Transcript: Couch Talk 51 with Peter Della Penna

Couch Talk Episode 51 (play)

Guest: Peter Della Penna, USA Cricket Reporter for ESPN Cricinfo &

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk.

Today’s guest is the cricket reporter for ESPN Cricinfo and Dream Cricket, Peter Della Penna. We’ll be talking about the recently held T20s between West Indies and New Zealand in Florida, and how they compared to the ones in 2010, the short-term and long-term impacts of the growth of cricket in the USA, amongst other things.

Welcome to the show again, Peter!

Peter Della Penna– Thank you for having me, Subash! It is good to be back!

SJ– My pleasure!

You reported on the T20s between Sri Lanka and New Zealand in 2010 [Pearls Cup], that was held in Lauderhill, Florida, as well as the ones held recently, between West Indies and New Zealand. How do these two events compare in terms of attendance, the general media awareness within Florida and in USA nationally, and the general announcements in the area, etc?

DP– From a fan perspective, it was night and day. Two years ago, the atmosphere was very dull. You had a total combined attendance across two days of 8600 people. This weekend (June 30, July 1, 2012), I am still not able to get my hands on official attendance figures, but the general consensus was that there were about 27,000-28,000 people. The West Indies had a tremendous amount to do with that. Sri Lanka and New Zealand two years ago aren’t the teams with the heck of a lot of box-office appeal, as well as they did not have too many of the residents from the Diaspora living in the USA as compared to the West Indies. The West Indies…In South Florida in particular, you have a lot of Jamaican expats, you have a lot of expats from Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana – there was a lot of energy (this year), and very, very vibrant, much more alive than what it was two years ago!

Everybody who watched the series, the live action, noted that the pitch was much improved. The ball was coming onto the bat. It wasn’t the case two years ago. West Indies produced a record total in the first match. There were 6’s left and right. Chris Gayle and Keiron Pollard had five 6s each on Saturday. It was very fun in that perspective for the fans. i was looking around, and talking to people, I was taking some time during the innings’ break and walking through the crowd and trying to talk to people and get their opinion. Everybody was having a great time.

Now, from the media perspective, especially the local media- it wasn’t any different from two years ago – which is to say that there was hardly any interest. I know there was a guy from the Miami Herald who was there. I did not see any local news crews on the days of the matches. I did remember seeing one report on TV in the lead up to the matches, which is a sign that there is still a long way to go in terms of media exposure both locally in Florida and across the USA in general.

SJ–  I remember you mentioning to me in an earlier conversation that in 2010 there weren’t even signs leading up to the stadium that there is going to be an international match there. How was it (this year) form that point of view?

DP– Nothing changed, in that regard, to demonstrate that there was going to be a cricket match of international standards there that weekend. There was nothing to be seen and driving up and down Route-95 on my way to the stadium each day, whether it was North or South, whether it was from the Airport or wherever, there was nothing on the roadside. No billboards, nothing once you got on the highway. If you wandered into the local Caribbean food shops, and the general stores that catered to the West Indian community, they would have some posters and some little 3×5 ft fliers. There was nothing else besides that.

SJ– On a similar note, there was no coverage of the cricket action on the traditional cricket outlets- or WillowTV – neither of them carried the cricket. The only way you could’ve had access to the action was either you be at the ground or you had a Dish and you had a subscription to Ten Cricket USA. Or, if you are willing to anger Giles Clarke, watch it on shady streams.

DP– I talked to some people, and they made the excuse that it was broadcast right issues. Some in the media might understand that, but the fans normally don’t understand and they don’t care. They only care that the match was not shown in the USA, and that is the bottom line. That needs to be fixed by any means necessary, if you want to take this game to the US market

SJ– This seemed to be a product that was primarily catered for the local Caribbean population of South Florida, right? And then, there was this news from the Guyanese President, Donald Ramotar. He called this an abomination because they took certain key games from the Caribbean regions – Guyana and other islands. How does that play into hosting of internationals in the future?

DP– I talked to Lance Gibbs and Lawrence Rowe about this. I asked them the question about specifically what Donald Ramotar had said prior to the series that this was a slap in the face to the Caribbean because there was a lot of money that was invested in the 2007 World Cup into the stadium building and stadium renovation and stadium upgrades, and they are not going to see a return on that investment if the prime source of generating income to get the money back, the T20 cricket, and the T20 matches that were a part of the tour are being given to the United States (of America). I think there are some people who will be sympathetic to that.

