July 1, 2012

'We are known as the cricket capital of the USA'

The mayor of Lauderhill, which is hosting two T20s between West Indies and New Zealand, is a cricket fan. Who better as an evangelist for the game in America?

In the lead-up to this weekend's pair of T20 matches in Florida between West Indies and New Zealand, many players and administrators talked excitedly about the opportunity to bring cricket to an American audience who might have never seen it before. Others dismissed the notion of bringing the game to an "American" audience as more fiction than reality because the majority of the crowd at the Central Broward Regional Park is expected to be predominantly Jamaican, Guyanese and Trinidadian expats from South Florida.

Those who think that the games are only being played in Florida to satisfy the expats might be surprised to find out that perhaps the biggest advocate for international cricket in the USA is a middle-aged man from Michigan with Jewish heritage, who not only watches but actively plays cricket in and around Lauderhill.

"In this area, to be white and Jewish and playing cricket is not the most common thing you'll find in the world," says Richard J Kaplan, the mayor of Lauderhill. "When you're involved in a city, one of the things you want to do is provide those services, those events, those amenities, that the people you represent want. This city has a large contingent of people from the Caribbean and they love the sport of cricket. I've been supporting it. I've been out there not only talking about it but actually playing the game, enjoying the game, and I think people have appreciated that I've stuck my neck out there for them."

Anyone who looks around Kaplan's office at Lauderhill City Hall will recognise that his words are not grandstanding political bluster. The walls are adorned with cricket paraphernalia, including framed pictures of players and teams, cricket bats and balls, as well as a banner from the Lima Cricket & Football Club in Peru, and an action shot of Kaplan at the crease in a textbook follow-through pose that appeared on the front page of an area newspaper back in 2003.

It's been a long time coming, but Kaplan, 56, is happy that this weekend will be an opportunity to show residents that county officials were right to build a dedicated cricket stadium capable of hosting big-time international matches.

"This event has to prove that cricket can be viable," he said. "You have to show them that economically it's viable, and I believe we've done it - that there is a draw, people will buy tickets to come to the game and that it will boost their fan support and ultimately the bottom line of continuing to develop the sport. If you can show that, why wouldn't you want to do it again?"

Areas in South Florida like Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach have been hit hard economically in recent years, especially with the collapse of the housing market since 2008. Kaplan says an event like this is very important because in addition to all the interest from residents in the area, it is estimated that over 5000 people have travelled in from out of town for the matches, providing a big boost to the South Florida economy through tourism.

"Our Convention & Visitors Bureau wouldn't be doing this if they didn't feel it would have a major impact to the community," Kaplan said. "It wouldn't be what we would achieve through a Super Bowl, but it will still be one of the larger impacts this county could potentially have."

"I will find out more about this game by reading foreign press coverage than I will from my own local paper where the game is at. I'm a little disappointed about it"
Kaplan on the lack of enthusiasm for the T20s in the local media

While New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have historical ties to cricket that go back further, Lauderhill's association with the game has really only developed in the last decade or so. Kaplan says he first noticed cricket while driving down Florida's Turnpike in 1999, a year after he became mayor. It took a few more years for him to develop an interest in the game.

"A local gentleman was interested in us creating a sister city with Chaguanas, Trinidad. We had an event that we developed, called United Fest, which was a big Caribbean festival here in the city, and they wanted us to do a sister city and get more involved in expanding cricket. I was very happy to go down to Trinidad with a contingent from the city. I didn't know anything about cricket."

Before he left for Trinidad, Kaplan says he printed some explanation sheets to get better acquainted with the game, but what really propelled his interest on that trip in 2002 was attending the second Test between India and West Indies in Port-of-Spain.

"I sat in a box with the US ambassador to the West Indies and he helped me understand it. I was enjoying the game a lot. It was just a giant party. It really was a lot of fun watching the game."

It was around this time that a bid was being organised for South Florida to host 2007 World Cup warm-up matches and the idea came along for a stadium to be built in Lauderhill to make that happen. Although the bid was unsuccessful, Kaplan credits Lance Gibbs, the former West Indies spinner, with continuing to make a push to get the stadium built and eventually getting international cricket to come to the ground.

Gibbs, a resident of South Florida, chaired a committee in 2003 to lead the charge to bring part of the World Cup to Florida and to raise the profile of the game in the area. "He was a great figurehead," Kaplan said. "He gave a lot of credibility to our process and to our programme that we wanted to develop. It wasn't like a bunch of people involved who didn't know about cricket said, 'Hey this is a good idea. Let's see if we can do it.' Lance is one of those people that you have to take seriously. He's an established person. I thank him for all the years he's been involved."

Not everyone was in favour of the idea of a cricket stadium, though. When plans were first put forward in August 2003, former Broward County commissioner Josephus Eggelletion was quoted as saying, "The worst thing for this county to do would be to build a facility that begins to gather pigeon poop." An August 2009 article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel highlighted unease among taxpayers after the stadium, built as part of a reported $70 million complex that contains a variety of other sports facilities, sat virtually unused for cricket in the first two years after opening.

Kaplan says he has been frustrated at the lack of media exposure for this weekend's games in the local newspapers, and that it doesn't help when trying to deflect criticism from detractors. The games will have a sizeable worldwide audience but will be completely unavailable to viewers wanting to watch on TV in the USA.

"A lot of foreign press has been here," Kaplan said. "I will find out more about this game by reading foreign press coverage than I will from my own local paper. I'm a little disappointed about it. It's expensive to travel and people are flying here to cover this thing. They [the local media] can get in their car and drive a couple of miles, so you would think that since it doesn't really cost them anything to cover it, it might help them sell a couple newspapers."

More criticism recently came from Guyana president Donald Ramotar, who said, "I think the West Indies Cricket Board is slapping the whole Caribbean in its face by moving some of the international matches to Florida." Kaplan disagrees with that assertion and says that playing games in Florida is a way forward.

"If cricket in the West Indies or internationally wants to grow its pie and wants to build on new revenue sources that ultimately contribute to the health of the sport and the growth of the sport, it's got to start moving into those areas where it can grow," he said. "What we need to [show] is that we're not trying to take away from them. We're trying to expand the sport to make it overall healthier and larger on a worldwide stage. If you don't grow the pie and you don't move into the United States and have these tournaments, if you're satisfied with cricket worldwide as it is right now, it has limited potential to grow and might shrink some. You might have somewhat of a stagnant sport, and I don't think cricket wants to be stagnant."

Part of that future growth might be having a franchise play its home games in the stadium in a proposed T20 professional league that New Zealand Cricket and the USA Cricket Association are trying to get underway for next summer. For now, though, Kaplan is just hoping that this weekend is as successful as he's projecting it to be. Only 8600 tickets were sold across two matches between New Zealand and Sri Lanka here in 2010, but nearly four times that many could be gobbled up by hungry fans this weekend.

"We are officially known as the cricket capital of the United States," Kaplan said. "If everything goes as we're hoping it should, it will be validation for a lot of people. It will prove what we believed and what we've been talking about for the last couple of years can and will work. From that success the next step is to build on it. When things are successful and you've proven it, other people all of a sudden want to be a part of it. There are people that are ahead of the curve and there are people that show up after the curve, after you've shown that things work. We're being ahead of the curve."

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey