Transcript: Couch Talk with Jamie Harrison, ACF

Couch Talk 98 (Play)

Guest: Jamie Harrison, Chief Executive, American Cricket Federation

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Welcome to the show, Jamie!

Jamie Harrison (JH)– Hi! How are you, Subash?

SJ– Doing well, doing well! It is nice of you­ to come back on the show!

First of all, congratulations on being appointed the Chief Executive of the American Cricket Federation (ACF)!

JH– Thank you very much! It is an exciting opportunity and a great honour. We have already started diving into things. We are working on a lot of initiatives, keeping our plates full and lots of emails and phone calls. It’s been happening.

SJ– Excellent! You were the founder of the United States Youth Cricket Association in 2010 and now you have become the Chief Executive of the ACF, which is the competing cricket body for cricket in the United States, competing with the ICC approved USACA (USA Cricket Association). Why would you join an unrecognized body like the ACF rather than USACA?

JH– Well, it is because I believe in the future of American cricket, not the past or even the present state of American cricket. I was born and raised here, and so I take a long term view of the United States. I didn’t just arrive here earlier this year to run a business proposition. My dream is to see United States become a cricket playing nation. Earlier this year, the USYCA had the opportunity to affiliate with either the USACA or the ACF and in a resounding vote, we chose to affiliate with the ACF because we saw the future of the United States for cricket as being more properly represented by the ACF than by USACA.

SJ– But, as long as there is the USACA and them holding the ICC’s approval as the cricket body in United States, ACF cannot provide that one thing any player in United States would want, which is national representation.

JH– Think about this – again, I look at the United States as a whole. I look at all the players in the United States and all the children who are growing up to play cricket in the United States. So, we are talking about tens and thousands of people who are playing cricket in the United States and suffering under USACA. Of this tens and thousands, how many are legitimately candidates to play in an international tournament? Maybe a couple of dozens? So, I would be completely misguided if I place my legions with the organization of the couple of dozens add to the detriment of the tens of thousands.

There is only a small, it is a very slim, a fraction of American cricket stakeholders who benefit from our connection with the ICC and those are the people who are directly involved in the USA international tours and events. Even those people will have to argue if you look at the success of the USA national team, it will have to be unsatisfactory experience being associated with USA cricket. But, that is like you enjoy going to an exotic resort in an exotic location and being beaten by Tanzania. Let’s just say that’s your thing. Still, that is just a couple of dozen who ever have a chance to do that. It would be irresponsible of me to cast my lot with the organization which is set out to benefit just a couple of dozen people and who would in turn ignore the tens and thousands who desperately need an organization that stands up and represents them.

My feeling right now – let USACA and the ICC do their peripheral international thing. It is irrelevant, really, what is going on with the international cricket. As long as American cricket development goes, it is completely irrelevant and has nothing to do with charting a future so that America becomes a cricket playing nation. That is what the ACF is concerned about. We are going to build this country and make this a cricket playing nation. Now, the ICC can keep USACA afloat indefinitely, I suppose. You can have a brain dead patient and keep the machines on and keep the chest  going up and down for as long as you want. And $300,000 is the price tag I have from what I understand for keeping this particular patient’s chest moving up and down. So, as long as the ICC wants ot shove all those $300,000 into that pit, I guess that is their choice, that is their money. But, we have work to do. While that is happening off in that corner, we are going to get busy building cricket in the United States.

SJ– I want to talk to you about the ACFs short and long terms goals. In the short term, if I am understanding correctly, you are not that interested in national representation. You want to grow cricket in the USA and not worry about the international competition at all. But, is that in your long term goal at least?

JH– Let’s face it – it is our hope that one day ICC will choose to become involved again in American cricket. As far as I am concerned now, the ICC is not involved in American cricket. In my mind, the litmus test for how much they care for American cricket is their support for USACA. So, unless they continue to push USACA down the throats of American cricketers, so long as they continue to prop this organization up, they are expressing the fact that they really don’t care about much about what is going on inside United States. So, I hope that one day that changes. I hope that one day, the ICC has a change of hearts and says that ‘We would really like to see the United States become a real cricket market, instead of just a colony for us to market our full member products in.’ I hope they become reintegrated and become again supporters for American cricket. But, I can’t control that. The ICC is going to do whatever the ICC is going to do. My concern is American cricket. So, I am going to say that we are focused on the prize, which is making United States a cricket playing nation and hope that one day the ICC has a change of heart and comes back to us.

