent contradiction." Basketball has emphatically chosen to prioritise exposure: in the current NBA season, 400 matches are being live-streamed for free on Tencent, China's most popular internet portal. This focus on the Chinese market is revealing. For sports' governing bodies, some countries are much more equal than others. And in the coming years, the global tussle will be determined, according to Alavy, by China. "There's an arms race with sports trying to break through."

Football is attempting to emulate the NBA; its prospects have been boosted by World Cup expansion just when Chinese Super League clubs are spending record-shattering amounts, and China's president, Xi Jinping, has declared he wants the nation's teams to be "among the world's best". China's importance extends beyond the country itself, says Chadwick. "The victors of the battle will be strongly placed to extend their influence across East Asia and out to the rest of the world."

In 2006, then ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed led a delegation to China and declared that he hoped to see China play India in an ICC event one day. Periodic high-minded talk, though, has not translated into meaningful action. In the 2015 World Cup, a set of zing bails and stumps cost $40,000, more than the entire ICC funding for China the previous year. There have, however, been signs the ICC is becoming more serious - that funding figure for China rose to $260,000 in 2016. Still, this is puny compared to other sports: World Rugby last year announced an agreement with a sports marketing group to invest $100 million over ten years in Chinese rugby.

Rugby's return to the Olympics has hugely boosted participation levels in the sport across the world, especially among women

Rugby's return to the Olympics has hugely boosted participation levels in the sport across the world, especially among women © AFP

The fear is that sports attempting to break into China now, without good foundations, might already be too late. Basketball's success in China "cannot be easily repeated," Rensmann says. "So basketball is, and is likely to remain, the No. 2 sport in the world." But India is forecast to overtake China as the world's most populous country by 2022. So if cricket can maintain its dominant position in India, it should become wealthier, and be played and watched by more people, even without making progress elsewhere.

The importance of the Indian market has dictated many of cricket's actions in recent years. Szymanski's report 11 years ago noted that "the real potential [for generating more revenue] lies in economic growth on the subcontinent" and that "so long as economic growth continues in South Asia, there is reason to think that cricket will benefit disproportionately". Two years ago a senior figure in another Full Member country said his greatest fear was of a small drop-off in Indian interest in cricket, which could be economically ruinous. For this reason, he said, holding so many ICC events in India was crucial.

Cricket is the undisputed national sport in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, which together account for a quarter - and rising - of the world's population. These demographics help to explain the divergence in attitudes between cricket and, say, rugby. In rugby union, the on-field superpower is New Zealand, who, for all the All Blacks' cachet, represents a country of under five million people. The Indian cricket team represents over a billion people; as such, the only route for rugby to become wealthier is to expand globally, while cricket can continue relying on the subcontinent.

Yet even here, cricket might face increasing competition. Chadwick believes golf and tennis could gain in appeal as the country becomes wealthier. The NBA is targeting the Indian market, and selected its first intake of 24 players for its new academy in India this year. Most serious is the threat from football, and there are already suggestions that it could peel off some cricket supporters, especially among upwardly mobile Indians: according to one industry account, the Indian Super League semi-finals in December 2016 had an average audience of nine million in India, similar to that for a typical day of Test cricket.

Number of member countries in each international governing body
Baseball Basketball Cricket Football Rugby union Tennis
142 213 105 211 103 211

Elsewhere there remain other opportunities. Football is dominant in Africa, and the continent's economic growth and the spike in its population make it an essential target for other sports. To this end, the NBA is launching an academy in Senegal this year, scouting across the continent for talent; the number of African players in the NBA is now 14, with Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan and Tunisia all represented. And though the American sports market is already saturated, a combination of tightening migration rules and concussion fears putting younger athletes off American football could create possibilities for other sports. Rugby union has been aggressively targeting the US, staging a series of high-profile internationals there, and the country is expected to host the 2027 World Cup.

The gender game
Women's sport has historically occupied a position of unusual importance in China and the US. In China, Chadwick says, this reflects "the egalitarianism of society". In the US, women's sport was galvanised by Title IX of the Education Amendments Act in 1972, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in funding for any education programme. As Linda Borish, a women's sport historian from Western Michigan University, explains, sport was not mentioned in the legislation, but in a classic instance of unintended consequences, the Act's greatest effect was on sports in higher education establishments. US colleges had to spend as much on women's sport as men's, including offering women sports scholarships for the first time.

There is strong reason to think that sports stand to develop quicker at women's level in China and the US. Thriving women's sport serves as a double boon: it is not only desirable, and increasingly lucrative, in its own right, but it can also be a catalyst for men's sport to develop, as in football in the US and China.

The ICC believes that women's cricket offers the best chance for the sport to grow in these countries. "The pathways to the top of the women's game are shorter," says Tim Anderson, the ICC's former head of global development, who is now a consultant for the body. "It's no coincidence that in a couple of our key markets now - USA and China - women's cricket is at the fore in terms of the development of cricket in those countries. They've both got a really good chance of being on the map of the women's game in the next few years." China performed well in qualification for the 2016 Women's World T20, beating Netherlands and Thailand. Should they qualify for a global event - eminently possible if the event was expanded from ten to 12 teams or more - it would greatly improve the ICC's ability to lobby the Chinese government.

With the viewership for football increasing in India, it's not a certainty that cricket will continue to be sustained by South Asian interest and money

With the viewership for football increasing in India, it's not a certainty that cricket will continue to be sustained by South Asian interest and money © Getty Images

Many sports have long regarded the women's game less as an opportunity and more as an obligation. That is now changing, with governing bodies belatedly recognising that the women's game is a shrewd investment. "The dividends, both athletically and financially, are clearly evident when funding and structures are in place to give women opportunities," says Borish, noting how women's tennis has benefited from equal prize money in the Grand Slams. "By not investing you diminish the quality, which can diminish the fan interest." Though women's cricket has made significant progress in some leading countries in recent years, its footprint in most Associate nations remains tiny. Females only account for about 10% of total participation in Associate and Affiliate nations, compared to about 25% in non-Tier 1 countries in rugby.

Go glocal
Yao Ming shows how a sport's growth can be boosted by stars who gain international recognition. The NBA now has 113 overseas players from 41 different countries, compared to 32 from 18 two decades ago. Before Cameroon reached the football World Cup quarter-finals in 1990, there were fewer than 100 African players in the European game; a decade later, there were nearly 1000. It is a reflection that, for all the importance of international competitions, club competitions can also drive globalisation; indeed clubs have often been more alert to expansionism, through tours and scouting, than slower-moving international governing bodies.

Increasingly, domestic competitions are extending beyond their geographic confines. The English Premier League (EPL) and Spain's La Liga are followed the world over; the NFL has played regular season matches at Wembley since 2007. "The next logical step is club leagues based across national boundaries," Collins believes. That is already happening, even outside football: Super Rugby, played between clubs from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa since 1996, added teams from Argentina and Japan last year; in March, rugby league became the first sport with a transatlantic club competition when a team from Toronto joined the English domestic pyramid. It is a harbinger of more leagues becoming multinational: a London franchise is widely expected to join the NFL from 2021.

Cricket's initial attempts have been underwhelming. The Champions League T20 was scrapped after six years in 2015, even if there remains a sense it was an event ahead of its time. It suffered partly from the fact that a number of players were often eligible for multiple teams in one tournament; invariably they chose to play for their IPL franchises, rendering their other sides weaker and less appealing. That the tournament so patently favoured Indian teams - in 2011, Mumbai Indians were allowed to field five overseas players "to ensure the integrity of the tournament" - left it feeling less a genuinely global competition than a pale imitation of the IPL. Ultimately it failed because non-IPL teams couldn't develop an identity transcending their own borders, and so not enough people wanted to watch. Even now, a senior source in Indian sports broadcasting believes that were foreign teams introduced to the IPL, it would "adversely affect viewership".

