USA news February 24, 2012

Wyness brought in to lead US T20 project

Keith Wyness, the former chief executive of both Aberdeen and Everton FC, has taken on the challenge of selling Twenty20 cricket to the United States.

Wyness will be responsible for the successful launch of a professional domestic Twenty20 league, including the sale of franchises and commercial television rights. A planned launch this year has been postponed for 12 months to allow Wyness time to put his personal stamp on plans that may represent cricket's best chance to make an impact in the US.

The United States is the second-biggest market for cricket outside India but attempts to nurture a professional circuit have always foundered.

Wyness' appointment as the first chief executive of Cricket Holdings America LLC (CHA), a joint venture formed in 2010 between New Zealand Cricket and the USA Cricket Association for the development of cricket within the USA, comes in the midst of growing political turmoil which has left the ICC increasingly disenchanted with what officials view as a wasted opportunity.

Regional election results were overturned last year while the general elections, which were constitutionally mandated to take place in 2011, have been pushed back into March of this year.

Stakeholders around the US were surprised by the announcement that Wyness had been recruited. They were expecting a different announcement by the board about which member leagues will be eligible to vote in the upcoming USACA general elections.

Wyness left Everton abruptly in 2008, thought to be frustrated at opposition by supporters and Liverpool City Council towards his preference for Everton to abandon Goodison Park for a purpose-built stadium in Kirkby. He was also a driving force behind Everton's move to a new high-class training facility at Finch Farm in Halewood.

The delayed launch of T20 in the United States emphasizes the size of his task. As recently as October, CHA officials had said that a professional Twenty20 league would be organized in time to begin this summer, but the requisite facilities and infrastructure to support it have not been put in place. Not surprisingly, Wyness is talking of beginning with "a clean page".

"I think the opportunity very rarely comes along with something as exciting as this to have a clean page to really develop what I think will become a major sport in the United States," he said. "Cricket is the second biggest sport in the world and the United States is probably the biggest commercial market for sport. So we've got to marry the two and that's a really fascinating opportunity, to really get a major legacy for cricket."

Wyness, 54, worked with Aberdeen, his hometown club, from 2000 until 2004 when he left to take over the chief executive position at Everton and was also involved with the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He has previous business experience in the USA, having moved to Florida in the late 1980s where he co-founded and served as vice-president of marketing for the luxury cruise ship operator Radisson Diamond. According to his business profile at Pacific International Capital, where he is listed as a managing director, he maintains dual British and American citizenship.

A big challenge for Wyness will be tapping into the interest that exists within the USA for watching cricket overseas on television and converting it into demand for a local product. There have been several attempts in the past at startup cricket ventures in the USA which have failed - such as Pro Cricket, a professional T20 league, which had one season in 2004 before ceasing operations - but Wyness believes this time will be different.

"We've been able to look properly at getting the correct permissions," Wyness said. "We've involved the ICC right from the start. We've got the Full Member involvement of New Zealand working with USACA. So we've actually got it right in terms of the right pyramid of cricket authorities. I think that makes a fundamental difference to everything that's gone before and with that we're able to then sit back and plan properly and strategically to make sure we've got everything in the right place.

"The United States is the second biggest consumer of televised and internet cricket behind India. So already there's a platform of very interested cricket enthusiasts in the States. We've now got to penetrate the broader market."

When CHA was formed in December of 2010, NZC and USACA announced plans to start a domestic Twenty20 league in the USA between June and August of 2012. That stance was reiterated last October by CHA director Neil Maxwell. Maxwell's goal was for CHA to sell ownership in four to six franchises to generate revenue in the neighbourhood of $200 million.

However, there is only one cricket specific stadium in the US, located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Plans to develop a ground in the New York market, which is vital to the future success of the proposed league, have yet to get underway. Commencing a league at the same time that the 2012 London Olympics are taking place was another obstacle to deal with and so the planned start date to CHA's Twenty20 league has been pushed back to 2013.

While the hiring of Wyness completes one order of business in US cricket, there is still another that has yet to be dealt with. USACA's governance has been poor for a long time, with ongoing internal political battles, but Wyness predicted the issues which have plagued United States cricket will subside.

"I think those sort of things will become things of the past and I think everyone's going to move towards getting the best interests of cricket promoted in the best possible way," he said.

USACA had announced in March of last year that general elections would be held on October 15, 2011. A series of delays resulted in elections being pushed back to March 17, 2012. A compliance audit to determine the legitimacy of USACA member leagues and consequently their eligibility to vote in elections was completed earlier this month.

A final decision was supposed to be made by February 20 to determine which leagues would be allowed to vote in the elections, but an announcement still has not been made public leaving some stakeholders worried that the elections will be pushed back yet again.

Edited by David Hopps

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey