Whenever we think of the untapped markets for the game of cricket, North America’s always seems to be top of mind. The massive fan base for cricket in the United States, made up of first and second generations of immigrants, majorly from sub-continent and Caribbean islands, certainly has the potential to make America a land of opportunities for cricket, especially the T20 format.
Cricket is the fastest growing sport in USA. The country has the second highest viewership of cricket in the world only behind India. According to recent data, more than 1.4 million people in America watched the 2016 edition of the ICC World Twenty20.
Sports entrepreneurs have started comparing the present state of cricket in the US to football of a few decades back and one such optimistic individual is Jignesh Pandya, an Indian-American businessman, who wishes to turn this scattered US cricket market into a multi-billion dollar industry by establishing a franchise-based domestic T20 league, similar to the Indian Premier League and Big Bash League.
Pandya, a real estate magnate and the owner of the St Lucia Zouks team in Caribbean Premier League, is the chairman of a Philadelphia-based sports management firm Global Sports Ventures (GSV). The company recently made headlines all over the word by signing a $70 million deal with the USA Cricket Association (USACA), for the licensing rights of a domestic Twenty20 league along with bringing professionalism to the country’s entire cricket set up.
Interestingly, the announcement has come when the USACA is going through a lot of administrative turmoil and currently the body is facing a suspension from the International Cricket Council (ICC). Besides, this is the third major licensing deal, USACA has announced in the last 10 years. Both previous deals fell apart in a relatively short time.
In conversation with Pandya in order to get a clearer picture about his ambitious plans. Quite obviously the first question to the GSV boss was, what convinced him to sign a $70 million deal with a body which has been described by the ICC as “chaotic” and which is currently suspended.
“The potential for this sport in the USA is phenomenal, but it lacks financial backing. We feel that a long term investment horizon coupled with the focus on growing the sport from the grass-root level will change the future of cricket in the United States,” a confident Pandya said while justifying his decision.
The timing of the deal raises a question on the role of USACA, which currently has no sanctioning authority due to the administrative suspension. But Pandya seems to be confident that things will go as planned.
“It’s a 20 year deal. As I said at the announcement of the deal, USACA, ICC or any other cricket body’s main goal is to grow the sport and we are going to play an important role in this endeavour. We conducted a thorough due diligence and are confident that our contract is in compliance with ICC requirements.”
Jignesh (Jay) Pandya (left) and USACA president Gladstone Dainty wish to turn the scattered US cricket market into a multi-billion dollar industry
However, for Pandya and GSV, the first and foremost step of getting on with the job is developing proper infrastructure for the sport.
“We have plans with respect to infrastructural development which are being firmed up as we speak, and as the plan unfolds we will reveal it to the public,” he mentioned during the chat and just a week after, GSV announced plans of spending an estimated $2.4 Billion in infrastructure and business development to drive sporting growth across eight states of America.
According to this latest announcement, GSV is actively working with legislators to develop stadiums with a seating capacity of around 26,000 in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Illinois and California.
For any sport to grow in a country, grass-root development becomes the most important part at the initial level and when asked about the importance of nurturing the game at the school, college and university level to attract the young kids towards cricket, Pandya seemed to be interested in this aspect. He came across with the example of successful induction of cricket in school’s sporting curriculum in New York, but also rued the lack of scope in the country for a professional cricketer after a certain level.
“The potential exists for greater exposure and opportunity, as evidenced by the success of New York City public schools program, which could be replicated and further refined and taken across the country.
“With regards to colleges and universities – the biggest obstacle for a cricketer is that after collegiate level cricket there is no opportunity to go pro within the United States, thus requiring a commitment to go overseas.”
Here lies the importance of having an indigenous professional cricket league in America, he said.
“My dream is that, an American cricketer one day makes a million dollars as a professional player in the United States — which would add tremendous momentum to the growth of the sport in schools, colleges and universities.”
However, to nurture the cricketing talents of the nation, the non T20 formats like one- dayers and day’s cricket need to be implemented at the junior level. But in this modern and technologically advanced fast moving society, will the kids prefer to be involved in a sport, which can last for the entire day or even more?
“I believe that regardless of the format, you need to be a good cricketer to be successful. As an avid cricket fan, I watch all formats of the game. I believe any true lover of this sport will watch and play cricket regardless of format, and success can be bred from the T20 format, just as much as from a longer format,” Pandya tried his best to sound convincing while answering this particular question.
When it comes to the target audience of his venture, Pandya doesn’t want to be limited to the sub-continental and Caribbean immigrants, the local Americans are also on his radar and he provided a reference from the past to explain his claim.
“Cricket was the national sport in the United States before the advent of baseball. In fact, the art of swing bowling was invented by an American called Brad King. The first ever international match was between USA and Canada in 1844 and the team wasn’t made up of immigrants. George Washington used cricket as a way to keep his troops entertained.
“Also, the United States as a market is open to new sports more than any other country in the world. UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship, a popular mixed martial arts competition in America] is a prime example. They say history repeats itself,” the GSV boss added.
So, when can we expect this much talked about league to commence?
Well, Pandya doesn’t want to set a deadline.
“When we are ready to launch. The last thing we want to do is produce a sub0par product just to meet an arbitrarily set deadline. Like I said, our vision is long term.”
With his claims and announcements, the Vadorara-born businessman, who opened his first company at the age of 18, is showing the entire cricket fraternity of USA a ray of hope for a brighter future and if he manages to fulfill at least 60 percent of his commitments, it will be a sort of Renaissance in American cricket.