One way for cricket to spread in China is through the women's game

One way for cricket to spread in China is through the women's game © Getty Images

As domestic leagues become increasingly important in cricket's future, expanding across national borders could galvanise the sport's globalisation. The BBL is already considering playing matches, or perhaps even introducing teams, in nations like Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. With a little imagination, other leading leagues could explore similar concepts: England could invite teams from Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland, and perhaps one day even Germany, where immigration is transforming the sport; and the IPL or PSL could explore the possibility of including teams from Nepal, Oman or the UAE. The CPL has already said it would like to establish franchises in New York and Toronto.

The goldfish bowl
Sport has never been richer, but it now faces an onerous challenge - to maintain viewers. The average attention span, according to a survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft in 2015, has fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in 2000. Basketball, baseball, football, American football, tennis and golf are all experimenting with ways to make professional matches shorter. That is a recognition, says Alavy, that the "stickiness" of viewers - both the number of minutes of a game they watch, and the number of games they watch a season - has gone down. A 3% decrease in the average number of minutes watched per year is common, jeopardising what TV companies are prepared to pay for rights. In recent months there have been signs of TV viewership falling in the NFL and the EPL, two of the world's most lucrative leagues.

Ultimately this could also change sport by improving the chances of the less-skilled teams winning; emerging nations could choose to prioritise shorter forms over more traditional versions of the game. At last year's Rugby Sevens competition in the Olympics, Brazil and Kenya, neither of whom have ever played in a rugby World Cup, qualified for both the men's and women's tournament, while unheralded Colombia also reached the women's tournament.

For cricket, one implication of these dynamics seems obvious. T20 represents the sport's "globalisation vehicle", as the ICC chief executive David Richardson said recently. Alavy believes the shortest format has had an "amazingly helpful effect" on viewership numbers, and has been more successful than new formats in any other sports.

Refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan have helped popularise cricket in Germany

Refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan have helped popularise cricket in Germany © AFP

Yet there remains a curious tentativeness to cricket's evangelising through T20. While international T20s attract the highest viewing figures of international cricket, the format remains the one that matters least. Most bilateral matches outside the World T20 lack any context, and ICC funding for Associates is determined largely by their 50-over performances. Lifting T20Is away from their status as third-class citizens and unashamedly using them to popularise the sport in emerging nations could help to globalise cricket.

Does cricket want to grow?
The global sports market is more competitive than ever, and yet whether cricket even genuinely wants to globalise remains unclear. For all the talk of expansionism and the potential awarding of Test status to Afghanistan and Ireland, the sport is simultaneously contracting its flagship World Cup and has failed to take decisive action on joining the Olympics. The lack of money and fixtures for leading Associates beyond Afghanistan and Ireland remains unaddressed. This is more a cautious, incremental growth of an elite cartel than genuine globalisation.

"The bigger issue is the lack of a long-term vision that everyone buys into, like in rugby," says one ICC insider, and "a genuine lack of understanding, knowledge, expertise and collective will to want to actually globalise the sport."

The coming months are pivotal to cricket's chances of becoming the No. 2 sport in the world, let alone ever challenging football. The ICC's planned reforms to improve governance and introduce greater meritocracy are "initiatives which those with purely selfish motivations are terrified of," says one insider. "Until these changes are made, the ICC's ambition to become a global sport has the potential to be derailed by those that fear change, accountability or loss of power."

Cricket has always stumbled along, governed less by long-term vision than short-term expediency. But more muddling through will soon seem inadequate against the unashamed global ambitions of basketball and other sports. Rather than reiterating the myth of being the world's second most popular sport, cricket's ambivalence to growth risks leaving it fighting declining popularity in its leading markets, without having cultivated its outposts enough. The expansionism of sports is ultimately a form of insurance against decline in their dominant markets. Given how cricket's economics are inordinately dependent upon one country, it is a sport with particular need for such insurance.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts