By Andrew Alderson
Questions have surfaced about the standard of pitches, under-developed infrastructure and the basis for market research suggesting the North American cricket market is worth pursuing as a commercial venture for a Twenty20 league, starting midway through next year.
Last week, the Herald on Sunday revealed a tournament similar in structure to the Indian Premier League is targeted to launch in June or July with players being asked to register their interest next month.
Organised by Cricket Holdings America (a company with the United States governing body and New Zealand Cricket as shareholders), the league is targeting six teams based in cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Toronto, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia. In an ambitious plan scoped out over 8-10 years, CHA are hopeful of selling the six franchises to investors for a total of up to US$240 million.
However, there are concerns players would not be interested in joining a league where the quality of cricket is compromised. Neil Maxwell, the NZC appointed director on the CHA board, suggested they could play on artificial wickets because at T20 level pitches did not have the same impact on the game and it would offer greater flexibility to stage matches.
However, sources claim the standard of pitches will have a bearing on players signing because, if they are substandard, the cricket will be of lesser quality. Examples included just four sixes and 375 runs being hit on the low, slow wickets prepared for the New Zealand-Sri Lanka T20 series in May 2010 at Fort Lauderdale.
There are doubts players are keen to repeat that exercise because the matches lack excitement. Batsmen have to create the momentum with their shot making and bowlers get limited pace and bounce. Other problems are likely to be developing decent venues because baseball parks produce “weird angles” and American football grounds are too small.
Players’ Association boss Heath Mills believes most players could accept that outcome in the short-term, knowing they were building cricket in a new, potentially-lucrative market.
“There’s a long way to go, everyone is aware of that. The proposed league needs credibility, infrastructure and investment but that’s not going to happen if people sit by without investigating the prospect. Players are prepared to be patient if they can see an end-goal.”
NZC chief executive Justin Vaughan agrees: “Our feedback is players will jump at this chance. They will put up with poorer-quality pitches initially because they understand the opportunity of building in the US. Artificial surfaces have improved in recent years. Those were obviously not ideal blocks in Florida [v Sri Lanka] but if we can play on artificial wickets with consistent bounce and pace then I reckon it is a no-brainer.”
Those two initial matches against Sri Lanka generated other reasons to get the heebie-jeebies with cricket investment in the United States. NZC budgeted to lose $100,000 from the series but that figure ballooned. It is hard to estimate but NZC financial statements show “Other Cricket Playing” expenses (where this series was understood to be included) increased from $3.3m in July 2009 to $4.8m in 2010 (the financial year in question) back to $1.2m in 2011.
Sri Lanka had just finished their civil war which meant the United States insisted on high security. That meant employing the US military, moving hotels and struggling to get cricket gear through security. Yet the call was justified after a plane buzzed the ground bearing a pro-Tamil Tigers banner in one match.
Mills says: “NZC learnt a lesson and that’s why they are only stepping in operationally for this new league. They are not investing financially in any of the teams but are challenging themselves to own cricket property elsewhere in the world.”
Research suggests there are 15 million cricket “supporters” in the United States. It is not necessarily a matter of converting them from baseball either, because they are part of expatriate sub-continent and Caribbean populations. One argument suggests because similar-sized cricket fanbases exist in Australia and South Africa there is optimism it can be done in the US too.