In March this year, the owners of Major League Cricket (MLC) announced plans to invest around $110 million (approx. Rs 875 crore) to build and renovate eight stadiums in the United States of America. In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was announced as a lead investor in a $44 million fundraise by MLC, with another $76 million pledged, primarily for cricket infrastructure upgrades across the vast country. The Knight Riders group is already among the early stakeholders in the six-team MLC, which is planned to begin next year.
The International Cricket Council has been invited to submit a proposal this month for cricket to be considered for inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, the final decision on which is expected next year at the International Olympic Committee’s session in Mumbai. Also, the 2024 T20 World Cup will be co-hosted by the USA, along with the West Indies.
Cricket has been making sporadic attempts to crack the massive US sports market for at least the greater part of the past two decades, but it is only now, with the backing of big names and big money, that the chase appears to have picked up some pace.
🚧 WORK HAS BEGUN IN GRAND PRAIRIE, TEXAS 🚧
We are excited to announce phase 1️⃣ of the $20M conversion began this week 🏗️ Set to open spring of 2023, our flagship MLC stadium will be the most extensive cricket facility in the USA 🏟️ 🇺🇸
— Major League Cricket (@MLCricket) July 26, 2022
With the proposed new, renovated as well as repurposed stadiums, a significant increase in turf pitches, a 26-team Minor League aimed to increase grassroots participation, and attempts to woo the average American inside and outside the stadiums, cricket hopes to finally make it in the land of its bat-and-ball cousin – baseball.
The main challenge remains daunting – the potential of the overall market is unquestionable, but the game itself still isn’t much of a draw in the USA, beyond the South Asian and other cricket-connected diaspora, of course.
“The US ranks number two in digital consumption of cricket content, after India. There’s a huge market, maybe made up primarily of the diaspora to start with. The best way to describe the US market is that we’re looking at the number one media market in the world combined with the second-most watched sport… in the medium to long term, we must get the average American sports fan interested in T20 cricket or cricket in general,” Knight Riders CEO Venky Mysore had told Livemint.
Tom Dunmore, vice-president (marketing) at MLC, says, “The South Asian expat cricket fan is the obvious No. 1 target but we know that in the long-term holistic view of the game here, we need to develop new audiences and engage new fans into the sport.
“There is still some perception here that cricket is outdated, there is no doubt about that. The biggest barrier is that many people just do not understand the fundamentals of the game, the rules, how it is played.”
Information and buzz
From setting up explainer kiosks at grounds to tapping social-media influencers, cricket is trying to get the message across that it is not some stuck-up, quaint British pastime, but something that is good enough to compete for eyeballs with popular American sports.
🏗️ Work is currently underway in Texas on the first world-class MLC cricket venue in the USA 🏟️🇺🇸
The facility will feature over 7K permanent seats with the ability to expand to a capacity of 15K for major events 🙌
— Major League Cricket (@MLCricket) July 26, 2022
“At the Minor League finals in Morrisville, North Carolina, we were able to draw a crowd of new fans. We got it out to the media that this is a fun event, cricket is maybe not what you think it is, it is fast-paced and athletic, T20 cricket is shorter than a baseball match, come and experience it, you love a bat-and-ball game already, and the ball is in play a lot here and it is exciting to watch,” Dunmore told The Indian Express.
“Young Americans are starting to follow international sport more, whether it is soccer, rugby or F1, and cricket fits into this diversity as the second-most popular sport in the world. We are starting to see those audiences engage with the game. We are also engaging with YouTube influencers who are big in baseball; Jomboy (James O’Brien) is one of the bigger ones who is embracing cricket.
“It is also about educating people about the sport. We have our Cricket 101 explainer zones at some Minor League matches where fans can get information about how the game is played and the terminology.”
This battle for attention will not be won overnight, but cricket does enjoy more visibility on video platforms today than it did a couple of decades ago, and that is a boost. “If we can get past some of the barriers such as terminology and get people excited about the sport, the stars, the action, the storylines, we will see some success with new audiences,” says Dunmore.
Build and upgrade
There is still only one ICC-approved international venue in the USA, in Miami, where India recently played a couple of T20Is against West Indies. MLC, under a strategic partnership agreement with USA Cricket, the game’s governing body in the country, proposes to build new ones in the greater Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle metropolitan areas. The existing grounds in Morrisville and Houston will get added facilities and capacity, but the ground that’s been envisaged as the ‘home of USA cricket’ is the AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie, Dallas.
Fittingly, it is a baseball ground that is being repurposed into a cricket facility after MLC acquired a long-term lease. It was home to the Texas AirHogs, a minor league team that folded during the Covid pandemic.
“The flagship stadium in Grand Prairie will be ready by next year. It is the first time a baseball venue is being converted into a cricket venue. That will certainly be a fantastic option to host World Cup matches. We will also have the upgrading in North Carolina and Houston and then, of course, the existing venue in Florida which has already hosted high-level international cricket.
“Those four are certainly good options and whether we can get any other venue ready in time for 2024 remains to be seen. It is certainly a tight timeline,” says Dunmore on the venues that are likely to host T20 World Cup games.
Mysore has also stated previously that the MLC will likely begin at the existing venues, and then expand across the country as new stadiums gradually come up.
“Construction takes time, especially when you are working with local governments on the land and development. In both San Jose, which is just south of San Francisco, and Orange County in the Greater Los Angeles area, we have agreements in place to finalise development plans with the local government entities,” says Dunmore.
“Right now, we are doing our diligence with them and developing our infrastructure plans and by the end of this year, we hope to have some progress. The demographics around those areas are very strong for cricket.”
Pitching it right
Apart from fan engagement and stadium facilities, a basic requirement for cricket – the pitch – is another challenge. Natural turf surfaces are not just difficult to lay and prepare, maintaining them across seasons can be a nightmare, given that experienced curators are hard to come across in the USA.
MLC is going for hybrid pitches instead, under an arrangement with an Australian company. These are a combination of natural soil and synthetic grass, allowing for low upkeep but also maintaining near-usual variation in how the ball behaves after pitching.
“Test match cricket won’t be played on it anytime soon but you can play professional T20 cricket, and that is really important for us. It is a vast country so it is hard to instal turf pitches in dozens and dozens of places. Hybrid pitches are much easier to look after once they are installed. It will accelerate our ability to develop the sport.”
Hybrids are proposed to be installed at 20 venues this year across the Bay Area, New Jersey, Chicago, New York City, St Louis, Michigan, Seattle, Philadelphia, Dallas, Orlando, Ohio, Boston and Atlanta. After several false starts this century, cricket seems better prepared to chase the American dream.