Having sat dormant for so long, the Central Broward Stadium in Lauderhill, Florida has finally got some cricket this summer. For so long the victim of the chronically failing United States of America Cricket Association (USACA) inability to function as it should, in recent weeks there have been eight high quality T20 matches at the venue that is the only international standard cricket stadium in the USA. They have been the first games of elite cricket at the stadium since West Indies played New Zealand in two T20 games in 2012.
The most recent of these matches have seen India taking on West Indies and the response was impressive. With the tickets starting $75 and the “VIP” ones as much as $200, it wasn’t cheap and the fixtures weren’t announced until four weeks before the games were due to take place. Still, people came. The crowd was more impressive on the Saturday than the Sunday, but it showed that the appetite amongst existing fans for watching professional cricket exists in the USA. Most are immigrants from cricket playing nations, or the children of those immigrants, and they are hugely passionate about a sport that has been rarely seen at this level in the USA.
Almost as soon as USACA were binned off by the ICC things have started happening in the States. First Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar rocked up for some beer matches with aging players at baseball stadiums. It was far from impressive cricket, but the turnout was great. It wasn’t quite as good as Warne claimed, but there were tens of thousands of people in the stands. There is a market for cricket to sell its product and the BCCI and the Indian cricket team have seen that now. They will be back.
“This is a good venue for us and the West Indies, and we can always come back and play more series in the future,” India’s captain MS Dhoni has said. “On the whole, the weather suits us the fans want to come, the host broadcasters can make money so all in all it's a win-win for everyone.”
And money is the driving motive for these matches, as it is with all professional sport if we are being honest with ourselves. We might want sport to be a high-minded pursuit that is above the grubby realism of needing to turn a profit, but that isn’t accurate. In the excellent documentary about the way cricket is governed, Death of a Gentleman, the cricket writing behemoth that is Gideon Haigh asked: “Does cricket exist to make money or does it make money to exist?” The truth is somewhere in the middle but money making is, and always has been, the priority.
The question of whether these matches in Florida or the Warne-Tendulkar games will have any sort of developmental impact is an interesting one. Maybe someone had their interest piqued by some of these matches, but the chances of new fans wanting to pay big bucks needed to watch India play a sport that is new to them is remote. While money making may be the motive there needs to be care taken that avarice doesn’t see any potential new fans put off by prices and existing fans feel like they are being fleeced.
If cricket is going to have a long term future in the USA there needs to be a grassroots infrastructure that will feed into a successful national team. Thanks to the decades of failure by USACA that is a long way from happening. As Darren Beazley, the one-time CEO of USACA, once told me; “There are lots of cricket fans in the USA, but not many fans of USA cricket.” That is something that needs to be worked on.
But having top level cricket in America is undoubtedly a good thing and the Lauderhill ground is benefiting from being the only option. It isn’t perfect and as USA cricket journalist Peter Della Penna pointed out recently, once a suitable venue in New York or one of the other large cities on the east coast exists, the Lauderhill ground could become obsolete.
The Caribbean Premier League (CPL) played six league matches at the venue and ticket prices were much more reasonable. As far as they are concerned, they have been delighted with the matches in Florida and plan to come back. When asked if there was a chance of the league moving on from Florida their CEO Damien O’Donohoe told me he was looking forward to returning. If there was an alternative the answer may have been different but for now it seems that cricket in Lauderhill will become more and more frequent.
While off the pitch these matches have been a success, the cricket has also been very good. Much of that credit needs to go to Mark Perham – a New Zealander who was brought in as a pitch consultant ahead of the CPL matches. The average score has been close to 200 and the first match between India and the West Indies saw the highest aggregate of runs in the history of T20 cricket. So much of T20’s appeal is based on the quality of the batting surfaces on which it is played; there are lots of far more established cricketing venues that should be asking Perham to give them some advice.
There is a long way to go before we start saying that cricket has broken into America but after decades of stagnation things are starting to look up. The three “All-Star” games, six CPL matches and two T20 internationals inside the last 12 months represents a sea change in the amount of cricket that has taken place in the USA. India coming and it being a success only makes the chances of more of the same more likely.