June 9, 2012

'T20 is a product that fits the American market'

The CEO of the company that hopes to sell cricket to the masses in the USA is convinced the shortest format is just the ticket

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."

"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"

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • force on June 10, 2012, 18:59 GMT

    If ICC is not pushing cricket on American TV channels for free, it wont go anywhere, dont know how things work among ICC, American board and TV channels here in USA but somehow someone has to come up with some kind of idea if LOCAL TV channels show the game during some peak time. No one is going to spend money here to watch some sports they dont even understand.

  • Mohammed on June 10, 2012, 18:18 GMT

    Forgot to add an important tidbit: Soccer (football) in the US is only ranked 5th or 6th in sports popularity and yet the US pays FIFA and other soccer governing bodies over $350 mil in TV rights fee EVERY year. That's how big this sports market is. The world cup (2018 and 2022) alone was sold to this market for $1.1 billion dollars (up 900% from 10 years ago). If the ICC was not so short-sighted for all these years (i.e. not making any investment, selling the TV rights to pay-per-view companies so they make some quick cash while the games stay hidden etc.) much of these money could have been theirs today.

  • Mohammed on June 10, 2012, 16:47 GMT

    All who are saying cricket will never overtake baseball therefore no investment should be made here doesn't have the faintest idea how big this sports market is and how big the possible return of that investment could be. If cricket becomes even 1/10th as popular as baseball it will still be a billion dollar business here (like MLS). Cricket does not need to become one of the top sports here to be financially successful. It just needs to curve out a niche like soccer and lacrosse have over the years.

    There's already a solid hardcore base in America that is bigger than exists in few cricket loving countries (New Zealand, Sri Lanka, most West Indies countries etc for example). US is already the 2nd biggest rights fee paying country for cricket without even trying. We can contribute hundreds of millions more to ICC if cricket can become just a little more popular here by adding a casual following (which will come if the games are on TV).

  • kanas on June 10, 2012, 16:21 GMT

    cricket ill say its the best sport when played at the highest level(else cudnt be more one sided and boring),, and US r China to find talents s close to impossible..And personally i feel test crickrt needs more skill compared to baseball..A cricketer can go straight into a baseball game and a throw a ball ,, and the latter cant have a bowl in cricket.

  • Dummy4 on June 10, 2012, 5:01 GMT

    The best way to introduced americans to cricket is to buy air time on a channel like espn for the ipl or clt20 to create interest then go in & start a league. Imagine trying to set up a baseball or football(US) in a country like brazil, it just wouldnt work. The league thats slated to start in 2013 is going to close like the other one. There just isnt any star power & most of the players for usa/can/etc are filled with expats from commonwealth nations who not to sound harsh but wouldnt even make their university team. I say take the risk, buy air time & see the results & maybe even host some big name matches like aus vs sa or ind vs pak. Otherwise theres no point & it would be better to focus of gaining a ground in a place like china.

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2012, 23:47 GMT

    Rubbish! This idea of promoting T20 over test cricket reveals the fact that people r willing to put on line the authenticity of this beautiful game cricket. Let me tell you by cricket I mean a game which is played over the course of 5 days. Just because some people find it boring doesn't mean this format is flawed. I pose a simple question here: Do you see people calling for a mini golf tour/world cup over the traditional golf tournaments just because a certain set of people don't like the lengthy format of golf? Some people prefer watching only goals at the end of the match so that means we should erase the middle part of a football game n only have penalty kicks just to please a certain set of people? Similarly some of u might not like a 5 set tennis match so would that advocate for a tennis match only consisting of 7 tie breaker points? So y are we tweaking with d format of cricket? Let cricket be a 5 day game n if someone finds it boring he can chose another form of entertainment!

  • Nadeem on June 9, 2012, 22:33 GMT

    I lives in US and believe that Cricket cannot win Baseball fans at all. It will be extremely difficult to promote cricket in US as we already have Baseball here.

    Americans already have four games NFL, NBA, Baseball, Ice Hockey which cover whole year. Then there is Tennis, Golf , Wrestling , Boxing and many sports which have huge fan base.

    I believe that instead of trying promote cricket in US, ICC should promote cricket in China.

  • Michael on June 9, 2012, 22:12 GMT

    Perfect.Just the ticket! And hopefully when we have delivered the product to them we can just leave it there and return to playing normal real cricket in the cricket playing world.

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2012, 21:08 GMT

    as a New Zealander currently visiting New York - the one thing I'd say Baseball truly offers that is better than cricket would be the stadiums. Close in, and almost vertical, so that those high up still get an awesome view. With a stadium that could fill a fair sized cricket ground, have these stands vertical around the action - would make viewing the game UNBELIEVABLE considering I'm used to sitting on a sloped bank in New Zealand.

    People ask why India aren't in partnership with the US. I'd say this is because most cricket lovers in the US will go to games regardless of who is playing, and New Zealand offers American people the type of opposition they will be closer suited to being interested in. A western world team (Australia would be nice too) that isn't rich, and willing to go after being a part of the next big thing. India has no need for it.

    All in all I'd love for this to work - the further cricket reaches the better for all who love it.

  • Dummy4 on June 9, 2012, 18:17 GMT

    New Zealand is not the best partner. They need India, Pakistan and the West Indies, as there are the communities from which the initial attendance and media viewership will be drawn.

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