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Even if the sport doesn't impress the locals, the amount of money involved should.
NEW YORK — A Kiwi and a Sri Lankan walk into a park in Fort Lauderdale.
Sounds like the setup for a bad joke? This is, in fact, news from Florida where last week the cricket teams from New Zealand and Sri Lanka played the first ever international cricket game on American soil. It was minor history in the making, albeit a bit perplexing to some Americans who witnessed it.
The young blonde at the ticketing window, for example: “I’ve never seen a cricket game in my life,” she said blithely from behind her dark sunglasses, as the strong Florida morning sun beat down through wisps of clouds, setting up for a fine day for cricket. “I’m gonna be here all day! What kind of game lasts all day?” she pouted.
Americans reserve a special brand of derision for cricket, often targeting the sweater vests, tea breaks and white-collared shirts that are features of the traditional form of the game. The enigmatic rules of cricket, meanwhile, prevent any interest from budding in those few who might actually witness a game.
But in case you hadn’t heard, cricket is big money. In the past decade, cricketers have become some of the highest paid athletes in the world. According to an independent survey of international sports published in March, the average salary for a cricket player in the Indian Premier League, for example, is $3.6 million, second only to the NBA where average salary is nearly $3.8 million a year. A cricket team from Bangalore, India, was listed as the 12th highest paid team in the world, two places above Manchester United. Meanwhile, in 2008 the teams from England and the West Indies played a three-hour game for prize money of $20 million.
Inspired by this, some enterprising Americans have made a mission of bringing the sport to their country. The game played last weekend in Florida between two of the world’s top teams comes after years, perhaps even decades, of sputtering false starts for American cricket. Till recently, though, cricket in the United States appeared to be in shambles as usual. Amateur teams — mostly composed of immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia — continued to play the sport from coast to coast in informal leagues, but America was unable to organize at a national level and was repeatedly suspended by International Cricket Council, the global governing body for the sport based in Dubai.
Enter Don Lockerbie. When one year ago the little known sports venue developer from Miami took the helm of the USA Cricket Association as CEO, few had imagined that the United States would be hosting a world-class game of cricket in 2010. Lockerbie did not have any special knowledge of cricket, but he did recognize the sport's moneymaking potential.
The USACA launched a “Destination USA” program to “show that the United States was open for business as far as cricket is concerned,” Lockerbie said before the game. His drive is apparent. Instead of fans he talks about the “market” and popularity of the sport as “market share.” While it may not appeal to sports fan, it is this approach — viewing cricket as a financial opportunity — that has allowed cricket to enjoy its first taste of success in America.
The brand new stadium in Fort Lauderdale is the only dedicated cricket facility in North America, built by the local county for a cool $70 million. The cricket association, meanwhile, threw everything they could at the event this weekend.