Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Coming to America - Home of the Brave?

International cricket in Florida (Courtesy of the ICC)
Even on maps of the old world, Florida has never been part of the West Indies – it has a strong Caribbean influence and a significant population of expats but it sits squarely in the United States of America. The Miami area is home to the Dolphins, Marlins and the NBA Champion Miami Heat, but for the second time it will play host to international T20 cricket in Broward County, Lauderhill. New Zealand returns after its initial foray in 2010 - they will be joined by a West Indian side who, given the issues with the game in their collection of tiny nations, would likely be better served playing at home as opposed to trying to grow the game in an Associate nation. 

The start of New Zealand’s West Indies tour will be only the second time international cricket has been hosted in the United States. In May 2010 New Zealand and Sri Lanka played two back to back T20 matches at the Central Broward Regional Park Stadium Turf Ground in Lauderhill, Florida – the first ICC sanctioned cricket venue in the land of fly balls and home runs. The stadium was aimed at providing a venue for international sides to play in The Land of the Free – especially at T20 level – so far that has proved little more than a pipedream. Unlike most any other sports contest in the States the inaugural international series ended in a draw – try explaining that to a nation of avid sports followers who expect to see a winner and a loser in every contest.

Though the facilities were first class the wicket didn’t match the surroundings – 375 runs at a little more than five an over was unlikely to have enthralled many locals more accustomed to seeing the ball disappear into the bleachers with regular monotony. In the two matches only four balls went the distance – a top score of 120 would be easily run down on most venues around the world. All parties will be hoping the standard of the pitch has increased significantly to allow two quality proponents of the T20 game to put on a show befitting Florida’s glitz and glamour. 

A third night match was cancelled due to substandard floodlights – a blow for both supporters and teams alike but less damaging for the credibility of US Cricket than providing a below par product. That said, the “toe in the water” was hardly a glowing advertisement for a sport struggling to get recognition from anyone but expatriates from cricketing powerhouses.  Both captains said positive things at the time but it seems to have led nowhere – was it simply political correctness to protect the investment made by both the USACA and NZC?

For many of the players I imagine the highlight was a chance to attend a Marlins’ game, swap stories with Major League Baseball players and have a hit in pre-match warm-ups. If I recall correctly, Daniel Vettori even got to throw a pitch over home plate at Sun Life Stadium.

That initial foray into the North American market is yet to lead to a growing presence of international cricket in Florida – the upcoming series will be only the second time a series has been played in the United States. So, why is New Zealand, a country struggling to lift itself out of the second tier of cricketing nations, returning to US shores to help promote the game in an Associate nation?

On the back of that first series, and with the growth of T20 domestic leagues, New Zealand Cricket entered into an agreement with the USACA in late 2010 to form CHALLC (Cricket Holdings America LLC) – the two national associations are the majority shareholders of the fledgling company. It holds the majority of the commercial rights for cricket in the United States, initially with a short term view to developing a franchised T20 competition in 2012. Long term the strategic alliance aimed to grow cricket in the US exponentially – judging by the current predicament of the USACA the bar with which to measure that has been set at the lower end of the spectrum. 

Prior to the 2010 series, New Zealand Cricket's chief executive , Justin Vaughan, professed that the “T20 series is the first of many initiatives between our two cricket boards and we envisage the Black Caps playing in the USA on an annual basis." Later that year the CHALLC deal was signed – many of the guiding principles it was established on have fallen by the wayside – New Zealand are returning for the Windies series only after the WICB agreed to allow NZC to facilitate the deal.

Will the appointment of a new CEO kick start the organisation? Keith Wyness, a former CEO of Everton and Aberdeen in the English and Scottish Premier Leagues respectively, took the reins earlier this year. He painted something of a rosy picture to media when accepting the role - “cricket is already played extensively across the USA with close to 50,000 regular players and it is the world’s second biggest consumer of internet cricket behind India”. Only time will tell if he can capitalise on that base to grow CHALLC interests for the betterment of cricket in the States, and the lining of the NZC coffers. Before concentrating on the development of the T20 franchise competition, which is already behind its initial scheduled debut but has been hinted at starting in 2013, Wyness has his hands full building strong business relationships with the USACA – if his organisation is to achieve any success they need the national association to develop a stable base.

The USACA appears to stumble from one disaster to the next. They have had issues with cancelled tournaments, executive in-fighting, money, political posturing and elections akin to something one might see under Mugabe, among others.

ICC funding, usually distributed quarterly to Associate nations, was withheld for the first quarter of 2012 after the USACA failed to meet the funding requirements – no AGM was held in 2011 and mandatory general elections were not held. It was the second time ICC money had been withheld – similar sanctions were applied in 2007.

When elections were eventually held, many of the USACA’s associates were excluded from voting on the grounds that they had not met USACA conditions. As a result, most of the incumbent executive was voted back in in April - it’s likely to lead to a similar cycle of the issues that have plagued the USACA of late. It’s debateable whether CHALLC can succeed against such a backdrop - that said it would be unfair to throw too many stones at USACA structures and decisions given the glasshouses that both the WICB and NZC have operated in at times in recent years....

As if to reinforce the point, the USACA website currently features no promotion of the New Zealand and West Indies series - CHALLC doesn’t even have a website.

That said, the USACA predicts crowds of 10,000 for each T20 game this year at Lauderhill, well in excess of the combined crowd of 8,600 who turned out for the two Sri Lankan matches. The involvement of the West Indies has undoubtedly helped swell spectator numbers with Caribbean expats, topped up by a number of West Indies supporters flying in for the matches. Would numbers be so high for other opposition?

When I started penning this piece I planned on writing about the start of New Zealand’s tour of the Windies in purely cricket terms – the more I read the further that faded into the background. The one topic I couldn’t ignore was New Zealand’s lack of preparation, especially against a Windies side coming off a tough tour of England to strengthen their resolve.

From all I have read and heard the training facilities in Florida are not ideal for an international side to prepare for a Caribbean tour. Given the lack of coherent team training prior to departing the New Zealand winter, many of the players may be in for a shock trying to find form and shake ring rust when they touch down for their Caribbean crusade. Yes, I understand the bowling group spent a few days in Australia with Damien Wright and others have been playing county cricket or training indoors at home, but nothing surpasses the growth  and understanding players develop training with those with whom they'll rely on in the heat of battle. Given the current standing of both sides in world cricket New Zealand needs the tour to produce positive results. Whilst I understand the wish to help grow our great game in The Land of the Free, I'm not sure it'll play dividends during the two tests in the West Indies - for mine that should be driving the majority of decisions at NZC.

Tenuous financial opportunity aside, I question why New Zealand would again agree to play at a ground without a significant cricket pedigree in a country struggling to successfully run our great game in their homeland? Is it our job to help promote cricket in the US when those in the ICC with real clout, resources and cash, seem to offer very little to help grow the game.

Given the number of expats from the subcontinent living in North America, shouldn’t Pakistan and the BCCI, alongside the ICC, be taking something of a lead to help develop the game in a market that sits number two in terms of usage of internet based cricket content? Shouldn't the ICC be doing more to promote the game in a market that has the potential to be a reasonable money spinner, or will the US market be treated with the same indifference as the deference the IRB (International Rugby Board) pays to the Pacific Island nations?

Will NZC’s strategic investment in the US market be seen as foresight or folly? Only time will tell. Without knowing the finer details of the arrangement or the investment in any detail, it’s not my place to comment on the finer details of the relationship – it’s currently hard to see the pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow though it may have left when the Ireland rugby team departed our shores back to the land of limericks and leprechauns.

