September 4, 2009

Don Lockerbie's perfect storm

The top man in the USA's cricket administration believes America is the sport's next sunshine destination and he's pulling out the stops to make sure it is

Don Lockerbie, the new chief executive of USACA, believes that the time has come for USA cricket to draw a line under the disputes and controversies that have marred its recent existence, and believes that Twenty20 cricket is the vehicle to drive the sport into a vast and untapped market in North America.

Lockerbie was chief operating officer and venue development director of the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, but has had previous experience of promoting unfamiliar sports in the USA, having served as a venue design manager and a senior consultant for the 1994 football World Cup.

His vision centres around three key aims: firstly to turn the USA into a major centre for attracting the best talent in the world - either through the creation of an IPL-style tournament or simply by attracting the leading international teams for limited-overs tournaments. And then, having created an interest in the game, the next step is to push for a fully professional USA team, by tapping into an estimated USA fanbase of more than 15 million people.

"That fanbase is more than in Australia or in the UK. It's a good number," Lockerbie told Cricinfo. "Our primary aim is to satisfy the hunger of those who crave the sport, which in turn will help fuel interest. Americans may find cricket amusing at first, but then it's really exciting. Americans love sport, and they know of cricket. Most people I meet want me to explain the game to them. They find it fascinating, and I know they'll be enthusiastic about the Twenty20 game."

"Destination USA" is the catch-all title that Lockerbie has given to his expansion plans, because by making North America into the best neutral venue in world cricket, he can in turn generate sufficient interest to enable a fully competitive (and professional) homegrown outfit. Already there exists a highly promising Under-19 USA team that has qualified for the next youth World Cup, and Lockerbie's next step, through his catchily titled "Project 15", is to ensure that the senior team re-enters the world's top 15 (they are currently a lowly 32nd), while at the same time qualifying for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

"When you think about the history of cricket, you have to go back to the very first international, between USA and Canada in 1844," said Lockerbie. "And yet, in the modern era not a single full-member country has played in USA. A few representative teams played in Los Angeles in the 1990s, but we have never attracted full members, not even with the West Indies, at the height of their powers, in our backyard."

Cricket is coming back to the Caribbean in a big way next spring when the next World Twenty20 takes place, and Lockerbie is determined that the USA should be ready to roll out the red carpet to the game's elite players. "In April 2010, all the best teams in the world will be in the region, so we are trying to create matches and get them televised," said Lockerbie. "There is no reason why they can't stop off in the USA before and after the tournament. This is a serious initiative for us, to show that cricket is here and has arrived in a major and positive way. We want to play meaningful matches in filled-up stadiums, because the USA would welcome the opportunity.

"Golf is a massive sport in the USA, but when Tiger Woods tees off on a Thursday, he doesn't win until Sunday evening, and sometimes he doesn't win until Monday. USA can be a patient sports-watching country"

"With our weather and the range of venues available to us, we are ready to host cricket in the USA 365 days a year," said Lockerbie. "From Fort Lauderdale, which has already received ICC approval, to New York, to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Texas and Chicago, we have great pockets of our heritage, and immigrants with a culture of cricket. There are 15 million fans who have been very hungry for cricket for decades, and we're ready to exploit that."

That immigrant population is the real driving force behind the growth of cricket in North America, and as Lockerbie conceded, the creation of the Fort Lauderdale stadium stemmed directly from the demands of the West Indian expat community. Now, he claims, USA's self-styled "sports capital", Indianapolis, is next in line to join the bandwagon. "With the growth and interest of the game, cities are eager to host cricket," said Lockerbie. "It's a perfect storm to move in the right direction, to move up the food chain quicker than in the past."

The twin concerns about promoting cricket in the USA, notwithstanding the buzz currently surrounding Twenty20, are the long-held assumptions among Americans that cricket is "boring", and the lack of a national identity for domestic fans to latch onto. In the short-term, however, Lockerbie is unconcerned by either issue.

"Take golf for example," he said. "It is a massive sport in the USA, but when Tiger Woods tees off on a Thursday, he doesn't win until Sunday evening, and sometimes he doesn't win until Monday. USA can be a patient sports watching country. And it doesn't always require a recognised American team either. In our Major League Soccer, we can attract maybe 15-17,000 a match, but when Man United play Barcelona, we'll sell out an 80,000 stadium, just as an NFL game can sell out at Wembley.

"If the leading international teams come to USA, we'll fill our stadiums, no problem. In 1994, the world laughed when we were awarded the football World Cup, but we still hold the record for the most tickets sold in the event. And we are particularly adept at creating modular or temporary venues. As long as we have excellent fields and turf wickets, we can take a round oval and wrap 30000 people around it in a heartbeat. Just think what happens at Augusta during the Masters golf - there are suites, press boxes, broadcasters, fancy tents, portable toilets, all of it temporary, even though it can look like it's been there for ever."

In the long term, however, Lockerbie appreciates that true growth of cricket in the USA depends on a fully professional structure, and that requires a team worthy of attracting full-time employees. "Most of the cricket fans in our country would barely know the USA team exists," said Lockerbie. "We need to make cricket an American sport, starting in schools and working our way up. We are negotiating with Canada for an annual series, and we want to play regularly against Bermuda, and the individual Caribbean countries. There are plenty of opponents to be found in our region.

"We are working closely with some potential donor partners, who are currently waiting for cricket to take a professional turn," he said. "They are investor types, but we are not trying to rush anything. If you look at the big sponsors that the ICC has attracted in recent years - Pepsi, Yahoo, ESPN - even allowing for their Asian affiliates, they are American companies in origin. A lot of the money that people enjoy in cricket comes from the USA already. We want to put that back into our field."

To that end, the ICC faced accusations of bias when they allowed the USA to leapfrog their current standing and take their place in the qualifying rounds for the World Twenty20 despite initially failing to earn a place when they bombed out of the group-stage qualification in Jersey earlier this year. Lockerbie, however, said that his team had been placed in an impossible position, having only just had their suspension from ICC tournaments lifted prior to the event.

"We faced accusations of commercialism at the ICC associates meeting, and there was a potential motion to add more teams, instead of wildcards," he said. "But the point I made in that meeting was that before we were suspended, we were the No. 2-ranked team in Associate cricket. When our suspension was lifted, we were rushed into World Cup qualifying, and given 30 days to prepare a team. Should two bad days in Jersey mean we're not a good team anymore?"

"Last November we beat Canada and Bermuda, and we were unbeaten in the Americas tournament. We are regional champions. Before we were put on probation, we showed in 2004 by reaching the Champions Trophy that we have the potential to be a good team. At least we've been there before. We've played well enough in the past to move on from that suspension, and what I've promised the players is that I intend to professionalise the game as soon as possible.

"Our Under-19 team could be professionals by 2015," he said. "We can't succeed as an amateur team; no one can. You can't work nine to five, then hit the nets at evenings and weekends and expect to compete with the best in the world. But with calculated strategic initiatives we can do it. Especially where Twenty20 cricket is concerned. That is a huge plus for us. Four to six years ago it was marginal, whereas now the game is a serious part of cricket."

Lockerbie's ultimate dream, however, is to replicate the success of the Indian Premier League and set up an American franchise league with the backing of the world's star players. "The IPL is a remarkable, fantastic model," he said. "It's so successful, and yet it is merely a three-week tournament. Our hat is off to Lalit Modi and the people behind this property. It's a model to emulate, or to partner with.

"We want to be a significantly contributing federation in cricket. We want to be successful and stable, and we want to move cricket from underground to mainstream," he said. "The USA wants to see superstars, so first we'll invite them to play, and then we'll develop our own superstars."

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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