Major League Cricket, with $120M pledged, pitches a new T20 venture in the U.S.

In the late 18th century, when Great Britain’s 13 North American colonies were desperately battling for their independence, soldiers in the rag-tag Continental Army would play various games while encamped in places such as Valley Forge, Pa.

One game was a form of cricket, a sport that would maintain relative popularity in the new United States for decades. Yet when another war raged across the new nation, this time a far bloodier civil war, a new sport had evolved that would overtake the decidedly British game of cricket – baseball.

Early baseball clubs nabbed some of the best American cricket players, and journalists started writing about baseball.

The rest is history: While cricket’s American popularity faded, it erupted across Britain’s global-spanning empire, particularly in India and the West Indies. That’s helped make it the world’s most popular sport after soccer – except in the U.S. of A., where even baseball was pushed aside for American football.

Various unsuccessful attempts have been made to re-introduce cricket to American audiences, and while it thrives at a local level in places, particularly those with large South Asian populations, it remains something of a distant, confusing sport to many.

Now, a monied group of mostly prominent South Asian investors have launched Major League Cricket with the intent of creating a professional league –  really tournaments that last six weeks or so – in hopes of capitalizing on the ex-pat communities of cricket fans across the U.S. The goal is to begin play in summer 2023.

Question is, can this effort find its footing and become a viable lower-tier property in the crowded American sports market?

Major League Cricket’s backers – the effort is formally American Cricket Enterprises – say they have the money, game format, built-in audience and business plan to make it work.

Last month, the group announced it had secured $44 million in Series A funding with another $76 million available over the next year. The money will be used to build or retrofit cricket stadiums and training academies, and for other start-up and development expenses.

American Cricket Enterprises (ACE) in 2019 landed the commercial development rights with USA Cricket, the game’s formal sanctioning body in the cricket world, to help finance, develop, and grow the nation’s men’s and women’s national teams – a vital relationship because cricket globally is most popular at the national team level rather than professional leagues. The deal means a long-term investment by ACE of $1 billion to develop cricket domestically at the professional, amateur and national team level.

That said, the development of what’s called Twenty20 (T20) cricket nearly two decades ago may be the thing that helps Major League Cricket find success. T20 is a shortened high-scoring version of the game, which traditionally was played in matches that took a day or several days to complete. It’s now immensely popular in India and other cricket-playing nations, some of which are developing even shorter versions of the game.

T20 matches are about three hours long – something American sports audiences are used to on television or in person. That’s the magic ingredient MLC’s organizers say will make it work domestically.

“All it will take is a casual fan to watch one of these games, in our stadiums or on TV, it’s so action packed,” Major League Cricket co-founder Vijay Srinivasan told The Athletic last week. “It’s a product that will stand on its own for entertainment for fans. It’s very high-scoring. It’s pretty rowdy and wild but still safe and family-oriented. It’s non-stop noise and entertainment and music, plus all the food.”

The world’s most-watched cricket league is the Indian Premier League (IPL), which is a T20 league launched in 2008 and is expected to soon land new media distribution rights reportedly worth more than $6 billion.

In T20 cricket, “guys are smashing this ball every which way.” (Photo: Pradeep Dambarage / NurPhoto via AP)

One prominent cricket observer agrees that T20 format can help make MLC work here.

“The object is to score as rapidly as possible. The scoring can be quite spectacular. Guys are smashing this ball every which way,” said Stefan Szymanski, a University of Michigan sports management professor and co-author of the recent book Crickonomics: The Anatomy of Modern Cricket. “It could attract interest. The problem is how to get people to start, to give it a go.”

(For T20 and general cricket rules/terms, visit here and here).

Initially, the league intends to market itself to the millions of cricket fans, particularly from South Asia, already living in the United States, Srinivasan said.

“We are very fortunate and in a unique position that we have a large and passionate audience for our sport in the U.S.,” he said. “We think we’ll be an immense success if we’re successful with that audience.”

Cricket fans living in North America tend to be wealthier and willing to pay to travel to watch top-tier matches, Srinivasan said.

“We have a good understanding where the audience for cricket lives,” he said.

Srinivasan in 2002 co-founded the Willow TV premium cable channel that broadcasts and streams cricket to about 4 million U.S. homes. He sold it in 2016 to India’s The Times Group media conglomerate but maintains close contact with its executives – including Satyan Gajwani and Vineet Jain, who are principals at The Times Group and investors in Major League Cricket.

Willow and ESPN are likely candidates for MLC’s broadcast and streaming rights for live matches.

At the top of the global cricket pyramid is the 10-team IPL, which gets hundreds of millions of viewers and match attendees. While MLC isn’t trying to be that league, its popularity amongst U.S.-based viewers signals that there could be an appetite here.

“These people had no domestic product in the U.S. to go watch a game,” Srinivasan said. “These things led us to believe the time is right for a home grown product.”

That helped Srinivasan and other organizers to successfully pitch the MLC idea to investors, some of whom will become team owners in the single-entity structure league (akin to Major League Soccer, which doesn’t have franchised clubs).

“That’s the expectation as we formalize league structure,” Srinivasan said. “The investors will morph into a well-defined ownership group, take on next stage of growth, more investment of teams.”

The internal financial modeling predicts the new league will break even or turn a profit within five to seven years – something Srinivasan said the investors understand. Among the business executives and tech entrepreneurs putting money into MLC, perhaps the most high-profile investor name is Satya Nadella, the Microsoft CEO and executive chairman. Adobe Inc. CEO and Chairman Shantanu Narayen is investing, too.

Also among the investors is Ross Perot Jr., son of the 1992 presidential candidate and tech billionaire Ross Perot Sr.

The $120 million will be used to build, retrofit or upgrade cricket grounds and training academies in several announced markets – Dallas, Seattle, San Jose, Orange County, Calif., and Morrisville, N.C. Another possible site is in Houston, and more stadiums or locations are being scouted in the Northeast, where there are already pockets of cricket fans and players.

The venues will seat 6,000 to 10,000 fans, or more, with temporary seating expansion possible for major events. The game-day experience will be familiar to fans of other sports: Rowdy cheering, music and entertainment, food and drink, etc.

Is the $120 million pledged to launch Major League Cricket enough?

“I think with the funding commitment we have, we’ll be set for the first few years of the league and the infrastructure work we’re envisioning,” Srinivasan said.

Additional revenue will come from corporate advertising deals, venue naming rights and media broadcast rights contracts, merchandise sales, data, fantasy sports, gambling, and game-day cash from tickets and concessions.

The organization’s 26-team semi-pro Minor League Cricket, which begins its 10-week season June 25 in 20 cities, launched in 2021 and has sponsorship deals with Toyota and Sunoco.

The MLC season structure is still under development but likely will include up to 30 matches per team. Organizers are trying to find the calendar sweet spot that allows IPL and players in other top competitions to play in the U.S.

Top pro cricketers earn about $1 million or more for a season, with many players earning a few hundred thousand dollars for various tournaments. Without revealing pay structure details, MLC backers say player compensation will be on par with the cricket competitions a step below the Indian Premier League.

Cricket professionals typically play for their national team as their top gig, and they play in several professional leagues/tournaments each year. They’re not bound to a single club, but while the money is pretty good it’s still not on par for most with what the legacy U.S. major leagues pay their players.

“No cricketer gets paid like a professional baseball player,” Szymanski said.

Which is ironic, given cricket’s early ties to baseball.

“Most of the early baseball players were cricketers,” Szymanski said. “Henry Chadwick, the father of baseball himself, began life as a cricket journalist and remained so.”

The Cincinnati Red Stockings famously hired cricketer Harry Wright to pitch, field, and manage. The future Cooperstown enshrinee led an unsuccessful baseball/cricket tour of England in the 1870s, but it was evident by then that the money was in the American game.

“Baseball offered a more profitable opportunity,” Szymanski said.

Elsewhere in the world, cricket tended to follow expansion of the British empire, and remained popular after that empire receded and nations achieved independence.

“If we’d successfully suppressed the rebellion, Americans would be playing cricket,” said the British-born Szymanski, chuckling.

But they didn’t suppress cricket. Baseball did. And that’s a test for trying to reintroduce the game beyond ex-pat followers and their family and friends.

“Launching a cricket league in the United States is something that is going to present a challenge for anybody,” Szymanski said. “They’ve identified a niche market of Indian expats who are likely to be interested and that is potentially a very good market. Most Indians in India are obsessed with cricket. It goes beyond anything you see in American sports and even soccer in terms of committed fandom. These star players rise to the level of a god. Whether it catches on here in America is a question mark.”

MLC potentially has an in-road with American audiences via a developing partnership with Jimmy “Jomboy” O’Brien, founder of a popular sports-based social media empire and a relatively recent fan of cricket. His Jomboy Media company has done some content work with MLC, and O’Brien produced cricket educational content.

O’Brien said he lived for a couple of years in Australia as a boy and played sandlot cricket with friends. After many years away from it, his interest was again piqued last fall when his son was born, and daytime TV sports during his paternity leave included cricket.

“I got super into it,” O’Brien said. “It’s a bat-to-ball skill sport. It’s s a lot of thinking and strategy. A lot of that is similar to why I like baseball.”

He’s aware of MLC’s plans and expects to eventually have formal talks with its backers on potential formal affiliation. Does he think Major League Cricket can make it?

“It’s going to be really tough and I’m glad they’re trying,” O’Brien said. “If they get top players, cricket fans will tune in.”

That’s the plan, Srinivasan said. MLC already has signed professional players to participate in the inaugural season, but names haven’t been disclosed.

Because of the T20’s popularity, competition for the world’s best players will be fierce and potentially costly. But if MLC wants legitimacy with the domestic audience, it will have to pay for talent.

There are about 4 million people from India or of Indian descent, and nearly 500,000 from Pakistan, living in the United States, per Census data. There are also pockets of cricket fans from the sport’s other powerhouse nations – England, the West Indies (the Caribbean island nations collectively play under that name), Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Afghanistan.

There are roughly 200,000 cricket players in the U.S. participating in more than 400 local leagues, tournaments, academies, college and school program, per USA Cricket.

American Cricket Enterprises has to get a sizeable chunk of these fans and players to tune in or attend MLC matches.

“A challenge is to convince the local population of the merits of the sport,” said Joel Seymour-Hyde, managing director of the British office of Octagon, the global sports and entertainment marketing, consultant, and talent agency. “Can you create a product that’s good enough locally to fill stadiums to create and atmosphere and buzz?”

Expectations and internal success metrics are key.

“You’ve got to set realistic goals and not assume you can be the fourth biggest sport in the U.S. in five or ten years’ time,” Seymour-Hyde said. “You don’t have to be huge to be a successful commercial operation.”

Szymanski echoed those sentiments.

“At some level, cricket leagues in the U.S. are viable. The question is whether it will be a small niche activity or gain a wider appreciation in American society,” he said. “If you aim to match the NFL in level of interest in the near future then you’re doomed to disappointment and failure pretty quickly. There also is peril in not being ambitious enough. You’ve seen that to some extent in MLS. It’s where old European players go to die – that has hurt MLS.”

The graveyard of failed sports leagues in America is pretty crowded, and the road to profitability (or just breaking even) can be long. Failure occurs for myriad reasons – some beyond anyone’s control, such as COVID-19 wrecking many sports endeavors in 2020.

“(The pandemic) did probably set back the league from 2022 to 2023. What that gave us is a timeframe to get some of our venues in place by then,” Srinivasan said. “We’ve managed to get out feet wet in terms of organizing events of a national scale, with player contracting and getting our venues ready.”

Another obstacle for non-fans is cricket’s rules and terminology. And cricket’s reputation is that of a sport that can take literally days to play and employs a terminology foreign to U.S. fans of the other major leagues. What’s a wicket, over, and innings?

“You have to drop some of the words – the toughest thing is the language of the sport,” O’Brien said. “Slang has become the official definition of things.”

Cricket education also is part of MLC’s business plan.

On the upside, the endeavor is happening at a time when TV networks and tech giants are spending princely sums for live sports content to populate their streaming services. Last year, for example, ESPN inked a five-year, $10 million-plus steaming rights contract with Cricket West Indies, a deal that includes 58 T20 matches.

MLC could enjoy a similar deal, and said an announcement is coming soon. ESPN and Willow TV are the obvious leading contender for such rights deals. ESPN parent Disney bought the CricInfo website in 2007 and today the @espncricinfo Twitter account has 6.6 million followers.

Television and streaming are key to making MLC work. The U.S. is often second after India when it comes to TV audience for cricket’s internationally televised tournaments, Seymour-Hyde said, and that’s driven by the ex-pat population. And the fact that cadre of fans lives in the United States is even more enticing to organizers, even if many sports – soccer, rugby, lacrosse – also are trying to carve out niches.

Srinivasan said studies show that the potential U.S. cricket audience is more than 10 million and perhaps up to 20 million viewers. That many eyeballs would certainly interest advertisers.

While MLC’s deal with USA Cricket includes help for both the men’s and women’s national teams, the pro league will begin as men’s only. The venues and academies will be available for potential women’s teams and leagues, the group said.

Also potentially giving MLC a leg up is cricket’s T20 World Cup, which the United States and West Indies will co-host in 2024. “All eyes of the world of cricket will be on the US in ’24,” Srinivasan said.

While the challenges are evident, the fact that there’s a sizeable ex-pat audience, the coming T20 World Cup, the media industry’s thirst for live sports content, and cricket potentially returning to Olympic competition – it was last played in the 1900 Summer Games in Paris – looks to be an alignment of stars for Major League Cricket.

“A good as moment as they could find to give it a go. I don’t think you can see a better opportunity,” Seymour-Hyde said.

(Top photo: Courtesy of Major League Cricket)

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