Additional Note: I was asked to pull this from my blog while comments were vetted by corporate PR. That was more th a month ago. With no response to my initial query, nor to any of my several follow-ups, I have decided to go ahead and re-post. I doubt anyone will get in trouble for their comments; obviously this small fry is below corporate PR’s radar!
Note: This is not an advertisement. I have received nothing from either Reebok or USYCA in return for featuring Reebok in this story—I simply felt like it was an interesting enough topic to cover, and just the sort of thing we need to see more of!
The recent announcement that the United States Youth Cricket Association has secured sponsorship funding from Reebok strikes me as a very positive step in the advancement of cricket in the United States. There are a couple of reasons for this, and they have little or nothing to do with my opinion of the USYCA (very high) and its grassroots approach (also very high).
First of all, it struck me as important because it is a sign that a major sporting brand believes U.S. Cricket actually HAS a future; and, secondly, it is a sign that there is money and support out there to go along with the desire to promote the game in the States.
The story of Reebok’s support of the USYCA (from the Reebok side) starts with an IT guy. Yes, you read right. The man behind Reebok’s interest in developing cricket in the United States is an IT guy.
Sai Vajha’s story sounds typically of many people with whom I have spoken about cricket in the U.S. He worked a day job—in, as I said, IT—and played cricket on the weekends—for Vajha that meant playing in the Massachusetts Cricket League.
“One of the challenges is the availability of quality equipment for people in the U.S. to play cricket,” according to Vajha, who set about trying to come up with a way to make quality cricket gear more readily available. Particularly, of course, gear from Reebok.
“Reebok is a leader in the cricket equipment sales in the subcontinent and because I worked at Reebok I thought that it made sense to have something here.”
Vajha started gathering information—the number of leagues which exist in the United States, what kind of player base there is and of course what kind of fan base. He used his research to create a story to help Reebok understand the American cricket segment. The company was impressed enough to say OK, but there were conditions.
“They said we can give it a try, but only if you want to run this, because we don’t want you to leave IT. We have no expertise, no knowledge base here for doing this kind of thing.” In other words, Vajha says, start small and see what happens. “So, we started to get some equipment that was already developed by Reebok India and start exposing those products to the North American base.”
US Youth Cricket Association sponsorshipNow we come to Reebok’s decision to put some money into developing the sport in the United States. According to Vajha, 2012-2013 is the time frame in which Reebok sees the possibility of some realistic sales and growth in the States. In other words, this is crunch time for determining whether or not Reebok can make cricket a viable business in the United States, so Vajha and Reebok are looking for ways to grow the sport, and thus grow the business.
“One of the better organizations in the North American continent is the US Youth Cricket Association,” according to Vajha, who says he was impressed by the structure developed by Jamie Harrison. In the roughly two years or so since he started USYCA, Harrison has been able to reach out to 700 schools so far, with plans to reach 1,000 more schools. And that, according to Vajha, is where Reebok sees the value—the grass roots program.
“Unless you get into schools and colleges, it will be very difficult for cricket to be a sustainable sport, because expats dominate the sport,” Vajha admits. “Basically what we are trying to do is create some kind of support and also have the Reebok product available to the schools and kids community … cricket uniforms, that sort of thing.”
Cricket: Is it Time?As I said earlier in this piece, Reebok sees this year as when the company can expect to begin seeing to realistic cricket gear sales in the United States market. But can it? Is it finally time for cricket to start making an impact on the American sporting consciousness? And what will that take? One thing that needs to happen is an uptick in the overall skills of cricketers in the United States. That means overall, not any particular cricketer or cricketers.
“I see a lot of talent here definitely,” Vajha says, adding that there needs to be a plan to bring Test and First Class players from other countries into U.S. leagues—quality players who can start adding value to the existing players, and raise the value of the game here. From that standpoint, Vajha sees the plan by the United States of America Cricket Association to work with the New Zealand Cricket Board—known to American cricket followers as Cricket Holdings America—to get New Zealand’s First Class players available to play in USA as a good step.
“You get the best players from a Test-playing nation to come in and partner with local clubs, be part of them play with them and help raise the standards.”
Ultimately, Vajha feels, that approach can help cricket develop a success story similar to the American soccer story. Of course, successes on the pitch that could result from raising standards of play wouldn’t hurt.
“If the USA gets to a certain stage where it can be represented on the bigger platform—where they can play with those top 10-12 cricket playing nations, maybe in one of the World Cups, that is where I see the turnaround happening.”
Throw in programs like the USYCA and the possibility of the new Cricket Premier League, and Vajha feels like you have the start of something.
“There are so many ingredients that are being cooked that the end result has to happen. Certainly we are moving in the right direction. The next 2-3 years it will completely turn into a significant game here I think.”
Cricket, Cricket Everywhere But not a Game to Watch?Vajha is quick to point out there is a cricket fan base here—one only need look at the numbers as far as players and purchases of pay-per-view cricket matches to see that. But, as is often pointed out, a lot of that support comes from South Asian expats. Getting other American communities involved in the sport is necessary for cricket to grow into a nationally recognized American sport or pastime. One thing Vajha thinks will draw in other American fans is the development of the planned premier league.
“Fans don’t know where they can associate and support a team. Once the premier league starts it will create that momentum. Once it comes on a media major television channel things will start to improve a lot.”
But what matches to play and to show? What form of the game should take precedence as it is developed and moved into the mainstream? Even though Americans will watch days and days of golf coverage, or spend all day watching several games of the same sport being played, they seem to balk at the idea of watching a four day cricket match. So, Vajha says, the shorter versions of cricket are the future in America.
“Even the one day international may be tough. I think the T20, which takes three hours or less, is the only way to introduce the sport and have it survive here.
My Kingdom for a United States Cricket ShirtOne sore spot with some American cricket fans is the lack of replica U.S. kit available for purchase. But for a national team that is lucky just to have the name of its country on its shirts, that is going to be a tough sell to any athletic apparel and equipment manufacturer. Reebok has outfitted and equipped the members of Team USA; the company does not have the right to sell “official” gear to the public.
Right now we are trying to get the fan base what they want,” according to Vajha. “The lifestyle t-shirt, the cool headgear. We’re just introducing the related stuff for the fans and players to establish ourselves as the leading cricket brand here.”
But even if there is a licensing agreement in place sometime soon for Reebok (or anyone else, for that matter), that is no guarantee official U.S. gear and replica kit will be immediately available. That availability is a question of demand. And right now there isn’t enough demand, because people do not have the awareness.
“But once they create some difference and hit the headlines consistently I think we will try and look for those kinds of things.”
For more information on Reebok Cricket North America, here are some links:
For more information on the United States Youth Cricket Association, visit www.usyca.org.