Sunday December 3, 2023

Cricket Looks to Make U.S. Breakthrough With Prominent Backers

  • USA Cricket has partnered with the American Cricket Enterprises and invested a billion dollars in Major League Cricket last year.
  • Cricket is the world’s second largest sport after soccer with almost 2.5 billion fans.
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Soccer rose to new heights in the United States on the heels of a professional league landing on its shores.

Now cricket is looking to do the same.

Major League Cricket, the first-ever professional cricket league in the U.S., is slated to begin in 2022 with the backing of a significant number of investors who see plenty of opportunity for the sport to grow amid changing demographics.

“One unique thing about cricket is that it is similar to soccer and the Olympics,” said Paraag Marathe, chairman of USA Cricket and president of 49ers Enterprise, the investment arm of the San Francisco NFL team. “It is a unique demographic.”

That includes fans like Ravi Suri, president of the Millennium Cricket League in New Jersey, a non-profit cricket league.

Suri came to America in 1999 from Hyderabad, India, and has been playing cricket in the U.S. for the past 21 years. During that time, he has seen cricket evolve from a passion sport to a flurry of cricketing leagues come up across the country. 

“It was only a matter of time that cricket became big in the U.S.,” Suri said.

MLC is going to be played in the T20 format, a smaller format of the game that has 20 overs and usually lasts for 3 hours. Its other formats last longer and have more overs — 5 day test matches and the 50 over one day format.

“People are used to the three hour consumption, like watching NFL games,” said Marathe.

With the creation of MLC and Minor League Cricket, USA Cricket wants to create a previously missing structure within the sport. It hopes that the two leagues will complement the national team and create a foundational feeder system of players from unstructured local leagues. 

“T20 cricket will be the growth vehicle.” said a spokesperson for USA Cricket, cricket’s governing body in the U.S. and ICC’s 105th member. “The combinatination of good governance within USA Cricket and that combined with our commercial partners can be beneficial to the sport.” 

Stadiums and facilities are also a big part of the foundational eco-system. The lack of cricket stadiums and pitches have been a big hindrance for the sport to grow. 

But with the redevelopment of minor league baseball facility AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas, to a cricket stadium, MLC is looking to expand its facilities across the country. 

The structured approach by USA Cricket and MLC might also benefit the expansive diaspora of players in the country. Cricket in the U.S. is played by people that come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the caribbean nations like the West Indies amongst others.

Cricket is the world’s second largest sport after soccer with almost 2.5 billion fans. While soccer had always had a relative popularity in the U.S., that was furthered by the hosting of the 1994 FIFA World Cup and the launch of MLS in 1996. 

The long-term goal of USA Cricket is to make America compete with top-tier teams like Australia and India, eventually in the Cricket World Cup. 

And with cricket expected to be a part of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, investors are seeing the trajectory that could come with it.

“If cricket gets into the Olympics then you are fast tracking the growth of the sport in the country,” said Suri.

USA Cricket has partnered with the American Cricket Enterprises and invested a billion dollars in MLC last year. ACE is backed by Sameer Mehta and Vijay Srinivasan, the founders of Willow TV, the largest cricket broadcaster in North America. 

Shahrukh Khan, India’s biggest movie star and who also owns cricket organization Knight Riders Group, has also invested in ACE. The group owns the Kolkata Knight Riders that play in the Indian Premier League and the Trinbago Knight Riders of the Caribbean Premier League. Both the leagues play in the T20 format.

With the addition of Khan and Knight Riders, USA Cricket wants to learn from its expertise and avoid any pitfalls that come with setting up a new league, according to Marathe.

“ACE is acting as venture capitalists and raising money,” said a USA Cricket spokesperson. “This should make the league stronger depending on the collaboration and alignment between the stakeholders.”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen and Paytm CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma have also invested in ACE. Soma Somasegar, a co-owner of Seattle Sounders FC, has also invested in the league. 

“For many years, people have been talking about the potential for cricket in America. With Major League Cricket, we have the first clear opportunity to turn that potential into a reality,” said Somasegar. “I am certain that over the coming decade we will see Major League Cricket begin a trajectory of growth and bring the brilliance of world-class cricket to the wider American public.”

Other prominent investors in MLC include ex-Facebook CTO Aditya Agarwal, Head of Google’s Search team Amit Singhal, and Neeraj Arora, former chief business officer at Whatsapp.

MLC’s streaming rights will be owned by Willow TV — which is watched by 4 million subscribers with almost 20 million fans across the country. 

The potential of the U.S. market has drawn in both domestic and international investors looking to make Major League Cricket a reality, and the underlying cricketing structure might benefit from the increased structural focus. But it might take some time before USA cricket competes on the international level. 

“With money, structure will come and will improve the grassroots,” said Suri. “The U.S. will see a different level of the game but there is still a long journey to travel.”

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