Gary Hopkins: USA's man with the plan
Welcome to the latest edition of our round-up of non-Test news. In this edition, we feature an interview with Gary Hopkins, the new chief executive of Project USA, the International Cricket Council's effort to popularise cricket in the United States. Hopkins's background includes eight years assisting the US Soccer Federation with their commercial development, as well as five years rebuilding the sponsorship, event and broadcast programmes for USA Track & Field:
Can you outline the goals of Project USA?
Well, Project USA is an initiative from the ICC to develop international world-class cricket in the United States. Our goal is to stage major one-day international cricket in the United States, to bring in the best teams in the world, and to use the revenue from those events to develop grass-roots cricket in the country.
Some US cricket followers may perceive Project USA as a top-to-bottom makeover of the administration of cricket in the United States. Is that correct?
My role is very clear. I have no involvement in the day-to-day governance of cricket in the United States. I have no involvement with state associations, or the day-to-day selection of teams. I have a very simple brief and a very simple job description, which is to sit outside the politics, and look at the commercial viability of staging major international games.
What sort of grass-roots activities would benefit from one-day cricket revenue?
At this stage I have not discussed how to use the funds with either the USACA or the ICC. It will be for them to decide the best way to utilise the funds - suffice to say the money is designated for projects in the United States.
What sort of assurance does the American cricket public have that the funds will be correctly used?
This is really something for ICC and USACA to discuss. They need to develop a plan that meets the desires of all parties. For cricket to expand in the USA, it is vitally important that all funds are utilised in a way that effectively channels all the money where it is most needed.
Will you be consulting with the people at grass-roots level?
Yes, one thing we learnt from our experiences with soccer is that you must provide a product that your core audience understands, appreciates and supports. It's a very niche audience, so you must satisfy them first, and then look to spread the game from there. We've already started talking with everybody at grass-roots level, and we've been getting some very good responses.
Does that include your average Joe who conducts coaching sessions on a Saturday morning?
You know, in soccer, I found they were critically important people - there's no-one making money in cricket in America currently. People are out there every day laying down wickets, running games etc. They are the people you really have to involve in what you're trying to do. They have to believe in it as much as you do and they have to help you go and do it. We will talk to everybody from the guy that rolls the fields to the president of the USACA - we want everyone involved.
Is the establishment of a professional league a goal of Project USA? No, it's not actually part of Project USA's mandate. At this stage, I think its mandate is to take Step One in showing the American market world-class top-flight cricket, and showing the American market and giving cricket fans in the American market the chance to see the world's biggest stars in the States, very similar with what we followed with soccer. In 1990 when I got involved with soccer there was no pro league. Club teams would come over and draw very poorly, because there wasn't really an understanding of the quality of international soccer - they hadn't seen any major games. We started bringing over everyone from Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Russia ... and that started the core soccer fans seeing international soccer and we basically expect the same with cricket. Let's bring over the top sides ... and then build from there.
And there is a new league out there now - ProCricket ... I met with these folk yesterday at length. My belief is people that are trying to make cricket work in this country are genuine, good solid cricket people and want to see it elevated. Yes, they're businessmen, because when it's all said and done, it's a sports business. They see a model which will hopefully work from a financial standpoint for them, and we hope they're successful. We have the issue of whether they have the support of the ICC and USACA, and that's all unclear. But I've met these people and they seem like decent people trying to build cricket in America. and I definitely think we should have communication with them and see where that goes.
So could you see ProCricket becoming part of the mainstream cricket structure? Well, it's like everything else - one thing is very honest and true about the American sports market: it's brutally tough, it's hard, but usually very little room for everyone. There are no free rides to when it comes to launching leagues in America - many leagues have come and gone, including sports such as soccer. In the case of women's soccer they invested $US100million and had it not work. People, though, have done it successfully. Major League Soccer is well on its way to establishing itself, but equally it had a very major benefactor and cost a lot of money, but it's probably now well on its way to success. Cricket has taken its first steps towards developing its own professional league. Now the market will determine whether that's successful or not. My thoughts are that no-one likes to see a failure in any sport that you're not involved in, because it damages the sport as a whole, so we should look to see where ProCricket is, talk to them and, where we can help them, help them where it makes sense to help them do so. Just simply because we're not involved in it and we haven't necessarily sanctioned it, doesn't then mean we want this thing to fail. It's important that anything involved the cricket in the United States succeeds, from an individual game to a league.
What's your immediate focus? Right now, it's finding suitable venues. The first week I visited 10-12 locations ranging from Los Angeles to Washington DC to Philadelphia to New York, and I'm off to Florida next week. By the time I return from the Champions Trophy I will have seen most of the potential locations, and I'm very heartened by what I've seen. With a bit of understanding and a bit of creativity we can create a true cricket environment. It may not be an environment you see at Lord's, but it will be a great wicket and a great outfield, and I believe we're on the way to finding these sorts of locations.
How pivotal is India's participation in these events? It's important, as it is to get the support of all the major ICC members. In India, yes we have the largest growing immigrant population in the last ten years in the Asian community... Equally we have a large West Indian community. America's full of people who have English ancestry, third of fourth generation. All of our marketing and all of our focus at this stage will be on targeting niche demographics that are involved in cricket. I think at this stage its very optimistic to think we're going to spend a ton of money trying to find a general market that turns to on to cricket. In time, if we're successful it's what we do with the niche group.
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