THE BOLD PLAN FOR AMERICAN CRICKET
Last month, USA Cricket launched its inaugural foundational plan, outlining its ambition to become a full ICC member by 2030. Iain Higgins, the governing body’s chief executive, explains why mainstreaming cricket across the pond could “fundamentally affect” the economics of the sport.
It is a little over a year since the United States sealed an 84-run win over Hong Kong to attain one-day international (ODI) status for the first time in its history, but USA Cricket already has its sights set on far greater things.
Last month saw the national governing body release its inaugural foundational plan for 2020 to 2023, a detailed 30-page roadmap headlined by the lofty vision of becoming a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) within a decade. In that ten-year period USA Cricket also hopes to build at least five international quality stadiums, set up a Twenty20 competition with global reach and appeal, and push for the sport’s inclusion at the Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games.
The daunting challenge of meeting those targets will fall in part to Iain Higgins, who USA Cricket named as its first chief executive in September last year. And given his background, it is perhaps no coincidence that Higgins sits where he does now. The former sports lawyer joined after 11 years at the ICC, including four as chief operating officer, during which he played a key role as the global governing body identified the US as what he describes as “the biggest non-traditional market in terms of opportunity for growth”.
Now, he is tasked with ensuring that the country delivers on that potential.
“I think it’s ambitious, I think it’s important to have ambition in your targets,” Higgins says of the foundational plan. “We’re assembling a team of people and partners that are all sharing this vision and have that ambition.
“The metrics that are coming out of the US in terms of the size of the media market, the size of the cricket fanbase, the size of the existing participants, all lays a really good foundation for a significant period of expeditious growth – if we can put in place the right foundational blocks and plans and programmes and structures.
“So yes, I think it’s probably ambitious, but everyone that we’re assembling are all ambitious, and I definitely think that it’s attainable.”
Benefits, including additional funding, voting rights and guaranteed regular fixtures against top-tier nations. As others have found, though, the path to achieving that status can be a long one. Ireland and Afghanistan were the most recent to do it in 2017, bringing the number of full members to 12, but prior to that no nation had joined cricket’s top table since Bangladesh at the turn of the millennium.
Indeed, attaining full member status relies on meeting various criteria related to governance, infrastructure, development plans and domestic programmes. The USA national team will also have to reach a level well above their current on-field performance to prove that they are capable of competing regularly with the sport’s elite nations.
With that in mind, Higgins says he and his team are focused on the things “in our control”. The foundational plan outlines what he describes as a “twin vision” to make cricket a mainstream sport in the US, something he says is “equally as important to us as becoming a full member” and will ultimately go hand in hand with that crowning goal.
But shedding that niche tag will be a significant undertaking in one of the most mature sports markets in the world, one which is dominated by its four major leagues and where the likes of golf, tennis and soccer also command substantial attention. It would also be fair to say that cricket has failed to capture the imagination of Americans for many of the same reasons that baseball hasn’t always caught on in non-traditional markets. Both have been deemed difficult to understand compared with other sports and can require the concentration of viewers for long periods of time.
Higgins, though, is optimistic. There are already ten to 20 million cricket fans in the US, he says, noting that the sport’s fanbase in the country – which largely comprises of immigrant communities from South Asia and the Caribbean - is “relatively affluent” and “very well digitally connected”. The key to growing that following further, Higgins believes, will be creating greater opportunities for people to engage with cricket from an early age.
“There’s a lot of cricket that exists on a junior level in this country, but there’s not very much cricket that’s played within schools and community programmes,” he considers. “It’s not part of the mainstream American sporting psyche at this point in time, but peoples’ entry points to cricket in this country are different to their entry points to cricket in different parts of the world.
“So we are absolutely committed to doing the work necessary to figure out the best way to make sure that cricket starts to get a foothold on the American sporting school curriculum, and also in what is a huge market over here in terms of after school activity programming, summer school activity programming.
“I genuinely think if we are to achieve this vision, and if we are going to make cricket successful in the USA for the very long term, we’ve got to sow those seeds now, in terms of the school entry level and community programmes that just don’t really exist at the moment in this country.”
From a competitive standpoint, USA Cricket is banking on Twenty20 to popularise the sport and accelerate the development of its national teams, although Higgins is keen to stress that that focus will not come at the expense of the sport’s other formats.
It will therefore be worth tracking the success of Major League Cricket (MLC), a fully professional competition that has set out to attract some of the world’s biggest names and eventually be spoken of in the same breath as tournaments like Australia's Big Bash League (BBL) and the Pakistan Super League (PSL). Set to begin play in 2022, MLC will be preceded by Minor League Cricket, a nationwide, 24-franchise developmental tournament that staged some exhibition games this year ahead of its inaugural season in 2021.
“We believe that Twenty20 cricket is the format best suited to growing the sport, not just in this country, but in any market around the world,” Higgins explains. “In particular its constructs, design and appeal lends itself really well to finding relevance in the USA.
“We respect the importance of ODI status and want to continue to be competitive there, but we can have a real expeditious growth pattern in T20 cricket, and we think that’s the way we are going to galvanise and engage the fans in this country, and that we’re going to see more rapid performance gains by our national teams in this country.
“If we can start to do that, if we have a growing player pool and we have growing revenues, there’s no reason we shouldn’t start to spend more money on some of the longer formats of the game. But obviously we don’t have an infinite pool of resources, we don’t have an infinite number of people, so we’re putting T20 at the heart of the plans.”
Beyond getting cricket onto school programmes, Higgins (right) pinpoints infrastructure as “the other single biggest challenge” facing USA Cricket at this moment in time. While baseball diamonds are ubiquitous in fields and parks across the US, there are currently just 30 turf wickets in the entire country, which is also home to only one ODI accredited venue in Lauderhill, Florida. But that will soon change.
MLC is backed by American Cricket Enterprises (ACE), which in May 2019 committed to investing US$1 billion not only towards the creation of a US-based T20 competition, but also developing more turf cricket pitches and building international-grade venues, the latter of which will be essential if the US is to realise its aim of co-hosting either the 2026 or 2030 ICC T20 World Cup alongside the West Indies.
Two of Ace’s backers are Sameer Mehta and Vijay Srinivasan, the founders of Willow TV, which is the largest cricket broadcaster in North America. USA Cricket’s strategic partnership with Ace has therefore proved invaluable given the data insights Willow TV has shared about who is watching the sport in the US – and perhaps more importantly where they are watching from.
As a result, USA Cricket has been able to identify New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles as key markets. Another such area is Dallas, where just this week MLC received approval to redevelop AirHogs Stadium, a minor league baseball venue that will be transformed to house one of the cricket competition’s franchises.
“We are having conversations in all of those places about building infrastructure there, and eventually Major League Cricket having teams in six of those major metros to begin with,” Higgins says of the plans for USA Cricket’s flagship competition. “We’re going right to the heart of where that population base is and then moving out, looking at green field sites, looking at existing cricket facilities, looking at baseball stadia that we might be able to repurpose.
“[We are doing that] in order to find the best type of deal for us and for the community that will allow a reasonable sized stadium to be put right at the heart of where the cricket fans are in this country, because we think it will give us the best possible chance of connecting those cricket fans with the most exciting professional T20 domestic cricket in their own backyard.”
There is also a bigger picture here to consider. As Higgins already alluded to, the ICC has long identified the country as a major growth opportunity, so it is no great surprise when he reveals that all of the current full members have offered their support and expressed a willingness to help USA Cricket on its journey. The pandemic might have halted some of that momentum for now, but Higgins is hopeful of announcing partnerships with some of the sport’s top-tier nations “in the next six months” that he claims will be “beneficial to us and world cricket”.
The ambition of becoming a full ICC member might belong to USA Cricket, but the suggestion is that mainstreaming cricket in the world’s biggest media market will open up a valuable new revenue source for the sport, and ultimately be in the best interests of everyone involved in it. Indeed, it is not only a question of what cricket can do for the US, but also what the US can do for cricket, a sport where money has historically flowed through one nation in particular.
“We have a really passionate fanbase, we have a large fanbase, and we’re in the most mature sporting market in the world,” Higgins begins. “So you look at those sorts of things, and with the right leadership, with the right strategy, and with the right building blocks there really is an opportunity to move the needle in this country, which will contribute globally to the economics of the sport around the world.
“There probably isn’t another country where if you were to say, ‘let’s make that country a full member in ten years’, it has the potential to fundamentally affect the economic dynamics of world cricket. But if we get it right in this country we can definitely do that, and we can help world cricket and all of the other members to move away a little bit from the overreliance that exists in the sport on the Indian broadcast market.”