Build it and they will come, believes USA Cricket

By Steve Keating
·4 min read

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - Between Dallas and Fort Worth just off the Texas I30 Interstate an American cricket "Field of Dreams" is being built amidst the urban sprawl.

Just like the mysterious voice in the Hollywood sport fantasy film that told Ray Kinsella to turn his Iowa cornfield into a baseball diamond, the Chairman of USA Cricket, Paraag Marathe, believes in the saying "build it and they will come".

The hope is that the best players, thousands of fans and a global spotlight will come to Grand Prairie's AirHogs stadium after the minor league ball park is transformed into Texas's answer to Lord's, the world's most famous cricket ground.

The state-of-the-art 8,000 seat facility will serve as the High Performance Center for USA Cricket, the home of the Texas franchise in Major League Cricket (MLC) when the six-team league starts in 2022, and a venue for top international events.

"I have seen cricket played in parks when I am in London. I never thought we would be playing it here but we are fixin' to," Grand Prairie mayor Ron Jensen told reporters.

"I have done a lot of research on it. Similar to baseball, a lot of the same things go on in it, pitchers have similar curve balls and all that. It is going to be a lot of fun."

The redevelopment of the existing AirHogs Stadium, which will be renamed, is the cornerstone of a grand plan to see the U.S. become one of the world's top four cricketing nations.

RIGHT TIME

However, cricket will almost certainly have a tougher mountain to climb than soccer, which trudged through decades of false dawns and failed leagues before finally taking root.

But USA Cricket is convinced the time is right.

Prominent deep-pocketed investors are lined up to finance Major League Cricket, the world's top players are supposedly ready to sign on and, according to the International Cricket Council (ICC) and USA Cricket research, there is a baked-in fan base of between 15 and 20 million waiting to be served.

What USA Cricket and MLC failed to say during a conference call last week was who these well-heeled investors and cricketing greats are or even where the teams will be located beyond a franchise in Grand Prairie.

"We're just getting started," USA Cricket Chief Executive Iain Higgins told Reuters. "We haven't written the rules of Major League Cricket yet.

"We haven't figured out the salary caps, we haven't figured a lot of the operational issues of delivering a professional sport league yet.

"We don't know where all the franchises are going to be yet. There are lots of opportunities we are exploring."

CLEAR VISION

While there is a clear vision there is not yet any structure for a project that all of those involved recognise will take a generation or more to take hold.

USA Cricket and MLC say they have the full backing of the sport's world governing ICC and are already investigating a bid to co-host a Twenty20 World Cup with West Indies.

"We want to be competing at the highest level of World Cups and international matches and the first piece of that was putting down a flagship stadium right in the heart of the country," said Marathe. "The seeds have already been planted many years ago; the roots are already growing."

While MLC is promising to bring in some of cricket's biggest names there is no crossover star like David Beckham capable of generating the hysteria the England captain did for Major League Soccer when he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

The arrival of players like West Indies' Chris Gayle, India's Virat Kohli or Australia's Steve Smith could no doubt excite the cricket fan base but would do little to pull in the casual supporter.

"People in this country love watching the best of the best. We don't like watching second best or third best or things like that," said Marathe

"That's what we are putting us on the path to do.

"The simplest thing I can say to describe the quality and magnitude of this opportunity is that we have the second largest sport in the world, we are bringing it to the largest media market in the world, and it doesn't matter if it is cricket or widget ball this just smells of opportunity."

From Formula One to rugby, every sport eyes a slice of the lucrative U.S. market and cricket wants in on the action.

"We've launched a plan talking about a 10-year horizon for making cricket a mainstream sport in this country," said Higgins. "The international cricketing community are extremely supportive of growing this market.

"They know how big the potential is that it will be game-changing for the global sport to develop this non-traditional market into one of the biggest cricketing markets in the world."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)