Thursday, June 13, 2024

New York’s beautiful monster: how a cricket venue was created from scratch

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It was in August of 2023 that Dan Lockerbie started to get anxious. The ICC had tasked him, a former chief executive of the United States Cricket Association, now venue development officer for the 2024 men’s T20 World Cup, to find a suitable venue in New York that could host matches in the marquee event.

Lockerbie, a native New Yorker, had already fished around the obvious venues, including Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, which has 12 existing cricket pitches. New York City mayor Eric Adams was keen on Van Cortlandt Park as a favourable venue, but the locals strongly opposed the project.

In November 2022 the ICC’s head of events, Chris Tetley, rang Lockerbie to shortlist potential venues in the US. Both men had previously worked together on the 2007 ODI World Cup, which was held in the West Indies. Lockerbie was the chief commercial officer and venue development officer for that tournament. He has also been involved with the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the USA, six Olympics, and is managing director at the Parker Company, a hospitality procurement firm.

“The question was, well, how many venues in the United States?” he said about that initial chat with the ICC. Florida and Grand Prairie in Dallas, the two other venues that will host four World Cup matches each, were “relatively small”. “So [we spoke about having] maybe one major, larger venue that could really create a wow factor, you know, similar to what Major League Soccer would have done after the 1994 FIFA World Cup.”

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Eisenhower Park Stadium comes up


Given the International Olympics Committee has added cricket to the list of sports for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, Lockerbie said that city was the first big centre considered. In December 2022 he visited Woodley Park in Van Nuys, California, one of the oldest cricket venues in the country. The plan was to create a modular cricket stadium which could accommodate roughly up to 25,000 seats and which could also serve as a potential venue come the LA Olympics.

That wasn’t to be, though. Los Angeles is on the west coast, which is 12 and a half hours behind India, the sport’s biggest market. But the bigger stumbling blocks, Lockerbie said, proved to be clearances. The park authorities required an environmental impact study that would take more than two years to complete. After reviewing Woodley Park for nearly four months, Lockerbie moved on.

When New York’s Van Cortlandt Park didn’t work out either, he was about to give up. Then, around August 20 last year, he got a call from John Zielinski, from the LandTek Group, which has been involved in building sporting fields for the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, and Chase Stadium, which hosts Inter Miami FC.

“John’s from Long Island,” Lockerbie said. “He told me: ‘There’s a piece of ground in a park that I think you guys should look at. It’s got the right size. And more importantly, it has the right political interest. I think this is a go.'” That piece of ground was located in verdant Eisenhower Park in Nassau County, Long Island, east of Queens in New York City.

The ICC made a formal approach to the county in August last year. The county executive, Bruce Bakeman, opened the doors to Lockerbie and the ICC in a call on Labor Day weekend, September 4.

The site demarcated for the stadium in Eisenhower Park, in the dead of winter in February this year


The site demarcated for the stadium in Eisenhower Park, in the dead of winter in February this year

© ICC


“Boy did it work fast,” Lockerbie said with a big smile. “They were immediately interested. They understood the ramifications of a World Cup. They liked the idea of being outside of Manhattan and taking it on themselves.

“This is one of those impossible projects. They made it less impossible because they were able to work through all the machinations to give us the legal right to build a stadium in their park.”

On November 17 last year, the ICC formally signed a contract with Nassau County to host eight matches of the World Cup.

A modular stadium
Eisenhower Park is 900-plus acres of land, a little bigger than Central Park in New York. It houses three golf courses, numerous football pitches, baseball, basketball and tennis courts, an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, ice hockey rinks, an amphitheater, lakes, and a five-star restaurant, which Lockerbie says the ICC will host sponsors and VIP guests at.

The cricket pitch, which was essentially a strip meant for recreational games, was originally part of a 19-acre section within the main park that “was not very fancy”, Lockerbie said. “It did not have drainage. It did not have good irrigation. It was not a professionally built field. And it was also used for parking by people coming to the amphitheatre for shows. It was an afterthought kind of field in a county that has probably a hundred parks.”

Timeline: the making of NCIS


  • November 2021: The ICC approves USA as co-hosts of the 2024 men’s T20 World Cup

  • November-December 2022: The ICC initiates process of finding a suitable third US venue; Don Lockerbie visits Woodley Park, Los Angeles, which is subsequently ruled out.

  • June 2023: Van Cortlandt Park, in New York, is struck off the shortlist too. The ICC consults Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions for drop-in pitches for the as-yet-unspecified New York venue.

  • August-September 2023: Eisenhower Park in Nassau county on Long Island is reviewed and the ICC makes a proposal to the county.

  • November 17, 2022: The ICC signs a contract with Nassau county to host eight World Cup matches at the Eisenhower Park ground.

  • December 2023: Drop-in pitches are shipped from Adelaide to Georgia, and then to Florida, where they are curated for four months.

  • January 8, 2024: Site work commences on the Eisenhower Park stadium.

  • February 18, 2024: Construction work begins.

  • May 2024: Drop-in pitches arrive at Eisenhower Park. Four are fitted in the main square and six in the practice area.

Eventually the area the ICC chose for the Nassau County International Stadium will expand to 42 acres to accommodate various operational departments, including broadcast, parking and security.

Work on the site started on January 8 this year, and actual construction on February 18, with a little over a hundred days to go before the first World Cup warm-up match at the ground on June 1. Populous, a globally renowned architecture and design firm, was hired to plan the stadium. Arena Americas and Alchemy International, companies that provide infrastructure for international sporting events like the Olympics, FIFA World Cups, Formula One and PGA Golf, were also brought on board.

While temporary stands have been put in place elsewhere before, like the grandstand at Old Trafford, Eisenhower Park will be the first international cricket ground to be completely modular. The stands at the new stadium will be in six sections of two tiers each, and six single-tiered sections.

A modular stadium is made mostly of steel and aluminium, as opposed to the concrete structures at normal cricket venues, erected in a short period of time, and is customisable. The ICC decided to adopt the pop-up concept for the venue. This has been regularly used in Formula One, golf, and even the Olympics. Tetley said that part of the infrastructure deployed in the construction of stands at Eisenhower Park will come from the Las Vegas Grand Prix and will be moved back after the World Cup.

The pitches: from Adelaide via Florida
The tight deadline meant that the ICC had look for a turnkey solution for the pitches at the new stadium. Luckily there didn’t need to be too much research into options because cricket has been played successfully for over a decade on drop-in pitches in Australia and New Zealand.

The soon-to-be field of dreams in March


The soon-to-be field of dreams in March

© ICC


In June 2023, even as Lockerbie was trying to zero in on the big venue he wanted in the USA, the ICC sounded out Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions in Australia, which specialises in making drop-in pitches. Damian Hough, the head curator at Adelaide Oval, and the head of the Grounds team at the company, says his firm readily accepted the ICC’s proposal.

Hough said he needed a local hand to assist in the project, providing knowledge on the soil type and grass variety that would be best suited for the pitches. Lockerbie put Hough in contact with Zielinski of LandTek, which had experience in preparing fields for various sports in the US. Hough also involved Dave Agnew, a fellow Australian, who is a curator at the Dallas venue.

By the end of September Hough’s team got the ICC’s approval to build six trays in Adelaide, which then were transported to the port of Savannah in Georgia, from where they were moved by road further south to LandTek’s plant in Florida in December. All ten pitches – four that are now in the middle of Eisenhower Park stadium and six practice pitches on a turf field near to the main ground – were grown in that facility, south of Palm Beach.

“What we really like with the trays is, it’s truly a modular system which streamlines everything from the costing to logistics,” Hough said in May from New York. A tray is essentially a steel frame encasing an actual pitch, enabling pitches to be prepared in weather-friendly conditions and transported to the venue where the pitch will be laid. “The trays can be put into a container built at home [Adelaide] and shipped anywhere in the world. In this case they ended up in Savannah, then in Boynton Beach.

Pitch-laying, in April


Pitch-laying, in April

© DP World


“Then there was the process of bolting the trays together, putting the matting in the bottom, and then the slow process of building the pitches, which comprises installation of the clay in layers and consolidating the layers. It was a really tight and short time frame between building them and using them. It was a five-month process.”

Hough said that cricket strips usually need high clay content to facilitate good pace and bounce. On Agnew’s recommendation, he used the local BlackStick soil variety for the New York pitches. BlackStick has high clay content, over 60%, and Hough said it is similar to that at Adelaide Oval, which made him feel at home with it. For the grass, after discussions with LandTek and others, Bermuda grass was unanimously picked.

“We knew the pitches weren’t arriving [in the US] till early December,” Hough said. “And we knew that early December in New York is freezing cold. So we couldn’t grow the pitches in New York. [We were] relying on LandTek’s experience and understanding of the environment. It started with ‘Where’s your warmest climate?’ That’s down in Florida. I sort of relate Florida to a Queensland sort of environment in our winter.”

Hough says once the turf was in, he flew to Florida in March to do some “intense” rolling along with testing things like the root depth of the grass and the structure of the pitches and how compact each layer was.

Pitch doctor Damian Hough was brought in from Adelaide to oversee the creation and laying of the wickets at the new stadium


Pitch doctor Damian Hough was brought in from Adelaide to oversee the creation and laying of the wickets at the new stadium

Mark Brake / © Getty Images


In April the trays with the pitches in them were transported from Florida to New York by road. DP World, a global supply-chain and logistics company, which is also one of the ICC’s sponsors, deployed 22 trucks over the two-day journey covering about 1200 miles.

Both Hough and Lockerbie heaved a sigh of relief when the pitches were put in place at Eisenhower Park. “This was the biggest fear I had for the entire project,” Lockerbie said. “Because if that project failed – moving the wickets to New York and putting them in – then I might as well not finish the stadium, because you can’t play on bad wickets.”

Hough says the New York job is up there on the podium for him in terms of the most challenging projects he has undertaken, alongside getting Adelaide Oval ready for the cricket’s first day-night Test in 2015, five days after the venue had hosted an AC/DC concert, and hosting the 2013 Ashes Test immediately after the venue had tried drop-in pitches for the first time its 140-plus year old existence.

In media interactions in recent months, Hough stayed away from predicting the nature of the pitches and scores at the newly minted venue. “Our ambition is to produce good-quality pitches – you know, minimal spin, minimal seam, ball coming onto the bat, and let the players play the shots,” he said on a call organised by the ICC at the end of April.

Don Lockerbie, the ICC's man on the ground in New York


Don Lockerbie, the ICC’s man on the ground in New York

© ICC


No white elephants here
Eisenhower Park is not a “token-sized” playing field, Tetley said on a media call earlier in May. The playing area is as big as the Gabba or The Oval or the Wankhede, he noted. From the middle of the square the boundary is roughly 68 metres to east and west and 61 metres to north and south.

Unlike other, immobile, stadia that sometimes become ghostly shells after global sporting events like World Cups and Olympics, the ICC is optimistic the Eisenhower Park ground will be used by USA Cricket, including for MLC, as well as by Nassau county. Might this project prove to be a beacon in some ways for cricket in the USA?

Lockerbie is bullish. “The beautiful piece of this is that as MLC grows, I’ve urged their ownership group that they should be building [scalable] stadiums. They can be 7000-12,000 seats, with an eye to expand for big events. If the World Cup ever comes back to the United States and all the venues are in the United States, like FIFA would do, then there’s no problem, if we design it correctly now, to go from a permanent 10,000 seat to a 20,000-25,000 seat stadium as needed.

“What we’re showing everybody is that, if F1 can do it and golf does it, and you have triple-decker suites and hospitality sections, or you have 40-row grandstand sections that can be built in a hundred days, honestly, cricket could expand its horizons and build these type of venues in iconic locations everywhere around the world.”

Aluminium, here we come: the inside of the stadium in May


Aluminium, here we come: the inside of the stadium in May

Yuki Iwamura / © AFP/Getty Images


Lockerbie said Under-19 World Cups in future could, instead of being hosted in big cricket stadiums with sparse crowds, be held at modular stadiums that are not so expensive to build, in locations where they could attract larger numbers. “That’s what golf does every week,” he said. “You know, they’re there, they build for a bunch of weeks and then they’re gone. In Miami, you have tennis a few weeks before and then the Formula One comes down and then it’s [American] football season. Las Vegas is the same. We just have to learn how the other sports have done the impossible.”

On June 9, the eyes of the cricketing world will be on New York. In addition to the 34,000 fans at the venue, several hundred million will be watching India vs Pakistan, one of the most watched events globally, ranked alongside the 100-metres athletics final in the Olympics and the Superbowl in the USA.

Creating the New York venue is among the most ambitious projects the ICC has undertaken. Tetley said on media calls that organising the World Cup successfully in the USA would help the ICC at the LA Olympics, where cricket will return for the first time since the 1904 Games.

Lockerbie said there will be a lot of scrutiny but that people ought to understand what the ICC, his team, and Hough have managed to create in a race against time.

Chris Tetley (right), the ICC's head of events, says the Eisenhower Park stadium will likely be a permanent one for cricket in future


Chris Tetley (right), the ICC’s head of events, says the Eisenhower Park stadium will likely be a permanent one for cricket in future

Matthew Lewis / © ICC/Getty Images


“I was talking to the PGA [golf] tour person who recently came to see Eisenhower Park. This gentleman is in charge of building all the grandstands and the tents and the hospitality and the press boxes. And he gets two to four years to plan for each of the PGA tour events. They know already what they are doing for the Ryder Cup in 2028. We have had five, six months.”

“My team’s been responsible for the bones of this project. Now comes the soul: that’s the fans, that’s the players, that’s the drums, the DJs, the pyro. That’s folks being wowed by what they see and feeling passionate about the sport.”

Looking back to September 2023, Lockerbie could not believe he was sitting in front of a fully ready cricket venue in Eisenhower Park. “We almost lost New York,” he said. “We almost didn’t have this venue. And everybody thought that all we were going to do was put a rope around an existing strip and some small bleachers.

“You can see behind me that this picture is from two days ago. It’s pretty significant. It’s a beautiful monster, I call it.”

Tickets to the T20 World Cup 2024 can be purchased at tickets.t20worldcup.com

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo






 




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