An opportunity wasted?
In August, Gary Hopkins was appointed as the chief executive of Project USA, the ICC's far-reaching commitment to developing cricket Stateside. But a fortnight ago, after months of wrangling, the ICC suspended the initiative. Martin Williamson spoke to him:
While it was a decision made by Malcolm [Speed, the ICC's chief executive] and the ICC, I was aware they were concerned with current governance issues and was kept abreast of the course of action they were going to take.
Given the opportunities inside the USA, you must have been extremely disappointed?
It is disappointing both professionally and personally. I have worked in the US sports market for a long time, and it's a tough, often uncompromising marketplace. Yes, there is great opportunity, but you have to compete with some of the most powerful and professional sports and entertainment entities in the world for the consumer dollar, with an emphasis on professional. To grasp the opportunity in front of it, cricket in the USA has to adapt and evolve, and quickly.
Do you think that this is just a suspension and, if so, what needs to be done to get Project USA back on track?
I do not think this decision was taken lightly and clearly there are major reservations. I am very disappointed in how the relationship between the ICC and the USA Cricket Association has deteriorated, and its subsequent impact on Project USA, but clearly there is a political battle inside of USACA regarding the current elections and it appears to be very acrimonious. Equally much of this has taken place in full public view and through the media, which is never good. The current perception around the world is of an organisation out of control and riddled with incompetence and petty politics. Whether this is correct or not, this is the perception. This I would think needs fixing. Hopefully a correctly run, transparent and fully inclusive election will go a way towards this.
How much progress have you made in the five months in the role so far?
Project USA has made tremendous progress, and this only compounds the frustration for everyone concerned.
With hindsight, should your Prjoect USA role have included a role inside the USACA rather than being entirely separate from the politics?
There are two sides to this. Being able to keep a very clear focus on the commercial and business side of the venture ensured that I was able to move pretty quickly, and freely do all that was necessary to complete the feasibility plan. There was a great deal of time-consuming work to be done, with a lot of travel and research. The learning curve required to bring myself up to speed with the history, governance and personal politics of US cricket would certainly have detracted from this.
Gladstone Dainty, the USACA president, was apparently worried that Project USA could drain funds from the US market, and take them "off-shore". Is this fair?
I have seen the Memorandum of Understanding and it clearly states that all monies raised from the efforts of Project USA remain in the States for the development of cricket here. This was equally stated to me when I took on the role of CEO, and nothing I have seen or heard since makes me question this. The whole intention of the project is for the ICC full-member countries to give a financial jump-start to cricket in America, to help in its development with the hope that it becomes a vibrant new frontier that will benefit everyone. It's counter-intuitive to think that monies raised would not be used for that purpose.
In September, you said one of your first jobs was to identify suitable venues in the USA. Did you succeed?
We have a new $35million cricket stadium being built in Lauderhill, Florida. This stadium opens in 2006 and will be a tremendous resource for the USA. Quite remarkable really - it took us ten years to get our first purpose-built soccer stadium in the States. I am amazed and excited that cricket has this resource coming on line soon.
Is there life for cricket outside the expat community in the USA?
The real question to ask is will there be any cricket in the expat community in 20 years if cricket does not come to the States. Kids of first-generation immigrants will gravitate to the sports they can watch. As they assimilate into society they will grow up watching and playing baseball, basketball, American football and soccer. Cricket will be their dad's game. It will hold less and less relevance. I said in the beginning, the competition for the hearts and minds of young sports fans is massively competitive, with some of the most experienced, savvy and smartest marketing-driven leagues in the world desperate to steal our consumers. The passionate cricket-loving dad will not be swayed - the young "Americanised" son or daughter will be, and will be lost to cricket forever. Major League Baseball, NFL and the NBA have all identified emerging ethnic communities as being vital to the growth of their sports. For example, huge marketing campaigns have been initiated to turn Hispanics - naturally soccer fans - into fans of baseball, hockey and football. It's a running battle for the hearts and minds of young fans, particularly when the consumer entertainment dollar is tight. It's also a battle cricket has not turned up to yet.
Assuming Project USA continues, what will cricket look like there in ten years' time?
I am more worried about the next ten days and ten months. But if you ask me to look at a crystal ball, five years ahead I would say this is what I would hope it would be like: In one to two years we will have run two highly successful tri-nations series that establish the USA as an exciting, new, viable venue for international cricket - a place that teams and players are excited to come, and a place where millions of latent USA cricket fans can see the world's best. Project USA ends in two years - or next month - and cricket in the USA would need to stand on its own. Hopefully the money raised and exposure gained would be a catalyst for real growth.
And further ahead than that?
I would hope that US cricket would be able to find and develop turf facilities in San Francisco and New York to supplement existing ones in Los Angeles and Lauderhill. An international tour that featured Florida, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York should excite any cricket fan in the world, and deliver cricket to the hotbeds of US support. Hopefully, we would have established a successful summer professional league, and there would be a strong and vibrant well-funded club system that develops players from the age of six and up, feeding players into a organised, professional structure that can lead to a pro league and international honours. I don't believe that the USA cannot produce world-class cricketers. It's what this country is all about. They love competing and they love winning. If monies are used wisely in this area and the very best coaches and academies developed, the USA can be competitive with the full-member countries in seven to ten years, and challenging for trophies in 10 to 15 years. If you want an example, look at the US soccer team. In 1990 it was ranked 130th in the world, and yet in 2002 it reached the World Cup semi-finals. It can be done.