- Peter Della Penna, Cricket
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In less than a decade, Twenty20 cricket has undergone a meteoric rise from carnival sideshow to main event. The catalyst for that may have been the success of the International Cricket Council's inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007, but the driver of the Twenty20 boom since then has been the proliferation of domestic Twenty20 leagues and tournaments popping up worldwide.
Bar none, the most successful of these domestic Twenty20 leagues has been the Indian Premier League. The million-dollar salaries given to players for seven weeks of work in the IPL match what many cricketers might have taken six years of international tours to accumulate before the IPL came along. In the past year alone, competitions have sprouted up in Australia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, giving more opportunities for players to cash in while entertaining crowds.
For those in the U.S. who have had an interest in cricket piqued over the past two weeks by catching a glimpse of the World Twenty20, the three-hour Twenty20 cricket spectacle may be coming live and in person to a ground near you next summer. The USA Cricket Association and New Zealand Cricket have partnered to form Cricket Holdings America LLC, a business entity that holds the commercial rights to establish a professional Twenty20 league in the U.S. with the goal from both parties to get play underway next summer.
In 2010, NZC began the first chapter in the partnership with USACA by sending a team to South Florida to play two Twenty20 matches against Sri Lanka. The games were not publicized very well, which resulted in poor crowds -- an average attendance of 4,250 per day. Combined with a substandard playing surface that made scoring runs and playing entertaining shots difficult, the event as a whole was a dreary affair.
However, NZC persevered and in June two Twenty20 matches were arranged against the West Indies in Florida to kick off a tour of the Caribbean. This time around the response was much better, with roughly 15,000 fans packing Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, Fla., for the first match on June 30 in what was a buzzing, party atmosphere.
For New Zealand's Kyle Mills, coming to America to help spread the game's popularity is something he's eager to achieve. "I know there's room for a T20 competition to be played in the U.S. in July of next year and I think that's a great step forward into growing our game of cricket," Mills, 33, said in June during New Zealand's visit to Florida. "I'm a passionate lover of cricket and I'm really passionate to see the game grow in countries that haven't seen it before, and I think the U.S. is probably the first step to making it a global game."
On both trips to Florida, Mills and several of his teammates went to see the Miami Marlins play a couple of games. Mills also loves the NFL and became a big Indianapolis Colts fan from watching Peyton Manning through all of the showdowns against the New England Patriots that were beamed to Auckland over the past decade. Knowing the tastes of the American sports audience, he feels there's no reason the casual sports fan in the U.S. wouldn't enjoy coming out to see a game of Twenty20 cricket. "I have no doubt that American people would enjoy a game of T20 cricket," Mills said.
While the core of cricket fans in the U.S. are from the South Asian and West Indian immigrant communities, Mills believes a league is capable of getting off the ground even if players from India, Pakistan and the West Indies don't participate. Cricket Holdings America is rumored to be targeting a high concentration of overseas stars to sign for the six expansion franchises.
"Look at the New Zealand side, the Australia side, the South African side, some of the greats of the game are within those sides," Mills said. "There's exceptional talent and exceptional experience within those sides as well that I'm sure anyone would like to pay a match ticket to go along and see these guys showcase their skills. I think if the proposed cities next year like New York ... I think if you take world-class cricketers to those cities, without a doubt people will come along and watch those people showcase their skills."
USACA is a historically dysfunctional organization, having been suspended twice by the ICC since 2005 for failing to demonstrate acceptable standards of administrative governance. NZC is willing to look beyond that, though, because of the financial rewards that can be reaped based on the market potential for cricket that exists in America, something that has yet to be effectively tapped into but something that NZC can access by joining hands with USACA. In this regard, the comparisons between cricket and soccer are too easy to ignore.
Like cricket, soccer was once considered an immigrant sport and was more or less confined to first-generation European and Latino populations in the U.S. After experiencing fleeting success in the 1970s with the North American Soccer League, hosting the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the U.S. played a big role to kick-start a greater interest in the game that led not only to the spawning of Major League Soccer, but opened the door for greater exposure and interest for UEFA Champions League and English Premier League games on television.
We've had to change the opinions of a few people ... but the one thing that everyone agrees on is that there's huge potential and someone's got to unleash that potential in time.
”-- Neil Maxwell,
CEO of Cricket Holdings America
Combined with a strong grassroots movement, soccer is a game that has grown exponentially in the U.S. from where it was several generations ago. Neil Maxwell, the CEO of Cricket Holdings America and a former CEO of the Kings XI Punjab franchise in the IPL, says cricket can experience the same kind of transformation in the U.S. that soccer has and in turn it would have a positive impact on the sport of cricket globally.
"One of the key stats for me is that 15 years ago, FIFA were making $50 million in broadcast revenues in [the U.S.] market in one cycle," Maxwell said. "Now they're making half a billion. They've invested time and effort in this market and all football countries around the world benefit from that. We're looking at that from a cricket perspective. We want all full-member countries and all associate countries to benefit from the growth of cricket in this country."
At the moment, though, cricket is largely a niche sport in the U.S. with an underground following. A previous attempt to start a professional Twenty20 league in the U.S. crashed and burned, a la the XFL, after just one season in 2004. Building a cricket league from scratch in a market where the mainstream population still hasn't taken to the game will always be an uphill battle, but it's one that Maxwell is keen to wage as he takes charge of the league heading into the first games next summer.
"I think you've got to put this into perspective," Maxwell said. "It's a monumental task that we're taking on. It's hugely exciting. The general feeling that we have is that there's so much support for this to occur. We've had to change the opinions of a few people, whether it be the ICC or others, but the one thing that everyone agrees on is that there's huge potential and someone's got to unleash that potential in time."