Kalpesh Patel is the brain (and the brawn) behind ProCricket, the professional league created with the aim of bringing cricket to mainstream America.
Ever since he created the league, Patel has faced more criticism and setbacks than praise for his initiative. He has toughed through it all and remains convinced that ProCricket has a great future in America.
The ProCricket league, comprising 8 teams, officially began its regular season on July 2, 2004 in New York. It has since held thirteen matches in temporarily retrofitted minor league baseball parks in six cities across the United States, using the three-hour Twenty20 format.
In Houston for the Chicago Tornadoes vs. Texas Arrowheads matchup, Kal Patel spoke to Little India about the target audience's response to ProCricket, reactions of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to the new league, and his future plans.
We did some Gallup polls to get an understanding of what can be done, and we believe that this is something that will be successful.
How has the response been so far to the new initiative?
It has been lukewarm, but it is getting warmer. We had a very good crowd in New Jersey, a decent turnout in New York and not such a good response in San Francisco. In the beginning, we just gave away tickets because we wanted to get more people in, so they could see what ProCricket had to offer. The best we have had is 2,300 people in New Jersey on July 5. On the previous day, July 4, at the same venue we had 1,500 people. In New York we had about 1,000, in Washington DC about 500 paid spectators.
But San Francisco was horrible. It wasn't good at all. I blame it on our marketing. And I don't think the venue was a good choice. It was Kezar Park, and at 7.30 p.m., the fog starts to come in. It is not conducive for cricket. We learnt it the hard way.
So what kind of feedback are you getting from the spectators?
We have had lots and lots of telephone calls from people. Most of them are good, some are critical. They say, "Why can't you put your act together?" They want the website to be perfect, they want the game to be perfect and many people feel that there is no crowd. We have actually chosen facilities that seat from 5,000 to 9,000 people. But we sell only 2,000-3,000 tickets on good days. So people see empty seats, and that is what they take back with them.
What they don't know is that my business plan allows me to have empty stadiums for three years and we will still continue. After three years if I see empty seats, then something has gone horribly wrong.
The positive responses are phenomenal. "We love this game." "We love the fact that this game is only three hours, that it is in a professional facility, that the amenities are good, that you have concession stands." I am happy with the fact that whatever the turnover - 200, 500 or 2000 - the ratio is such that there are always 20-30 percent white Americans who have never watched cricket before.
What is it, in your opinion, that will attract Americans to these cricket matches?
A key aspect is the price. Just about $6.95 a ticket. If a person has 30 different entertainment choices: to watch a movie, catch an opera, go to a minor or major league baseball game, go to a fair or whatever, we will initially be number 28 on the list. Then the cost factor will come in. At a fair you will spend $20- $30 per person. A movie is $50 for a family of four. A baseball game is like $200 for a family. If they come to watch cricket, in $50 they can not only enjoy a good game, they will be able to enjoy a good dinner somewhere else after that too. We believe price is going to be a big factor. And we are going to reach out to America through a national television network that we are affiliated with.
Which network is that?
American Desi. There is a new national channel that is going to be out there called American Desi, which will be part of the satellite network. Apart from this, we are also going to telecast the matches on DISH Network Pay Per View. Every single game that we produce will be on the national network. American Desi has guaranteed us 150 hours of cricket telecast.
Did you have difficulty roping in international players?
It was difficult but not very difficult. We approached them through their agents. We had exactly 104 committed players who wanted to participate in this league, ranging all over England, West Indies, Zimbabwe, Kenya, India, Australia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. But we realized we needed a set of players who were ticket sellers, people who appeal to the fans, like Franklin Rose, who is an outstanding character.
Then Colin Miller, another phenomenal character. He is known as Colin 'Funky' Miller. He sometimes dyes his hair to match the color of his uniform. These are the kind of players we got in, so we can get families to come and watch. But then along came the issue of the BCCI, which actually tarnished everything.
Is the BCCI not allowing Indian players to play here because the ICC is against this venture? The ICC is not against ProCricket.
Their official position is that they believe we are good for cricket and they wish us well. BCCI got a directive from the ICC (that was sent to all national boards) stating that "We recommend that you do not release contracted players to participate in ProCricket." I got a copy of the letter as well. So I immediately asked the ICC for a clarification on what "contracted players" means, because not all countries have player contracts. Then they sent out a new letter saying that when we say "contracted players," we mean 30 players, 15 players on the national squad and 15 probables.
Even after this, S K Nair (secretary of the BCCI) sent out a letter saying any player participating in ProCricket in America will have to face severe consequences. This included Ranji players, players who were never going to make the Indian team because they were too old, even players that were fourth string on the Ranji team.
So we contacted the ICC yet again (chuckles) and told them, without naming any countries, that one or more of your national boards has misconstrued your release. They knew exactly what we were talking about. So they sent yet another letter and this went to S K Nair personally, with a carbon copy to myself. It said, "We believe that you have misconstrued our directive. When we said contracted players, we meant only your national players on the current team. ALL the other players are ALLOWED to play in ProCricket."
If that is the case, why do you think the BCCI reacting like this?
I don't know. It is mind-boggling. I have nothing but high regard and respect for Jagmohan Dalmiya and even S K Nair. Jagmohan Dalmiya is a pioneer. He has done so much for cricket. I am surprised why his board will actually do something like this.
I can only hope that somewhere along the line, they are going to allow their players to come here. We only approach players who do not have any commitments. Even if they have Ranji trophy commitments, we do not approach them. Only if they are free, do I ask them to come play here, give us a little recognition and entertain our crowds. That is all I am asking for.
So there are absolutely no Indian players here in the U.S. now?
There is absolutely no one. Ajay Jadeja, Rahul Sanghvi, Nikhil Chopra, all three came here but they have gone back. I hope it changes. But whether it changes or not, our focus doesn't change.
How about the boards of other countries? Have they posed any objections?
No. We have Marlon Samuels and Corey Collymore here today. Both have just been named part of the preliminary national squad for the ICC Champion's Trophy in September. They are on the West Indies National cricket team, and they are playing here.
What exactly is the stand of the United States of America Cricket Association (USACA)?
The ICC works with the national board of every country. So they urged us to talk to the USACA to see if we could mutually work with each other.
I met with the USACA in Dallas on June 19, despite that being the day of our inaugural exhibition match in New Jersey. The meeting itself was very positive. I made it very clear to them that we are not competing with them. We are a completely different organization. They are a not-for-profit organization that is running cricket under the ICC purview and promoting the game of 50 overs and Test matches. We are a for-profit organization, a sports marketing company in America, and we are not under the ICC or USACA purview. We are basically for cricket as a form of entertainment, to draw crowds, to get families and little kids to come and watch the game. And if we end up making cricket popular, the USACA will benefit from it too.
In the end, the president, Gladstone Dainty, said that he was pleased with the plan, but that it was for the USACA Board to decide if they wanted to go along with us. We have not heard from them till date.
|West Indies' Mervyn Dillon|
How did you manage to get Anshuman Gaekwad involved? What is his role in your organization?
I presented our plan to him personally in India at his residence after several phone conversations from the US. He is a man of great stature and after doing his own research he too was convinced that our plan was a good one. He believes that ours is a professional organization that is good for cricket. His role is to guide ProCricket with regard to global players and competition. We look to him for advise in preserving the quality of cricket.
How are the international players assigned to the different teams? Are they contracted to a particular team?
As of now, the international players come in for about 10-12 days, and rotate between teams, playing between six to eight matches during their stay here. Every match is played with three or four foreign players per team and the rest are local guys. Every 10 days we change the set of international players. Next year, however, we plan to have them contracted to each team.
So how do they like the experience of playing this form of cricket on this kind of stage?
Every one of them has told me that this is a phenomenal experience. Colin Miller came here for 10 days, but he liked it so much, and he was so good with the fans, that we kept him for another spell. Franklin Rose told me how the Washington DC match was the most exciting match of his life. He said that if I had told him three days ago that the most exciting game of his life was going to be in America, he would have had a hearty laugh. This is a Test cricketer! And the most exciting game of his life was played in Washington DC in ProCricket! Of course, they are having a great time.
Where do you see yourself over the next few years?
We are a growing organization. We are going to change. We are not going to be one of the stagnant organizations that are purists. We are going to change, and learn as we grow. We have plans to increase the number of teams. Atlanta, Plano, Detroit, a second team from New York... we have had a lot of responses and we are considering various options.
Like I said earlier, my business plan is for three years. It is not a two-month plan. It is actually a 10-year plan, just like any other business. We have a lot of people lined up for sponsorships. But we are waiting for the product to be complete. After the end of the third year, I may have to see some returns from the tickets. At the end of the third year, based on my plan, I expect about 40 precent of the crowd to be mainstream American spectators. The way we are going to market it, I am confident we will be able to get there. Incidentally, we have also been approached by Fox World International to broadcast our matches in South America, Australia, England, Hong Kong and parts of Africa.
It is all going fine. There are few clouds out there. When they go away it will be sunny, and we will be all right. We are almost half way through the season this year. Next year will be a better season.