USA news March 10, 2012

US Youth Cricket Association signs deal with Reebok

The US Youth Cricket Association finalised a three-year sponsorship deal this week with Reebok Cricket North America, an agreement which USYCA President Jamie Harrison believes will open up more opportunities for cricket to be taken to school kids across America.

"We think it's going to open the door for a lot of other sponsorships because I think it's a statement that Reebok thinks we're sponsorship worthy," Harrison told ESPNcricinfo. "It puts a statement out there that says what USYCA is doing is worth getting behind for a major cricket brand."

In less than two years, Harrison's USYCA programme has done the heavy lifting to promote cricket to young people across all economic and ethnic backgrounds around the USA. USYCA has had particular success reaching out to the so-called mainstream American youth, something that the USA Cricket Association has failed to do for decades. The USYCA deal with Reebok goes to show how much faith people have in Harrison's vision, which now includes corporate America. Meanwhile, the USA men's national team continues to play without any sponsors.

"For the last two years I've been telling anybody who would listen that what we were doing was going to work; that it was worthwhile and was worth getting behind, and a lot of people in cricket have applauded that," Harrison said. "But this is the first time a major sports brand has put its stamp of approval on USYCA and said, 'We see what you're doing and we see where it's going and we want to be a part of that.' I think that's a really significant development, not just for USYCA but for cricket in the United States because we just don't get that in the United States."

Aside from providing licensed apparel for USYCA, Harrison says that Reebok will be providing enough funding to cover organisational and operational costs to USYCA over the next three years.

"We can now focus our fundraising entirely on raising money for outreach, for buying cricket kits," Harrison said. "One of our member organisations wants to put a pitch in a school and they need fundraising for that job. So now we can turn our attention wholly and completely toward projects, and to putting cricket kits in kids' hands and not have to worry about our organisational expenses."

Since April 2010, USYCA has provided more than 800 cricket kits to schools and local recreational programs throughout the USA. Harrison says that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina took in more than 150 cricket kits last August and has come back to Harrison seeking an additional 400. The fact that interest in cricket is growing rapidly at schools in Charlotte, a city of more than two million people better known for its attachment to NASCAR auto racing, is another sign of cricket's potential for the sport to grow in schools around the USA if it is presented the right way.

"One thing I've learned is never underestimate the appetite of schools for cricket sets," Harrison said. "Charlotte, North Carolina, has already contacted me and they want another 100 schools to have cricket sets but they don't want them to have one set each. They want these schools to have four sets each. So we're talking massive amounts of cricket sets that we're going to have to find funding for."

All USYCA cricket sets that have been supplied to schools are plastic kits meant for playing in a casual setting. The next step for Harrison is setting up summer rec programmes, which will use wooden bats and put more emphasis on learning proper technique and rules.

Harrison believes that he can build upon his first phase of cricket introduction through physical education class in schools by getting those kids into summer rec programmes with enhanced coaching instruction and structured game play. Sustained interest would then pave the way for high school leagues to get underway. Currently the only high school cricket league that exists in America is in New York City's public school system. The NY PSAL cricket league began in 2008 with 14 teams, but has since doubled in size with more than 30 teams projected to participate in 2012.

While Harrison is in the process of setting up a summer programme in Prince George's County, Maryland, he says that parks and recreation departments in Fairfax, Virginia and Omaha, Nebraska have also shown interest in getting a similar programme up and running this year.

"There are lots of school systems that we're going to be supplying cricket kits to this spring," Harrison said. "We have 600 sets on hand and that's nice but that's not going to be the end of it."

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey