Wednesday 23 December 2020 10:41 am

Major League Cricket: Silicon Valley and Bollywood’s grand plan to make America fall in love with T20

People don’t tend to associate the game of cricket with the United States.

The world’s second most popular sport has an estimated global following of 2.5bn, yet has struggled to attract an audience in the US, where American football, baseball, and basketball dominate the live sport broadcasting schedule.

But a group of investors that includes chief executives of tech giants and a Bollywood film star are seeking to change that with the launch of Major League Cricket (MLC).

What is Major League Cricket?

The Twenty20 cricket competition, scheduled to launch in 2022, will feature six franchises. Dallas and Los Angeles have already been confirmed as team locations.

MLC’s organisers hope that the competition can repeat the success of the Indian Premier League (IPL), which has rapidly become one of the world’s most-viewed sports leagues.

The competition’s launch is also a key part of USA Cricket’s foundational plan, which aims to grow cricket’s American following and improve the quality of the national team.

A 24-team sister competition, called Minor League Cricket, begins next spring and will serve as a pipeline to MLC. 

USA Cricket is targeting full membership of the International Cricket Council by 2030.

The governing body is also set to spend at least $10m to renovate the AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas. 

The 6,000-seat facility will become a cricket-exclusive venue, hosting Dallas’s MLC franchise and functioning as a high-performance centre for young American players.

“We have been encouraged by the great progress that we have been able to make across a number of different areas despite the obvious challenges of these times,” said Paraag Marathe, the chairman of USA Cricket, earlier this year. We anticipate that our growth will accelerate now that the organisational direction has been very clearly set.”

Who are the key figures behind it?

Some influential US business leaders are cricket lovers who want to increase the sport’s American following.

Most notable among them is Satya Nadella, Microsoft chief executive and lifelong cricket fan.

Under Nadella’s leadership, Microsoft is expanding its main campus with the Richmond, Washington site building a world-class cricket pitch.

“Technology and cricket go together perfectly,” says cricketer turned journalist Simon Hughes. “Many CEOs of US tech giants are of South Asian origin and love cricket.”

Hughes co-wrote his latest book, A New Innings, with Manoj Badale, owner of the IPL’s Rajasthan Royals.

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella is a big cricket fan and also involved with MLC
Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella is a big cricket fan and also involved with MLC (Getty Images)

It argues that Indian-American tech executives like Nadella, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi will support the sport’s planned expansion to the US.

Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan, labelled by some media as the “King of Bollywood”, is also investing in MLC.

Khan is a co-owner of the IPL’s Kolkata Knight Riders, and will own the MLC’s Los Angeles Knight Riders.

“Undoubtedly, other IPL and privately-owned franchises may invest in MLC,” says Hughes.

Can Major League Cricket succeed?

Despite significant investment from businessmen such as Nadella and Khan, MLC will have to overcome several major obstacles.

“The Big Four leagues [NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL] effectively crowd out sports from the likes of media and sponsorship markets,” says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport business at Emlyon Business School. 

“Sports such as cricket, in the short- to medium-term, typically find it extremely difficult to overcome such barriers.”

However, MLC’s founders are confident that their new initiative can succeed where other attempts to establish cricket in the US, such as Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar’s 2015 Cricket All-Stars series, have failed.

Major League Soccer, which has achieved sustainable growth through engagement with Hispanic communities, offers some lessons, says Chadwick.

“US consumers are predisposed towards spending on sport, and there are several diasporas in the US that may already be engaged with cricket,” Chadwick says.

By some estimates, there may be 6m Americans of Indian and South Asian origin, many already cricket fans.

Global T20 Canada succeeded in attracting international stars such as Australia captain Steve Smith (right)
Global T20 Canada succeeded in attracting international stars such as Australia captain Steve Smith (right) (Getty Images)

MLC has already signed a broadcasting contract with Willow TV, a pay television sports channel. It airs overseas cricket events and targets much of its advertising to Americans of Indian or South Asian origin.

The success of North America’s first T20 League, the Global T20 Canada, will also encourage MLC’s founders. 

The Canadian tournament marked itself out by attracting high-profile international players including Chris Gayle, Shahid Afridi and Steve Smith.

Hughes says that the lessons from the IPL, Global T20 Canada, and other franchise T20 competitions are straightforward.

“Get the best players, and make sure they’re shared out so all teams are roughly equal in terms of ability.”

If MLC successfully follows that formula, cricket could finally gain a foothold in the world’s largest sport economy.