MLC start under threat after dispute between organisers and USA Cricket

The ICC has told its members to not issue NOCs to their players until the issue is resolved

NASA's Johnson Space Center, Houston, June 10, 2022

The MLC draft was held at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston on March 19  •  Peter Della Penna

Days after Major League Cricket's (MLC) landmark player draft, a sanctioning dispute between USA Cricket and league organisers threatens to disrupt the start of the tournament this July. The dispute has reached the ICC, who has told its members to not issue NOCs to their players until the issue is resolved.
In this latest manifestation of the age-old tradition of administrative strife on US soil, it has emerged that USA Cricket has not yet sanctioned either the MLC or Minor League Cricket (MiLC), the tournaments that are seen as the next big step in the evolution of the game in the country. That did not prevent the MLC from announcing a host of big-name foreign signings - including Aaron Finch, Marcus Stoinis and Quinton de Kock - in a draft in Houston on Sunday. But concerns are growing, especially as the ICC is currently classifying the events as "disapproved".
USA Cricket has previously given sanction to MiLC, for both 2021 and 2022, but in a communication recently sent out by the ICC's operations department to Members, officials have flagged the issue for overseas players wishing to play in both competitions.
"Members may be aware of the following two events that are proposed to be played in the USA," the ICC said of the events, both administered by American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), the parent company which signed a 50-year commercial rights agreement with USA Cricket in 2019.
"Applications for sanction have been submitted to USA Cricket, but these events have not yet been sanctioned by USA Cricket. Consequently, without a sanction from the host member, both events are currently deemed to be Disapproved Cricket and as such, Members should not issue NOCs to their players to participate in either event."
On March 1, in a statement from USA Cricket, the interim board chairman Atul Rai said that the board of directors were "concerned about the plight of the players and the owners" of MiLC, though what exactly those concerns are has not been specified.
"However, they are equally concerned about the operations of Minor League by ACE without any accountability and its failure to follow the USA Cricket guidelines, not to mention the lack of communication," the statement continued. "USA Cricket has sent a letter to ACE that includes several questions on Minor League operations by ACE that we hope to get a quick response timely to allow for sanctioning of the event."
Rai was on the board in 2019 and voted in favour of signing the commercial partnership with ACE at the time. Then board chairman Paraag Marathe was the main driver of the deal and rubber-stamped the tournament going ahead in 2021 and 2022. Rai left the board in February 2020, but won an election to return in September 2022 and immediately replaced Marathe as chairman. Rai's stance toward ACE and MLC seems to have changed in his second term.
Observers see this dispute as a negotiating ploy by USA Cricket to revise terms of the original short-form agreement signed with ACE in 2019. In that agreement, ACE keeps 95% of all gross revenues generated by MLC while USA Cricket receives the remaining 5%.
Organisers say, however, that the tournament is on course to begin its inaugural season on July 13, as is MiLC for a third season from June 10.
"We are aware of the recent letter that the ICC sent to its membership regarding the status of MiLC and MLC," MLC tournament director Justin Geale told ESPNcricinfo. "We don't believe the letter was a warning at all, inasmuch as it was merely factual informational that the events are not yet sanctioned as the member boards need that confirmation in order to issue NOCs to the players.
"We have been in regular communication with all concerned parties regarding the ICC sanctioning of these events for the past several weeks. These events already have the necessary sanctioning from USA Cricket under our agreement with them, and the completed ICC sanctioning applications for MiLC and MLC are presently with USA Cricket.
"We have been assured that they will be processed in a speedy manner once received by the ICC. We believe that the recent staffing changes at USA Cricket may have contributed to any delays. However, we fully expect the events to receive complete sanctioning in the coming days, as all parties agree that MiLC and MLC are very important to the growth and development of cricket in the US."
Geale's reference to staffing changes alludes to the resignation of USA Cricket's interim CEO Vinay Bhimjiani over the weekend, after five months in the role.
Rai told ESPNcricinfo that there were other outstanding issues that had prevented them from moving forward on the sanctioning. This includes USA Cricket's desire for more favourable revisions from the short-form agreement, before signing a finalised long-form agreement between the two parties.
"The board appointed a five-member working group to negotiate the terms of the Long-form agreement and they have started the conversation as I understand," Rai told ESPNcricinfo. "I am not part of that committee and since the CEO resigned, he is no longer involved in the negotiations. Therefore, any sanctioning or approval will have to come as a recommendation from the committee to the board.
"As for the 50-year commercial partnership agreement, the working group had sent a letter to ACE outlining the areas of problems in the contract as well as the failures. While there was a response from ACE, I believe that there is much to be discussed before any final agreement can be reached."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna