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Why ICL might succeed in USA?
by Venu Palaparthi
Dec 14, 2007
On December 9, 2007, Daniel Lane wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that "ICL has suggested it will up the ante by taking the modified version of the game to North America, where there are a large number of students and workers from many of the cricket -playing nations like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh."

The American cricket fan has seen many such announcements made by ICC member countries in the past year about USA potentially hosting neutral venue cricket. None of which materialized. But this latest announcement is by ICL which, quite literally, is not in the same league.

At Dreamcricket, we think that the first major Twenty20 tournament in USA is no longer a mere dream, but a practical eventuality. There are strong signs to indicate that 2008 would be a turning point for American cricket.

ICC vs Private initiatives

According to ICC, international cricket tournaments never got off the ground in USA owing to problems such as ground unsuitability or scheduling issues. Cricket's guardian in USA, the USACA, has struggled to conduct domestic tournaments, leave alone bringing international competition. With USACA's suspension, American teams were disallowed from international cricket altogether.

The game's governing bodies, and that includes ICC and BCCI, have made a lot of money in USA through the sale of broadcasting rights to the lucrative American market. Regrettably, and for reasons that are well documented, not much of that money was spent for the development of the game in this country.

Private initiatives have had more success with bringing some first-rate competitive cricket into USA. ProCricket is a case in point, although in retrospect, it was an idea ahead of its times.

In 2006, a West Indies team comprising several international players played a USA All-Star team at Floyd Bennett Field. This too was a private initiative. 2007 saw a huge increase in the number of overseas players at the LA Open 2020 – another privately organized tournament.

Granted, for-profit initiatives are not 'developing' cricket in the strictest sense of the word, but they are giving American cricketers an opportunity to test their skills against some really good competition. These events, in most cases, were efforts by the passionate few.

How the West can be conquered?

The economics of cricket in USA necessitate that the sport's promoters have two things in abundance. Unlimited supply of cash. The second factor is the same for any sport. It is the ability to reach a sizable TV audience.

ICL is a private entity with bottomless resources. Even with that, ICL has found that the Indian market is a hard one to crack. BCCI made sure that ICL's launch would be amidst turbulent weather. ICL was also handicapped by the fact that Zee Sports is not widely available in India. From all accounts, the stadium audiences are having a great time. If Zee is to be believed, TV ratings too are better than what one might expect for a domestic cricket tournament.

ICL appears to be having an easier time in USA. When I landed in New Jersey on December 6th, I was surprised to find that most of my cricket loving friends in USA were following the ICL action. Of course, I have no market research to back this opinion. But I suspect it has something to do with the TV watching habits of the cricket fans here.

Until recently, cricket has been the exclusive preserve of pay-per-view TV, costing $100 or more per series. Over the last three months, Zee Sports has significantly altered the economics of watching cricket in USA.

As a subscription channel, Zee Sports costs less than $150 for the entire year! Viewers watched Australia in India, Pakistan in India and ICL, all for less than $25 in the recent weeks on Zee Sports USA.

Unlike in India where the India-Pakistan test series was easier to access than ICL (since India vs Pakistan was on terrestrial network), viewers in USA were able to watch both India-Pakistan and ICL on the Zee Sports channel. This 'one channel fits all' strategy turned into a blessing for ICL.

Many who do not have Dish watch their cricket on the computer. Several friends I know watch their satellite feed through broadband legally via Slingbox! Naturally, as the economics of legal streams has changed, the cost of receiving illegal streams too has dropped. Zee Sports is therefore cheaper to access via the PC as well.

All of this has led to Zee and ICL getting greater traction in USA.

Great. But what does this have to do with ICL coming to USA?

From what I see, Zee Sports has quickly built up a subscription base in USA. Fans want their cricket – and if Zee can give them test cricket, and T20 cricket blended with Bollywood entertainment, that is something to die for.

Why should the party stop on December 16? ICL has a lot of players who are on a retainer and they have a TV channel which is thirsty for content! Already ICL has said that they will have another tournament in March.

Zee's strategy has always been to popularize a program and then take it on the road, live entertainment walks hand in hand with TV entertainment. Sa Re Ga Ma is a case in point. Zee conducts auditions in USA each year.

ICL's talk of bringing a 'modified version of the game to North America' is not all talk. I am sure they will walk the talk!

Zee knows first hand that they can fill a stadium in USA if they combine a T20 match with a live performance by Kareena Kapur or Shah Rukh, cheerleaders in tow! Song, dance, and cricket. This is complete family entertainment! Throw in a TV broadcast and the already sound economics starts to make perfect sense!

But there are no grounds in USA! And scheduling?

ICL has dough to fix up a ground in no time. Take the Tau Devi Lal Stadium, for example. In Stephen Brekley's words, 'this scruffy, uninviting little ground in the shadow of the Himalayas' has been done up in grand style by ICL for their inaugural match.

As if on cue, the USA cricket scene too has changed in the past several months. A stadium is now available in Florida. Granted, it needs sprucing up, but that is being addressed.

Mercifully, ICL has no scheduling issues to worry about. Its players will gladly compete for the prize money in USA.

IPL on the other hand is still ironing out its strategy. TV rights for IPL have not yet been awarded, and this makes it even more compelling for ICL to move fast in USA.

As for the ICL players not being very high caliber, that may be an issue in India, but it certainly is not an issue here in USA. Most would prefer to watch Sangakkara, but Atapattu will do just fine! Any cricket is better than no cricket at all!



[Post script: On February of 2007, I wrote the following in my Dreamcricket column comparing the just concluded Super Bowl and Ranji Trophy events -

"If yesterday's big game between Colts and Bears is the 'world championship of football,' then the Ranji final match between Mumbai and Bengal must certainly be its cricket equivalent. But it is not!" The point of the article was that a hypothetical championship cricket match between Mumbai Marathas versus Bengal Tigers should have resulted in as much hysteria as the Colts vs Bears Super Bowl game if marketed correctly.

Writing about the format, I predicted that "although Ranji Trophy is the premier domestic tournament, a shorter version of the game is a better candidate for the 'Super Bowl of cricket.' Some might wish for a more radical format like Twenty20."

This was in February, 2007. Obviously, so much has happened in the cricket world during the year that it seems like a blur! No, I could not have predicted the ICC World Cup disaster, the tremendous success of the ICC Twenty20 Championship, and the intervening announcement of the Indian Cricket League by Subhash Chandra of Zee and the announcement by BCCI about the 'official' IPL league.

It is amazing to see that within a year of writing that article about the need for a Super bowl of Cricket, we have one such event (ICL) in the hand and another (the IPL) in the bush!]

 
More Views by Venu Palaparthi
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