SJ– You say that you have no control over what the ICC is doing and they might very well take with USACA in the short term. But, is there is long term mission for the ACF, because you are the Chief Executive, is there a long term mission that you impress upon the ICC enough that they cut ties with whoever is running USACA and hitch their wagon with you?

JH– Well, again, at this point, USACA already represents a fractional minority of American cricketers. In the deposition that USACA had to deal in the Kenwyn William suit, they confessed only having..they were only able to name 9 leagues that supported the dismissal of Kenwyn Williams. Out of those 9 leagues, there were a couple of leagues were dubious about whether they were actually in the USACA fold or not. Let’s just say, 8 leagues. I think there are over 50 hardball leagues in the United States, so, there are a slim minority of leagues that are affiliated with the USACA or were affiliated with USACA at that point. And then, that is if you consider only hard ball cricket to be American cricket. I would argue that in the United States, recreational cricket, which is largely tennis ball cricket, is probably 3 or 4 times the size in measuring participation as hard ball cricket. We don’t discount those people at the ACF; we embrace those people, we say ‘you are a part of the cricket landscape of the United States.’ If you add those people that the USACA completely ignores, they represent in the low single digits of cricket fans in the United States. The ICC wants to say that the people that represent a very minor slice of American cricketers, if they want say that these are the people that we insist are your leaders and these are the leaders that we want to back regardless of what you want or what you think, then I guess I can’t control what they do.

USACA, even if you could fix USACA overnight, even if you take all their dysfunction and change all the people, there are still $2m that the association is saddled with, which is crippling and from what I understand there is no source of income coming in soon to be eating into that debt. I have heard a lot of talk that they have got committees and studies about reforms, I always say ‘beware of the regime under siege who cries reform.’ Any reform that leaves the same people in power when it is over with can’t be considered a real reform.

SJ– You raised a hypothetical situation where if USACA gets rid of people or leading them in the wrong direction not actually in the benefit of American cricket. Would you be, then, open to the idea of ACF, or taking over, for that matter or merging both the bodies together?

JH– Under no circumstances, for a  number of reasons.

No. 1, structurally, USACA is deficient. The constitution is structurally deficient. The way the organization is set up structurally is deficient. Even if with a magic wand overnight USACA adopts the entire ACF governance platform from the constitution (and) every nickel and dime is adopted by USACA, and then every body who is on the board of directors on the USACA signs a legally binding agreement that they will never ever again hold off us in USACA and they quit, ok? A lot of people will say, “Oh my God! You have really got a chance to really change things.” But, now what you have is an organization which is $2m in debt. When I want to walk into a situation, the organization is $2m in debt? No! Why would I do that? I would rather have our organization, which is $0 in debt and has all of the things that I was just wishing for USACA to have! Why would I want to have this same old tired shirt if I can have a brand new shirt with all the same stuff? They are $2m in debt, plus they have all these other baggage. That is if we can wave a wand and make the USACA board of directors go away forever.

SJ– I want to talk about this ACF that now you have become the Chief Executive of. I play in a league in Washington D.C. area that is a part of the ACF, and so technically you are my Chief Executive as well. I know a couple of office bearers in the ACF personally through cricket. These guys, some of the office bearers came away from USACA for all the politics that happened, the election shenanigans that happened and all the stuffs that happened. There are some voices in some quarters that you, coming from a volunteer grass roots organization, can provide a great face to ACF, and that could be the reason why you were made the Chief Executive. What would you say to that?

JH– I think I am the Chief Executive for a number of different reasons. One, I think it is because I am a national born American. I am a bridge between the cricket that is in the United States, which is 99.99% folks that were born and raised in the cricket playing nations and cricket where we want it to be – which is equally popular among the people born in the United States, which is not a cricket playing nation. I am an important bridge between the two cultures –cricket playing culture and the culture we want to get to, that is important.

Two, I think my track record with USYCA is demonstrative, something very important. You don’t have to have $300,000 a year from the ICC to make good things happen. We started USYCA with not a nickel of ICC money, or anybody’s money. We started with nothing and we built form nothing a fairly impressive organization that has done a lot of really, really good things. And, all on the backs of donations from people. We had a sponsorship from Reebok, but it was a brief sponsorship. It was only a few thousand dollars. Almost all of our money has been cheques written by individuals and charitable foundations.

What we demonstrated is the possibilities. Anybody who claims that the United States needs to have the ICC to be successful is cracked. No other American sport sat around waiting for an international federation to handfeed it money and support before it became popular. American sports grew well by themselves quite well. America is the richest country in the world. We have 15 million kids in this country under the age of 18, if we could get 1% of them playing cricket it could be a comparable number, comparable to just any other full member nation. We have parents who are willing to spent lots of money to give their kids coaching and things like that. We have all the pre-requisite material to make the United States a great cricket playing nation without the ICC. I think the ICC should want ot be involved. But, one of the reasons I was picked was because USYCA demonstrates, and my success leading USYCA demonstrates that it can be done in the United States and it will be done in the United States with or without the ICC.

SJ– I don’t doubt any of that, Jamie, but my question is this – when you go and look at the American Cricket Federation’s website and look at the members of the steering committee, you can see that all of them come from cricket playing nation and came to this country, and you have been chosen as the face of the organization now a year after they formed the ACF. One could easily say that they are going to write the court tales of the USYCA’s good karma and gain some foothold in the competition against USACA. That is a fair argument to make.

JH– I didn’t realise USYCA had big coattails to begin with. But, if you want to say that, if you want to make that argument that ACF is trying to write these court tales from USYCA, as you put it, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing to do. as a leader, one thing you want to do is look around and identify things that work, things that are successful, things that represent what you want to achieve and then emulate those things of co-opt those things. Nothing is new on the face of the earth. If you want to say that the ACF leadership looked at the USYCA and said, “Give us some of that.”, then that is not a bad thing. USACA looked at the USYCA and said, “You should want to submit to us and be a part of our operation”, which is a completely different way of approaching USYCA. So, give ACF credit for recognizing success and recognizing a formula that works and wanting that formula to be incorporated with their program.

SJ– That is a fair response and I had prepared for that. But, there were comments from the ICC’s global manager, Tim Anderson, that, yes, we understand that there are a few problems with the United States’ cricket associations and he called up “challenging” but insistent that USACA is putting in place changes that are required for progress. There were statements from Darren Beazley , the CEO of USACA as well, to that effect. Are you betting on the fact that they won’t be successful?

JH– First thing, 50 years of failure is a pretty impressive track record for anyone. Even if I were a gambling man, my money wouldn’t be badly placed banking on USACA to fail. But, I am not a gambling man. I like to make smart decisions and make things happen. I am not terrible interested in hearing about the cries of reforms from the regime under siege. That is what always happens, whenever you have someone who is battled and is about to be pushed out the first thing they do is to cry reform. If tomorrow morning (Bashar) Assad in Syria said “I am going to resign the post of President of Syria and I will stand again for President in three elections. And, don’t worry, everything is going to be up and up.” will the world say “We applaud you, President Assad for taking this brilliant step. We assumed that the people of Syria have a fair shot at removing you.” ? Of course, not! The regime under siege can’t be trusted to enact fair reforms. If at the end of the day the reforms end up leaving most of the same people in their same positions, in other if the reforms don’t do a complete utter sweep from the President to the entire board of directors, then they are not reforms. It is just window dressing.

But, for Tim Anderson to say that USACA is going in the right direction now after 50 years of train wreck, it was laughable. But, again, that is not surprising. Understand that the ICC is not a world governing body, per say. The ICC is a conglomerate of the 10 full member nation who govern according to their own best interest. And, rule 1 for full member nations is that you don’t mess with national governing bodies of cricketing countries no matter what they are. Look at Zimbabwe. That is a wonderful example of what the ICC will tolerate from a full member nation’s national governing body. Rule 1 of the ICC is if a country has a national governing body, no matter how disastrous it is, you have to back it or at least do so until a point when it would no longer work for the ICC.

Twice, the ICC has suspended USACA, but if you look back a the history it is not because of bad governance or failing to promote cricket in the United States or all of the stuffs that killed the market now. The reason they suspended USACA was because of the confusion about legitimate claims to being the country’s national governing body. There was a challenge from another group in the 2000s that also produced a national cricket team and they both had competing claims. That was one suspension. It was more technicalities than actual deficiencies that have caused them to be suspended. That goes back to the fact that they are not really worried about USACA doing the right thing by the American people. They are not really worried about how USACA governs in the United States. Only that USACA is recognized as the national governing body by the United States. What I am telling you is that USACA’s claim to even that is a shame at this point. If you factor in the tennis ball leagues and the hard ball leagues, they represent a slight sliver of cricket in the United States and that is not a national governing body.

SJ– And, to continue on that point – you made a statement to cricinfo’s George Dobell that USACA’s membership to the ICC should be revoked.

JH– No, I didn’t say that. I said that the United States should withdraw from the ICC. And here is the reason I say that – so long as the ICC demonstrates that it is not interested in seeing us grow as a cricket playing nation, they are not interested in us being able to represent ourselves and us being able to do the right thing and us being able to choose our own leadership and us being able to move forward as a cricket playing nation, as long as ICC doesn’t care about us then we should divest ourselves of the distraction that the ICC provides.

Right now, ICC participation for the United States is a zero-sum game. They give us $300,000 a year and none of that makes it to the grass root. There is not a cricket pitch or net or even a cricket bat held in someone’s hand today that you can say that because of our relationship with the ICC this exists. So, the money that they shove into USACA, none of it is making to where it needs to be today. So, we are not gaining anything from our relationship with the ICC except, if you are a person in the travelling party, except if you are the physio or the manager on the trip to Italy, you have been affected tremendously from our relationship with the ICC. If you are someone who got a local league player picked for the national team and you are the league president, now you benefit because you can now claim some kind of connection and you get to be the big man on the campus back home. That is a benefit for you. But there are a couple of dozen people in the country who benefit from us being related to the ICC, everyone else suffers. What I said to George Dobell is that because of that zero-sum game, that ends up being a huge distraction from our domestic cricket where our focus needs to be, we should just withdraw from the ICC and get done with it.

SJ– Of course, USACA is now going to…I stand corrected, you said that USA should withdraw the membership. But, USACA is not going to do that.

JH– That connection to the ICC is the only thing keeping them afloat.

SJ– So, would you like the ICC to actually take away USACA’s membership? Have an organization that doesn’t represent even a majority of cricketers i the country, they don’t represent their interest, they don’t have any interest in the grass roots development; so would you and your organization be happy if the ICC takes away the membership from USACA?

JH– We think that the right course of action or the ICC is to not recognize USACA as the national governing body of American cricket. Understand also, there is no legal national governing body of American cricket. By USA law, the only legitimate national governing bodies are those designated so by the United States Olympic Committee. That is as per the Amateur Athletics Act of 1977. The catch with that is that you can’t be recognized by the USOC as a national governing body if your sport is not a part of the Olympic program, which the ICC is bound to determine not to make it. So, there is no legal official national body for cricket in the United States. It really isn’t the eye of the beholder. In this case, the beholder happens to be the ICC. But, anybody could stand up in the United States and say that “We are the new national governing body for cricket” and legally have just the same level of the claim as USACA.

SJ– Alright! I think we have talked plenty about USACA. Let me hear from you about the directions about the ACF. Is aw in your interview with Peter Della Penna that you are going to get some stuff done. But, they weren’t in details and I understand the limitations of a written interview, I understand that. So, why don’t you tell us what are the things that you are going to get done in the immediate/near future, and where would you like the ACF to be headed?

JH– Well, the first thing that we need to focus on is building up our clubs and leagues – domestic cricket. We need to make our clubs successful. One thing on USACA is that they are always called as “USACA, the peak body.” I think that is a telling visual statement. If you imagine a pyramid, the peak has everything wedged underneath it, pushing the peak up to the top, everything is crushed below the peak. That is the way the vision comes off. We are not the peak body, we see ourselves as a foundation or support upon which everyone else can build successfully. We are only as successful as our member organizations. So, our job one is to go to each of our member leagues, be them hard ball or tennis ball or whatever and approach them individually and uniquely and ask “What do you need from us? How can we help you be successful?” Whether it is building a youth program, getting a pitch built; whatever it is that the league/club is specific – the need for the moment. We are going to work to get that done. We are developing a program right now, as we speak, to actually make that a systematic program with an individual liaison for each club and league who can work with them and make things happen.

That is another thing different from USACA – we don’t have a one-size fits all program which we are going to jam down your throat and say that you are going to be a part of this to be a part of us. we are going to approach everybody individually, in every situation you meet everyone is different. We are going to say, “You tell us what is it that you need to be successful. We are only as successful as you are.” So, the focus is going to be not ACF-centered, the focus is going to be everyone-else-centered. How can we help you? What can we do to help you be successful?

Another aspect that we are exploring right now, that we are beginning to hammer out the details of, is a way for leagues to compete in a program against teams of other leagues in a way that is very low cost and very inexpensive. The USACA idea was a crazy, expensive premier T20 league broadcast to India at $40m a franchise with expensive overseas players and very few home grown Americans involved, with all the glitz and glamour –and of course it collapsed and died and hadn’t gone anywhere. We are thinking practical – we want to involved American players, players who are here playing club cricket in the United States. It must give them a chance to shine and become superstars and develop their talents. So, we were exploring ways to have leagues playing in competition against each other for a national title over the course of the entire spring and summer culminating in the fall. Almost like Major League Baseball, but for cricket. Again, starting at a low scale, that is doable. Not some crazy over the top scheme that it has to have Indian broadcast rights to be successful. We just want more people to play cricket. At the end our cricketers just want to play circlet, they want to get out there in the middle and compete and try to be their best. To create a program that brings in expensive people from overseas to take the spots of American cricketers and make big money off Americans is crazy. We want American cricket for American cricketers.

We have a lot of ideas that we were going through privately and we are not going to announce them fully until we develop them fully. We have worked out a lot of the details. Basically, ACF is outward focussed. Our focus is on making everyone else better, as opposed to promoting ourselves and pushing ourselves and saying that you have to be a pat of our operation and you have to be a part of our program and you have to make us the peak of your existence.

SJ– Of course, in any kind of plan, whether it is small or large or medium size, running for two months or eight months, you are going to need money to fund all these plans. Where does the ACF go for that?

JH– We have member dues, we are looking for sponsorships, we do all the normal stuffs. Again, remember, I ran USYCA on a shoestring. We started with nothing, we collected small amounts of money and at the end of the day we were able to do huge things. You tell me, if 4 years ago I had said that I am going to start an organization that is going to give 1500 cricket sets to American schools and doesn’t ask for a nickel back – would anybody believe me? They told me in 2010 that I was nuts. Yet we have done it. We still have in a warehouse in Kansas, another 500 sets waiting to go out. We are now building pitches with our own nickel, we are helping people build youth pitches. Again, this is what is possible – a lot of people are working harmoniously towards a single goal. It is all out to us, and people aren’t in it like sharks just trying to pick up stuffs along the edges. If you have the right people in the right organizations doing it for the right reasons, all these things are possible as opposed to the sharks in the water.

SJ– Alright! I am not trying to sound like a cynic, I am just saying that it is still early stages, everybody is more than willing to do more than 150% as they say in sports- eventhough it doesn’t exist- in the beginning, I guess you will have to wait and see where the ACF goes.

JH– Our structure is superior – we created a constitution and by-laws that are full of checks and balances and term limits and ways to keep the abuses that we have seen elsewhere from creeping up. we know that we are going to grow and expand and eventually big money is going to be involved, we know this. Big money can bring out the worst in people, power can bring out the worst in people. The good new is that we are prepared for that. Our governance structure, our constitution is designed to make sure that things stay on the open arm.

SJ– Alright! Anything else that you want to cover, Jamie?

JH– Just that if anyone knows anything about me, I am in it for the long hop. I figured that I have a good 30 years left in me of fighting this good fight. So, no matter if we have one league as a member or a million leagues as a member, my approach is going to be the same and nothing is going to change, and we are going to continue to build cricket in the United States. And, my message to everyone out there is that – the train is leaving the station, you should get on board because it is going to be a great ride. If you want to be the change, be the change and get with the program.

SJ– Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Jamie! It was fantastic having you on again! Thanks!

JH– Talk to you later!

SJ– Cheers!


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman