Cricket races to save itself from years of declining popularity

Ireland is spending a small fortune to stage a sporting match that takes five days to play, has a dwindling fanbase and is often labeled impenetrable.

The country's national cricket team is in the middle of its first-ever Test match - the five-day event considered the pinnacle of the sport - against Pakistan, at a time when ever-fewer fans have the stamina to tune in or show up to watch the storied version of the game, let alone actually pick up a bat and ball.

The team's willingness to burn cash on the game that started Friday in Dublin highlights the challenge cricket faces. While attendance at traditional Test matches slides in most countries, the pastime is reinventing itself in shorter formats and taking risks by expanding across the world, allowing more nations like Ireland and Afghanistan to play at the elite level.

The debut is expected to cost $1.19 million, which won't be recouped from ticket sales or TV broadcast rights, according to governing body Cricket Ireland. But there's hope the prestige of playing the Test match will hook a new generation's interest and allow home-grown players to represent their own country, instead of hopping over to England.

"Make no bones about it," said Dan Plumley, a sports economist at Sheffield Hallam University, "they've said they won't make any money off the first game, but it's a longer-term strategy."

Test match series aren't tournaments or championships, but pit two teams against each other, sometimes in as many as five matches over the course of a couple of months. Teams host rivals during their summer months and head overseas on tour in the off-season. In the case of England, at least, thousands of fans follow the team away from home, yet stadiums around the world from India to New Zealand are largely empty when matches are in play.

Born in Britain in the 18th century before spreading through the empire, cricket wants to enter ever-more countries to attract new fans, following a well-worn path across top-tier sports. Next summer, the New York Yankees will play their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, in London. NFL teams have been selling out stadiums in the U.K., despite losing money, for more than a decade. And English Premier League teams increasingly bring stars to the towns in middle America for preseason friendly matches.

But how do you make a deeply complicated game - with quirky rules and idiosyncratic vocabulary, derided as boring - palatable to a new audience, at a time of increasing competition from esports and videogames such as the Fortnite juggernaut?

Participation rates for cricket in its home country are low and dropping: 158,500 adults played cricket in England once a week between 2015 and 2016, less than one-tenth of the number who play football and down by almost 37,000 from a decade before. Fifty eight percent of Britons surveyed earlier this year said they found cricket "very or quite" boring. The only duller sports were NFL football (59 percent) and golf (70 percent), the survey found. Cricket was more in line with darts and snooker.

Yet some say it is still the second-most popular sport in the world, behind soccer (aka football).

"Basketball, tennis, golf and motor sport would probably run it close, and maybe baseball," said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan. "Only football has truly global reach."

The answer has been to develop a format that's easier to digest. Five-day cricket was the only international form of the game until 1971, when shorter matches were introduced that wrapped in a day.

In 2003, the first Twenty20 cricket match was played, a radically cut-down version lasting about three hours. The simplified game proved a hit with fans and broadcasters, sending a huge cash injection into the sport. India established a glitzy new T20 league that soon proved a cash cow and became a template for other nations. In 2011, Australia's Big Bash League was founded and was able to win sponsorship deals from companies that wouldn't dream of supporting staid Test cricket. And Fox Sports in Australia just signed a broadcasting deal worth A$1.18 billion ($891 million).

Last month, the International Cricket Council threw its support behind Twenty20, giving approval for all members to play international matches. "We are committed to growing the game, and T20 is the vehicle through which we'll do this," ICC chief executive David Richardson said.

Domestic broadcast rights for the next five seasons of the short-form Indian Premier League, which ran its first competition in 2008, are now worth $2.55 billion, more lucrative per game than the Test matches. In India, where 85 percent of the population say they watch cricket at least once a week, according to pollster YouGov.

"If India's economy were to become as wealthy as China, then the value of cricket rights would explode," Szymanski said.

That success has spurred transformation, one that cricket die-hards would argue fundamentally changes the game to the point of being a different sport. (Meanwhile, baseball fans in the U.S. are still arguing over whether instant replay should be allowed.)

The English Cricket Board last month proposed another variation called "The Hundred," which would limit each team's innings to 100 balls. That's even shorter than a T20 game. It's a far cry from Test cricket, where limits on how long a team can bat are affected by things like the players' skill level or the weather.

"From a purely commercial and financial position, the shorter versions of the game are supported better," Cricket Ireland Chairman Ross McCollum said. "The important thing for us going forward is to look at the areas we think we can open up and get a critical mass playing."

Still, the five-day Test match is the apogee of the sport. Last year, the ICC granted Test status to Ireland and Afghanistan, bringing the number of countries allowed to compete in recognized Test matches to 12.

So many formats with slightly different rules could dilute the meaning of the game, which for all but the most hardcore of fans is already seen as impossible to follow.

"For people inside the game and a lot of purist fans, Test cricket is still the goal," Plumley said. "Cricket needs to be careful that it doesn't have too many formats and tweaks."

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