Talking to Lance Gibbs and Lawrence Rowe, their argument was that this is going to be a good source of revenue for the West Indies. They specifically said, for example, in Guyana, the Guyanese Dollar is very poor right now. 200 Guyanese Dollars make 1 US Dollar. Whatever they put for the ticket on sale, say 300 Guyanese Dollars, that only equals US$ 1.50. The ICC, as far as I know, when they make their disbursements for giving revenue to full-member nations, that is all paid in US dollars. So, if you are only generating a US$ 1.50 per ticket in a T20 game, they don’t even compare to the US$ 20 or US$ 30 a ticket for reserve seats in Florida, or US$ 65 ticket for the party stand, or a US$ 125 ticket for the VIP stand, that makes a hell lot of more sense to play the game in Florida.

SJ– That brings us to the question – what is the short and long term impact on the events and the overall growth of cricket in the USA? There are a couple of questions, one from Terry Coffey– how can the USA cricket build on this. How much of it is actually going to get invested into USA cricket development. There is another view of Jamie Harrison, who is the president of USA Youth Cricket Association, who strongly believes in the bottom-up approach, the grass roots approach. He had put a tweet out – “The players are up to the next gig, the media got their stories and the crowds are all gone home. Mission accomplished. Now what?”

Give me a sense of both the short term impact and long term vision for USA cricket coming out of these isolated events.

DP– For a short term impact- this is a very, very, very short term impact. Basically it is reduced to the days of the event itself. I mean, they can hang their hat on the fact that 27,000 to 28,000 people showed up in the stadium that was physically located in Florida and, Hurray for USA cricket! We had 28,000 people show up over 2 days to a stadium located in Florida.

Does that have any impact on USA cricket? No. Plain and simple. Venu Palaparthi, who wrote an article that was up a few weeks ago that was up on said what a lot of people have known by now. If you look at figures of pay-per-view through WillowTV and DishNetwork and DirecTV and you have the data sheet that shows the viewership and viewer hits on sites like cricinfo. USA has, at least on cricinfo, the 2nd most number of web-hits on the site, second only behind India. USA provides the second most traffic. On face value, you say “Ah! There are fans of cricket in the USA!” Well yes, there are millions and millions of fans of cricket in the USA. But they are not fans of USA cricket. There is a very important distinction to make here. All these fans are allied to Indian cricket, or Pakistani cricket, or Australian cricket, English cricket, West Indies cricket, whatever. 90% of the people who provide the traffic from USA to cricinfo probably couldn’t tell you who was the captain of the USA team in March at the World T20 qualifier in Dubai.

Two years ago, when the New Zealand and Sri Lanka had their T20 matches, they had a double-header, where they had Jamaica play the USA. It was kind of like a double-feature. And, when the Jamaica-USA matches were going on, there were 800 people on the ground. By the time the New Zealand – Sri Lanka match rolled out, it got to about 4000-5000 by the time the first ball was bowled. And there were people filling in to make the final figure after. And that was part of the ticket (of the NZ-SL game), you didn’t have to pay to see the USA play.

It is your national team, a national team of the country you are living in or representing you and you and these people had no interest. It is a very rare opportunity to see the national team. Majority of the USA team tournaments are played overseas. 12 of the last 14 tournaments that USA has participated in, whether it was under-19 or women’s or senior men’s, have been overseas. It is a very rare opportunity to see a USA team play on the USA soil, and nobody cared.

Having the West Indies play New Zealand, does it do any good for USA cricket? No. Especially if the matches are not on TV to generate casual interest nation wide. If you look at the ICC data that was released sometime last month, it is pretty pathetic to see where the USA stands, even among the associate countries.

If you take a look at some of the other countries that are above the USA, a country like Namibia for example- Namibia has 705 registered adult players, 2305 junior players. Ireland has 500+ senior players and 8100 junior players. So, it is a pretty big disparity between junior and senior participation levels as it should be, and that’s how it should be. For youth sport, in America, if you take peewee Ice Hockey or baseball or softball or football or soccer, youth participation number dwarfs the adult participation numbers. They have fantastic development programs and then you see the cream of the crop rise up and become part of a national team or become part of a professional structure.

In the USA cricket, it is the exact opposite. You take a look at the USA figure, they have 16680 adult players registered in 2011, far and away from any other associate countries above them. They had 750 junior players, which is disgraceful when you weigh their figures side-by-side.

SJ– So, that is an unsustainable model there.

DP– You can’t do that. Here, the current USA grassroots model is to let that grassroots grow in India or Pakistan or West Indies, and once those roots have matured and are coming up out of the soil, then those roots uproot themselves and become players at the amateur level in the USA. And that’s the USA grassroots model. Till the USA gets away from that and commits itself to legitimate grassroots development program on USA soil, they never properly will develop into a proper cricketing force on the global stage.

SJ– So, then, USA cricket should be following the model that Jamie Harrison is a fierce supporter of, the grassroots, bottom-up approach where you reach out to kids in elementary school and middle school, get them interested in cricket.

DP– The only thing that distinguishes the USA team from, say, the Canadian team is the number of H1B visas that the USA government issues to people from India or Pakistan or elsewhere to work in the USA. If those people decide to choose to live in the USA instead of Canada, if the USA government is giving more work visas than Canada is, then that is the only that really determines the strength or weakness of the USA cricket team on a broad scale, which is not the way it should be. You really need to commit yourself to developing players, just like any other country does. It needs to happen for the USA to become a legitimate country.

Jamie’s plan is probably the best way to accomplish it. Or, get Olympic exposure. Put cricket in the Olympics. There are so many obstacles to make that happen. That’s not going to happen for another 20-40 years, and that is unfortunate. The only way that it can happen is that some of the full member nations make some concessions. Cricket will get more exposure, more recognition and you will have kids in the USA who will see the opportunity to get a gold medal. They won’t care what sport it is. If you put a gold medal on the line, kids won’t care if it is swimming, or gymnastics or track and field or some other sports that are not one of the four major sports of the USA that people care about constantly.

Summer Olympics is not about basketball and the Dream Team and getting a gold medal in men’s or women’s basketball. There are so many other elements of the Summer Olympics that the people care about in this country. People care about Michael Phelps, people care about Ryan Lochte because they are representing the USA and trying to get a gold medal, or probably going to get the gold medal. Those guys get their faces on the Wheaties boxes. So, if a kid is going to grow in this country and can look at cricket on the Olympics, where it is going to get the exposure regardless of what sport it is – Archery and Table Tennis get airtime during the Olympics. If they think “I want to win a gold medal for the USA , and I think I can do that by playing cricket”, then, bang! You are going to get more kids interested in cricket that way. But, there is going to be a little bit of give and take for some of the other countries to make that happen for cricket. It is not because the USA wants it to happen; you need so many other countries to make that happen. That is one way to make cricket grow not just in the USA, but in other places as well – China, Russia and other countries. Until that happens, Jamie’s method is the best avenue to make things happen.

SJ– Fair enough! There is a question from a listener, Nicole – do you believe the longer format of the game is marketable to the American audience?

DP– Absolutely!

SJ– What makes you think so?

DP– I’m a living proof for that!

SJ– Ha ha! You are an exception, Peter!

DP– No! I talked to the Mayor [of Lauderhill, Florida]. His love affair with cricket began through going to see West Indies play India in a test match. And, I know from talking to other people first hand and communicating with people on twitter. My experience of getting into cricket and just being consumed by the game was during the 2005 Ashes. I know other people who have had similar experience during that series. I know people who have become consumed and fallen in love with cricket because they were in a bar during a visit to England. First test in Wales in 2009, something about watching Monty Panesar and James Anderson bat made them captivated and wanted to watch more cricket. You have people who have had travel experiences in India. They get into that atmosphere and appreciate cricket for the professional sport that it is- as professional and legitimate as the four major sports in this country.

So, if you think yourself and you conceptualize, that sport can only be legitimate or you only want to take the sport seriously if there are huge crowds, and a big time atmosphere associated with it and think “I went to the [New York] Giants stadium and there are 80000 fans right there and that is legitimate… I go the [New York] Yankees stadium and there are 50000 fans there, so that’s legitimate.” You go to Australia and there are 50000 fans, and that is legitimate. You go to India and 80000-100000 fans in Eden Gardens. That is legitimate. People in South Florida are used to going to a Miami Heat game where there is 18000-20000 people cheering on LeBron James. Then you  go to a cricket match on Saturday and see 15000 people and it is a vibrant atmosphere and a packed house. And all of a sudden, in their eyes, cricket is legitimate.

So, it can be T20 cricket, like it was this last weekend. But, it can be one-day cricket, it can be test cricket. The most important thing is that you get the people to the ground watching the match in-person, live, because I have never had anybody who’s gone to the ground to watch the match in person and not fall in love with cricket, whether it was at a local level or a big time event.

SJ– To address that point- right now, you only have one international quality stadium which is here in Florida. You have to have proper, top-level stadiums available in high-density urban centers like New York – New Jersey area, Los Angeles, Texas or Chicago. Is there any movement in USA Cricket to draw more public in live?

DP– USA Cricket? No.

SJ– But also, there is this business association with New Zealand cricket about setting up a T20 league. So, they have to have international-level grounds to have a league like that.

DP– The leg work has to be done by the New Zealand cricket portion of that arrangement. The business and the relationship building from that standpoint is going to be on New Zealand cricket to effect that kind of change, because the USA cricket administration has proven over the last 46 years that they have been in effect as USA Cricket Association that they are completely inept at doing these things.

SJ– Every time I talk to you about the USA cricket, I feel more disheartened than when i begin. But again, as an American cricket fan, like you are, you have reasons to keep hope alive?

DP– I don’t think you are referring to me as a pessimistic, but I hate coming off like that or being like doom-and-gloom, but you have to face things with reality. I have talked to people about this. I have said some things. In terms of cricket, all we read about is bad news. I tell them- if there is good news to report, I want to be the first one to report about it. if there is bad news to report, I want to be the first one to write about it. if there is news about the USA cricket, I want to be the first in the line to write about it.

In the course of recent events, and a little bit further back, there is a lot of bad news uncovered and needs to be written about, than there is good news. If somebody at a local level, government level was ready to invest a few million dollars to carve out some lands, to build five turf pitches in Portland, Maine, i would be in my car, driving up 9 or 10 hours to Portland, Maine to go and meet this guy and do an interview with him. If there was story about a player getting contract to play county cricket in England, the first American in how-many-years; I don’t know if John Barton King will be counted in terms of county cricket way back at the turn of the 20th century, but first American cricketer in several generations to be playing county cricket, I want to meet that guy and write a story about him and find out how he managed to secure that faith from whichever county wanted to sign him. I would love to be writing about these stuff, but these are not the kind of stuff that come out of the administration.

SJ– Do you have reasons to be hopeful, in-terms of what Jamie Harrison has been able to do and what New Zealand cricket may be able to the USA in terms of league and stuff like that?

DP– Subash, if you have seen The Shawshank Redemption, then you know that “Hope is a dangerous thing, my friend”!

SJ– But, it is the best of things!

DP– Yes, it is also the best of things. And no good thing…

SJ– Ever dies.

DP– There you go. I, like many other people in this country and many other who take interest in USA cricket affairs, would love nothing more than to see this league that is proposed to launch in 2012 and get underway in seminal moment in USA cricket. I would love to see this thing succeed and generate revenue so that it not only helps New Zealand cricket but also help the USA cricket at administrative level and also help the USA cricket at grassroots level. Some of the money could potentially get invested in junior levels.

But, it is an uphill battle. There are other people who have started things at smaller levels. There was pro-cricket in 2004, there was  a thing called Major League Cricket in 2007 or 2008 that was attempted then and they put on a tournament which if you go by the reviews and comments, was horribly organized according to some people and very typical of various other cricketing events. In 2009, there were press releases coming out saying that Jay Meare was going to start the American Premier League and they had Sir Richard Hadlee as one of their chief advisors on board, that is a grand name, with support behind it and grand press releases came out, but nothing came out of it. There is a heap of evidence that would suggest that another attempt to start a T20 league with the odds stacked against it.

But, there is hope that with another full-member board hitching their wagon to this initiative this time around, there is some hope that they [USACA] might get their act together this time around. If they organize properly, this could take off. If things don’t take off this year, hopefully with New Zealand associated with it, and some of the investors associated with it, they will ride off the storm in the first year because it most likely will not be profitable for the first year, and they need to be patient enough to ride through for the first few years and give it a serious chance to make some progress and build up hopefully with 5 years and hopefully build up some returns, and hopefully within 5 years the fans in the USA, who  are mostly the expat fans, will come out and support it. once that core group of expat fans show some support for it, they can recruit and convince and proselytize some of the other people who are part of the broader community who might have casual interest in cricket and lead them towards the cricket fields and stadiums in this country to turn them from a casual fan into a serious fan, and get their sons and daughters playing cricket. Things might succeed. But, it is not going to happen overnight, that is for sure, if at all it happens.

SJ– On that positive note, thanks a lot for coming on the show, Peter. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you again!

DP– The pleasure is all mine!

SJ– Excellent, thanks again!


[Download the episode here]

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman