'T20 is a product that fits the American market'
Ever since Ravi Shastri labeled Lalit Modi "Moses" for delivering the IPL to India, more and more cricket preachers have worked to spread the gospel of T20 worldwide. In the USA, numerous missions have been launched to spur the game's growth in a place highly desired for its commercial potential. Missionaries are doing their best to convince people that the short three-hour format is the missing link to bridging the gap between cricket and mainstream American culture.
Yet despite the proliferation of competitions around the world, the gospel of T20 has turned out to be mostly apocryphal in the USA. Turn on sports talk radio stations in major cities like New York and Chicago and it's clear that the average sports fan still hasn't been proselytised by fours and sixes, run-outs and yorkers. Cricket is still on the periphery of the US sports landscape.
Keith Wyness is on a mission to change that.
Wyness, 54, was appointed in February to be the first chief executive of Cricket Holdings America LLC, a partnership between the USA Cricket Association and New Zealand Cricket that will be responsible for forming a domestic professional Twenty20 league in the Land of Opportunity.
Having previously worked as a businessman in the USA for 12 years, the Aberdeen, Scotland native is now relishing the chance of returning to America with the task of carving out a sports league from scratch. "That's one of the attractions for me to come back for this particular project - to get involved in professional sports in the States," Wyness told ESPNcricinfo. It is the first foray into cricket administration for the former chief executive of both Aberdeen and Everton FC. "It's very rare to get a chance to take something as important as the world's second [biggest] sport and then try and make a real impact in probably the biggest commercial sports economy in the world."
At the time of his hiring, CHA announced that their targeted start date for a T20 league in the USA would be pushed back from 2012 to 2013. Wyness says that he wants to use that time to analyse successful elements, especially the fan experiences, from other American sports leagues and bring those things to cricket.
"I think we're in a lucky position to be able to pick some of the best successes from each of the leagues and try and meld this all together for a different fan experience for cricket, and for a whole different way of doing business," Wyness explained. "I think the MLS [Major League Soccer] has done very well with its central contracting procedures. I think the NBA has a great fan experience, as does the NFL, and I think we've just got to make sure that we put the fans front and centre in terms of everything we do, and make sure that we position this as a real entertainment product and introduce cricket in that way to the general population.
"I think we've got a novelty factor that we can work with straightaway. I think that's where we've got to focus on, making sure that everyone understands that this can really be all action, great fun, and that people will understand it. It's not a very complicated game to understand, Twenty20."
In 2004, local organisers attempted to start a T20 league in the USA, called Pro Cricket. Attendance was poor and the league folded after one season. CHA is confident it won't suffer the same fate mainly because Pro Cricket never received approval from the USACA and faced several obstacles as a result. CHA has the endorsement of the USACA, in partnership with NZC, and as a consequence, the blessing of the ICC.
That does not necessarily mean the event will be successful. In 2010, USACA hosted a pair of T20 contests between New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Florida. The event wound up a lacklustre affair that drew a combined two-day attendance total of 8600 at a facility that can hold up to 20,000 people. The USACA's own domestic tournaments are frequently beset with problems on and off the field, and 2011's national T20 championship was no exception.
Wyness wants to lay the groundwork for a positive start to the league by organising teaser events to help generate buzz. These, he says, don't necessarily have to be games - though a pair of T20s will be hosted in Florida by West Indies against New Zealand on June 30 and July 1 - but other events to build interest.
Events that "we can position cricket in that can make it fun for the average person to understand," as Wyness said. "You've seen how the NBA does the dunk fest and those sort of things. I think there's every chance that we could be looking to try and do fastest-bowler competitions in unique places. Things like that, I think, are the way that we're gonna go down the road of making sure we have newsworthy events and try and create as much stir as we can do around the real fun event that T20 can be."
Wyness' target is for the league to open in June or July of 2013 with eight teams. To start off, he anticipates that franchises will most likely be based in areas with cricket-specific facilities, such as the Central Broward Regional Park in Florida, or facilities that need minimal work to make them suitable for cricket.
"We have to be pragmatic and realistic in the first few years," he said. "Obviously we're gonna strive to get our cricket-specific facilities as quickly as possible, but we know those can't happen overnight and we've got to show that there's a market for this. Hopefully the franchise owners and the local municipalities start looking at building cricket facilities."
It's important for the league to break into coveted markets like New York, but Wyness thinks cricket could also find success by going into second-tier cities that don't face a lot of competition from other major sports. One city without a pro sports team that he thinks could be an appealing place in which to launch a cricket franchise is Austin, Texas.
He doesn't believe that the market for T20 leagues around the world is oversaturated, and argues it's a good sign for CHA that several other countries have started franchise leagues in the last year. "Some leagues will be stronger than others and I would hope that the USA would be right up there among the one or two or three top T20 leagues," he said. "I see no reason at all why we can't attract the very best players to our league and create the very best product."
While there are millions of South Asian expats in the USA for whom cricket is a religion, a professional T20 cricket league won't realistically become a viable commercial entity in the country unless the broader community begins to worship the game with them. Wyness' mission is to make people in the USA not only see but believe in T20.
"I know the product is great. I've seen T20 around the world. I know it's a fantastic game to watch. I know it fits the American market. I feel very privileged to have that chance to bring it to the marketplace in the right way. I think I understand the vision that we've gotta have to get there. There's already a base of interest in cricket in America. We've now got to bring it into a broader appeal and I think we've got exactly the right product to do that."
Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey