This August will mark the third straight summer that a few Caribbean Premier League matches will be played in Florida. Even though the overall number of matches played at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill keeps shrinking - from six in 2016 to four in 2017 and now three in 2018 - organisers are hoping to rebuild the on-ground fan experience by scheduling this year's slate as floodlit games in primetime.
After a pair of weekend sellouts in 2016, crowds dipped dramatically for last year's pair of weekend double-headers that featured Jamaica Tallawahs, St Kitts & Nevis Patriots, Guyana Amazon Warriors and Barbados Tridents. The Sunday twin-bill had an especially poor turnout of approximately 2500 in the 10,000 capacity stadium after the sweltering heat from day one managed to turn away fans from coming back for the next game 24 hours later. CPL chief executive Damien O'Donohue said it left them no choice but to make this year's matches with evening starts.
"There's so many factors to be considered when you're hosting these games and everything is a learning curve," O'Donohue told ESPNcricinfo. "The single-biggest factor is that we were playing games in over 100-degree heat and people just aren't going to come out in South Florida for that. You see that for baseball, you see that for other sports there. It's not a well-attended part of the world for sports activities, especially in August and September."
In 2016, there were two games with 7pm starts on Thursday and Friday, which had modest attendance as most fans flew in from New York and Toronto to be there for the sold-out weekend matches. Those weeknight crowd figures turned off organisers from continuing with weeknight games, considering that the cost to hire supplemental light fixtures was $250,000 to support the limited permanent floodlights in place at the stadium.
Eliminating the floodlight cost for 2017 by scheduling early day time double-headers on the weekend saved the CPL tremendously in operational costs. According to a source, the CPL lost money in both years of staging games in Florida but lost less money in 2017 than they did in 2016 - in spite of far smaller attendance figures last year - primarily due to the bill for extra floodlights in 2016.
Since the Tallawahs are now the hosts for all three games in Florida for 2018, as opposed to every game being a neutral match earlier, the franchise picked up the floodlight bill off the CPL to offset central operating costs for matches starting at 8pm on August 18 against Guyana Amazon Warriors and 6pm on August 19 and 22 against Trinbago Knight Riders and Tridents.
Ticket prices, which were raised 50% last year in the grandstand from $42 to $65, have also been slashed dramatically in an effort to encourage fans to come back to their 2016 numbers. General admission tickets are priced at $25 and grandstand tickets at $40, while specially priced tickets for kids 12 and under are being offered for the first time at $15 and $20 respectively.
"Playing in the middle of the day, I don't think it worked for players and it certainly didn't work for fans," CPL chief operating officer Pete Russell said. "I think the lights were obviously a key part of the change and the fact that we were able to get the lights meant that we've gone with the schedule that we've got.
"The challenge then for us is what is the cost of putting the lights in. Fortunately for us, we now have someone there who has decided to commit to putting the lights in for these games because that's a big investment. The reason we switched it back is because fans didn't like the experience and that's not good for us."
Another contributing factor that hurt attendance last year was that Trinbago Knight Riders, the franchise with the largest fan base especially for those traveling in from New York and Toronto, did not come to Florida. Russell says that the league strongly urged the Tallawahs ownership that Knight Riders were part of the Florida ticket.
"We spent a lot of time discussing the pros and cons and just felt that was better," Russell said. "St Kitts was better in Jamaica because of the Chris Gayle factor and we didn't think St Lucia would do the same numbers in Florida that it hopefully would in Jamaica."
O'Donohue believes they may not be able to turn a profit in Florida until there is stronger support from a governance perspective, including more support from the ICC to make it successful countrywide as opposed to isolating events to Florida or other hubs. He thinks a major ICC event needs to be hosted in the USA to spur growth akin to football's rise after the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
"It'll be great come November or December when we get clarity in terms of what ICC Americas see the future as for cricket in the USA," O'Donohue said. "I think it needs to be a collective thing with whoever has the rights to an American league or potentially the CPL expand with franchises into America. We've had the model work for [football] in the USA and I think that needs to be applied for cricket. Obviously, stadiums are one big issue and the lack of them and I think the ICC need to invest quite heavily in the USA with a 10-year plan to host a World Cup there in 10 or 12 years time and we all build toward that."
O'Donohue and Russell both say they are keeping a close eye on the USA Cricket elections because of the impact it may have on the CPL's ability to play in Florida or anywhere else in the USA in the coming years. The CPL as well as ventures like the 2015 Cricket All-Stars tour, and West Indies T20Is against India in 2016 and Bangladesh next month, have only been sanctioned by the ICC after the USACA was suspended and subsequently expelled as the ICC's Associate national governing body in the USA. As such, there is a bit of uncertainty as to what happens when the ICC transitions control once again to the new USA cricket board that is installed after inaugural elections conclude on July 29.