Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna
USA Cricket has announced that its commercial T20 franchise league partner, American Cricket Enterprises, has signed a 15-year lease to acquire AirHogs Stadium, formerly a 6,000 seat minor league baseball and soccer facility located in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, Texas.
According to ACE co-founder Sameer Mehta, the ambition for the venue is to host a Major League Cricket franchise for the league's opening season in 2022, develop a USA national team high performance center and "hopefully be the home of USA Cricket".
The $20 million stadium venue opened in 2008 and housed the Texas AirHogs, an independent minor league baseball team for the last 13 seasons. However, the AirHogs folded in the summer of 2020, one of numerous minor league baseball organisations to go under as a consequence of the devastating financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Major League Baseball made the decision in June to cancel the entire minor league season for all of its affiliate franchises. It opened the door for ACE to take over the facility with a new lease agreement, including plans to spend at least $10 million to renovate the facility into a cricket-exclusive ODI-accredited turf wicket venue, ready to open by the summer of 2022.
"This is a watershed moment for us. We're pretty excited," said USA Cricket chairman Paraag Marathe, who also serves as executive vice president of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, during a Zoom press conference on Wednesday. "We're going to put Grand Prairie on the global map because hopefully when we get World Cups and international events, this is going to be one of the key stadiums we're playing matches in. The flagship where we're going to be first putting up our flag and announcing USA Cricket to the rest of the world is going to be right here in Grand Prairie."
One of the major challenges that USA Cricket officials may have is overcoming a string of underwhelming ventures in other cities. National cricket administrators were similarly enthusiastic about the opening of the $6 million Indianapolis World Sports Park before city officials subsequently ripped up a three-year contract to host the USA Cricket National Championship from 2014-16. After hosting a solitary ICC Americas T20 championship in 2015, the venue has mostly laid dormant to international cricket.
Similarly, the Broward County Stadium in Lauderhill, Florida was approved with hopes of drawing warm-up matches, if not full-fledged tournament games, for the 2007 World Cup hosted by the West Indies. The $70 million park venue eventually opened in 2008 and has hosted a string of T20 internationals, including India v West Indies to 12,000+ crowds in 2019.
However, the venue has struggled to attract similar support for USA national team matches, with just 20 people attending USA's first ever ODI on home soil in September 2019 against Papua New Guinea, six weeks after India and West Indies played to a full house.
Similarly, the Caribbean Premier League pulled the plug on their foray into Florida after three years. Though CPL organisers were able to sell out a doubleheader slate for 10,000 fans in 2016, crowds had shrunk to as few as 700 people in 2018 for a weeknight contest featuring Andre Russell's Jamaica Tallawahs and Steven Smith's Barbados Tridents.
However, Marathe and Mehta believe that the Grand Prairie facility is much better suited to drawing people in. Mehta introduced data stating that Willow TV, a major rights holder cable network for US market TV cricket rights content, has 250,000 subscribers that are based between Dallas and Houston, demonstrating a strong local appetite for international cricket viewing.
The stadium venue is adjacent to Lone Star Park horse racecourse and is a short drive along Interstate 30 from AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park, home to the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers. Marathe also stated that the success of the venue should not be judged by attendance figures or profits.
"We just have really great infrastructure around AirHogs Stadium," Marathe said. "The opportunity to grow and develop, whether it is bringing in a high performance center in the Dallas-Grand Prairie area, whether we do other things as the Mayor said, adding more pitches as demand and popularity grows, there's the infrastructure that's already there to grow more. We also feel really good about the opportunity to expand this current stadium. That's from a geography and infrastructure standpoint.
"The measurement of growth when you're trying to build something and make something very special… we're not just looking at dollars and cents. We're looking at building popularity and building interest. That doesn't just mean what your profit is on events or how many fans are attending. Number one I think we're going to have a tremendous amount of fan support, especially in the Grand Prairie area. We're really excited about that.
"But at the same time, we're also building viewership. We're also building people who are hopefully watching it when they're not sitting in the stadium and we're building a groundswell of popularity for it. We're not just looking at the bottom line of dollars and cents. It's really just building the popularity and putting us on a path."