Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa
A new venture to promote cricket inside the USA is to be announced shortly involving a domestic Twenty20 tournament which, it is hoped, will attract a raft of overseas players. Cynics may be forgiven for thinking they have seen many previous ventures come and go but the difference this time is that it is well-funded, professionally managed, and comes in line with the ICC's declared strategic ambition to target and grow key new markets.
The ICC and other boards have for years been eyeing the USA, potentially a massive franchise and sponsorship market that nobody has managed to come close to tapping. But now Cricket Holdings America LLC (CHA), a joint venture between New Zealand Cricket (NZC) and United States of America Cricket Association (USACA), is aiming to do just that.
There are two strands to the project. The first is to stage a four-to six-team Twenty20 competition, starting next July, with sides comprising overseas professionals supplemented by local players, much as has happened in the IPL. The second is for CHA to stage international matches inside the USA.
The idea was devised between Neil Maxwell and New Zealand Cricket CEO Justin Vaughan. Maxwell is a former first-class player who is now an agent for players such as Brett Lee and Michael Hussey. He also spent a spell as CEO of the Kings XI Punjab IPL franchise. At the same time NZC, aware of the limits of functioning in a very small market, was looking for ways to expand its boundaries and increase income. Maxwell brought NZC together with USACA and the long-term result was a joint venture between the two. Funding to date has all come from investors in CHA.
NZC's motives were borne largely out of their need to manage risk. "New Zealand Cricket needs to be less reliant on income derived out of traditional FTP cricket and seek to cultivate new income streams," Vaughan explained."Growing our financial base allows us to invest into the game at all levels, and to secure our top talent."
The deal means CHA will run a T20 tournament as well as stage potentially-lucrative international matches involving Full Member teams. "The focus is to raise capital and that will generate the licence fee to USACA to give it resources to grow the game," Maxwell said. "CHA will exploit commercial rights to deliver the annual returns."
The T20 tournament is at the heart of the plans. Several schemes, most not even half-baked, have come and gone. Then two-and-a-half years ago Don Lockerbie, at the time just appointed as USACA's first full-time chief executive, outlined a grand IPL-style plan but it ultimately floundered on a lack of investment and internal politics. Lockerbie has since departed, but Maxwell believes there are key differences between earlier attempts to tap the market and CHA's.
"In order to attract value this has to feature some of the top players in the world. This time there is a Full Member country involved and it is line with ICC's strategy. As a result, it has the ability to attract international players while the other ventures didn't. I am not critical of those people but this has the blessing of the proper authorities. NZC is the lead in this and it is in best interests of cricket in USA."
CHA plans to launch the first tournament next July or August. "The USA aligns with the English season and that's a far less congested period, so there are better opportunities then. We're not looking for huge windows ... no more than a couple of weeks in the early years. If we just waited for a gap we would get nowhere in the short term."
Asked if that could raise the hackles of other boards, Maxwell said that was unlikely. "All Full Members are aware of what we are doing and no one has stated any significant issue with it. In fact, there are lots of well-wishers hoping that this market is accessed."
While there is likely to be significant interest from a large expat community in the USA, Maxwell admitted the real challenge will be to take the game into the mainstream market. "We have to present a compelling entertainment product as opposed to a straight cricket product. We have to learn lessons from the IPL - good and bad - and we need to take the game to a broad market. This has been done spasmodically previously but we now provide a platform of credibility. To get the wider appeal we have to attract quality players - as football has done with Beckham - but we can't do that without a competition."
But does the already packed calendar need another Twenty20 competition? ""World cricket doesn't need it, but it will benefit as a result of opening the US as another cricket market. All cricket will benefit from the USA adopting the game. A new market only improves the value of broadcast rights and encourages the growth of new audiences and ultimately players."
Maxwell said international matches were also key to the venture. "CHA holds the right to stage one-day matches within the US. New Zealand is committed to a number of games each year as part of the commitment to US cricket."
Venues remain an issue. Last year a triangular series involving New Zealand, Sri Lanka and USA was undermined by poor pitches in Florida, and Maxwell admits that has to be sorted. "We have to establish venues and plans are in place to improve existing ones as well as modify other stadia. For the T20 tournament we would be prepared to use artificial pitches if needed. Not necessarily in the first year, but we are looking at options."
Maxwell is aware of USACA's current problems. "It needs some administrative help and the plus is NZC is renowned for its solid administration and governance structure. We are pushing forward on the basis USACA will be taking necessary steps to support its constitution and stakeholders. We are hoping it's a short term issue as CHA is a long-term vision."
CHA will be advertising internationally for an experienced chief executive and T20 league commissioner later this week, and at the end of the month there are more meetings in the USA to start planning for 2012. Given the backing this venture has, it may be that after so many false dawns, this might finally be the time when the potential for growth within the USA is finally exploited professionally.