Don't misunderstand my sentiment, I like the idea of national associations, especially the smaller, developing ones, looking outside the square to subsidise the income that is so valuable to growing cricket at the lower levels in their country. However, where financial return is on offer there is always an inherent risk - that's nothing more than Economics 101. The last time a national cricket association formed an alliance with an American entity the ramifications were felt throughout the game and a Texan got a new orange suit. For everyone's sake, I hope the path forged by Justin Vaughan and the NZC is more fruitful in the long term. New NZC boss David White can console himself with the fact that the previous scandal doesn't appear to have hurt Giles Clarke or those in the corridors of power within the ECB...

Please don’t get me wrong – I may question the rationale of New Zealand Cricket’s involvement in the United States but I’ll be glued to the screen with baited breath on Saturday morning as the two sides that influenced my love of our great game do battle.


I don’t profess to know all the background to the issues associated with the USACA or CHALLC– my writing is that of a fan, and my views are written as such; if you are seeking a more detailed insight into US cricket and all it entails, the writing of Peter Della Penna or The Silly Mid Off blog are a great place to start.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

5 comments:

  1. CHA is made up people from USACA or friendly to USACA. It is all about money for these guys. The rank and file in US will see nothing and that is a shame. ICC knows it. NZC knows it. CHA knows it. USACA knows it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's hard for me to find too much on CHALLC but from an NZC perspective should they be concerned with putting money back into the US game to grow the market at the expence of grass roots cricket at home? Personally, I'd love to see both but the USACA (and the ICC) needs to play a bigger part in making that happen.

      The ICC needs to play a bigger part in arranging the governance of the game in the US and getting the board, and the association, back in line. If the ICC is putting money into the USACA they should get involved - perhaps it's just too far from Dubai?

      Thanks for your comments.

      Delete
  2. Nice piece. I was actually pretty surprised to see teams agree to playing T20s in Florida. I can kind of see the logic, but I really don't think it will have the desired effect. (That said, however, I think that it is more likely to attract new viewers with a team like New Zealand as opposed to a subcontinent one where most of the crowd will be expats who already watch cricket.) I actually think that the best thing to do is not host matches in the US where, as you say, everyone kind of loses with regard to crowd revenue. I think a much better step would simply be to improve television coverage. Right now, the only way to watch cricket in the US is to pay $15/month for a specialist channel. No one who does not already watch cricket is going to do so and thus there is no potential to expand the market.

    The big thing I think must NOT be done is saturate the market with T20s. You alluded to Americans being used to seeing balls fly out of the park in baseball, but that is not really true. Whilst it depends on the ballpark (all have different dimensions) it is not at all uncommon to not have anyone hit a home run in the game. Most (not all) people who consider baseball their favourite sport prefer a low scoring pitchers' duel. With that in mind, I think there is definitely a market for Test and ODI cricket too and that those who would like Test cricket are unlikely to be attracted by an IPL-style T20 league. If there is to be professional cricket played in the US (and as I said above I think the best route is for TV coverage instead) it should be all forms to maximise potential exposure.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for the comments, Bandon - given I'm based half a world away it's great to get comment from locals in the US.

    I like the television coverage idea - however, wouldn't the US market be so saturated that it would simply be lost in the ether? A documentary as part of ESPN's next 30for30 series would be a great promotional coup - just kidding, kind of! Is there an opportunity to get more US cricket streaming on the internet, or arrange for West Indies domestic cricket to be played in the US?

    The home run reference was simply a wide use of poetic license - I spent a lot of my university days watching MLB. Unfortunately my last trip to the Us was in the middle of winter so I had to console myself with the Clippers and Suns at the Staples Centre and WWE at MSG. That said, I came home with the obligatory Yankees memorabilia and a couple of momoentoes from Pete Rose. That, and about 40 souvenir baseballs from my travels.

    Test cricket in the US - now there is something I would pay to see!

    For fantastic cricketing comment direct form the US check out Bandon's blog - it's always worth a read. http://www.forwarddefensive.com/

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think that even though cricket is not the most popular sport in United States I think that it could become popular in the next years

    ReplyDelete