December 4, 2010

Big ideas, little results

The USA Cricket Association's recently ousted chief executive Don Lockerbie set his sights too high and lost sight of the most important objectives

On October 18 a press release was put up on the ICC website that was both totally irrelevant and completely relevant to US cricket. It announced that a company named Imperial Woodpecker had decided to extend its sponsorship of the Japan men's national team through the end of 2011.

"What on earth is Imperial Woodpecker?" might be one's immediate question. The answer is not a lumber company based in Tokyo. Rather, it is a television production company that was formed in 2009 and is headquartered in New York City. While the Japan Cricket Association was tapping into American corporate dollars to support its cricket programmes, USA Cricket's chief executive, Don Lockerbie, was presumably still searching for a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow to finance the same for USACA. One month later he began searching for a new job.

Lockerbie arrived as USACA's CEO in April of 2009 and instilled Obama-esque feelings of hope and change in everyone involved with US cricket. His resume included summer Olympics and FIFA World Cup experience. Such leadership credentials added instant credibility to an organisation long maligned as a rudderless ship, one that had meandered through two ICC suspensions with Gladstone Dainty in charge. It was refreshing to see an American cricket administrator actively engaging with the media and full of big ideas from outside the box.

However, if you're going to talk the talk, you'd better walk the walk too, and there was nothing that Lockerbie loved more than talking about bringing big sponsors and big money to US cricket. He would name-drop from his Rolodex of contacts at will, as if all he had to do was snap his fingers to get his choice of sponsors lining up outside his office door. Lockerbie was like Jimmy Stewart from It's A Wonderful Life, gazing into the eyes of USA cricket players, fans and administrators, wooing them by telling them that if they wanted the moon, "just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down".

Lockerbie certainly was reaching for the moon when he declared that a US$10 million annual budget was the minimum amount he needed to make the United States competitive in world cricket. That's a big step up for an organisation whose annual budget has typically ranged from $200,000-$400,000 in ICC grants, not to mention the fact that USACA never demonstrated sound fiscal management with those meagre resources in the past. Imagine Manny Pacquiao trying to go from featherweight to heavyweight in the span of two fights and picture what the result would be.

Instead of trying to build by attracting stepping stone, incremental sponsorships like Japan, Canada, or Ireland had successfully done, it appeared that Lockerbie's strategy was all or nothing. It wasn't worth his time to negotiate a three-year $650,000 deal like Cricket Canada had done with Scotiabank in 2008, or the three-year deal they signed in November with Reebok. RSA Insurance's sponsorship of Ireland, including a €100,000 boost before the World Twenty20 in April, was chump change. Such hubris contributed to Lockerbie's downfall. He didn't just want millions. He wanted tens of millions, and wound up getting nothing.

Lockerbie was reaching for the moon when he declared that a US$10 million annual budget was the minimum amount he needed to make the United States competitive in world cricket. That's a big step up for an organisation whose annual budget has typically ranged from $200,000 to $400,000 in ICC grants

Another problem along these same lines was his reverse pyramid approach to development. Instead of focusing on grassroots and infrastructure as essential to sparking interest from sponsors hoping to invest in American cricket, his plan was to dazzle them by bringing in Test nations to play on US soil in order to whip up a frenzy of excitement among the expat fan population. That's not really investing in American cricket, that's investing in other countries to bring their brand of cricket to America. Judging by the lukewarm interest for May's pair of Twenty20s between New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Florida, sponsors didn't get behind the latter option like Lockerbie had envisioned.

He also failed to exploit the unprecedented success USA has experienced on the field during the last two years, success that many sponsors would be thrilled to be associated with. In November of 2008, the men's team romped their way to the ICC Americas Division One title. In 2010 they advanced from Division Five to Division Three of the World Cricket League and won the first-ever ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 title. The women's team beat Canada in July to earn a spot in the Women's World Cup Qualifer in 2011. Most importantly the U-19 team turned in remarkable efforts in 2009 to qualify and play in the 2010 U-19 World Cup in New Zealand.

He could have packaged this as the future of US cricket to sell investors on the idea of getting in on the ground floor to ride the elevator all the way to the penthouse. But he frittered away his time trying to convince people to shell out their money for an IPL-style Twenty20 league that would include more foreign stars playing on American soil. Rather than get USA's players the central contracts and professional coaching staff he had promised, his mission became one of finding money for other countries' players - ones who already had plenty of money - to come and play here, hoping for a trickle-down effect. It didn't happen.

Whoever replaces Lockerbie as the next CEO won't have as much pressure to succeed but won't be cut the same amount of slack as his predecessor either. Lockerbie's lack of accomplishments means that he hasn't left very big shoes to fill. He was a white-collar outsider who had trouble connecting with people on the ground, preferring to use his time to cultivate a slick public-relations persona. USACA would probably be better served by someone with sharp business acumen, who is also prepared every now and then to do a little bit of grunt work with some substance behind it in order to get development on the right track.

As for what Dainty's USACA board wants, nobody knows, but if their solution is to bring in another person to keep chasing rainbows, stakeholders could be kept standing in the rain instead of basking in sunshine on the other side.

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey