In March this year, the owners of Major League Cricket (MLC) announced plans to invest around $110 million (roughly Rs. 875 crore) in the construction and renovation of eight stadiums in the United States of America. In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was announced as the lead investor in a $44 million fundraiser by MLC, with a further $76 million pledged, mainly to upgrade cricket infrastructure across the vast country. The Knight Riders group is already one of the first participants in the six-team MLC, which is scheduled to start next year.
The International Cricket Council has been asked this month to submit a proposal for cricket’s inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, with a final decision expected next year at the International Olympic Committee session in Mumbai. Also, USA will co-host the T20 World Cup in 2024 with West Indies.
Cricket has made sporadic attempts to crack the huge US sports market for at least the better part of the past two decades, but only now, thanks to the backing of big names and big money, does the pursuit seem to have picked up some steam.
🚧 WORK HAS BEGUN IN GRAND PRAIRIE, TEXAS 🚧
We’re excited to announce that Phase 1️⃣ of the $20 million conversion began this week 🏗️ Scheduled to open in spring 2023, our flagship MLC Stadium will be the largest cricket facility in the US 🏟️ 🇺🇸
Full story ➡️ https://t.co/SePAhQ4c3e pic.twitter.com/thXCZUd0QO
— Major League Cricket (@MLCricket) July 26, 2022
With proposed new, renovated as well as repurposed stadiums, a significant increase in turf fields, a 26-team Little League that aims to increase grassroots participation, and attempts to woo the average American inside and outside the stadiums, cricket is hoping to finally make it on the ground its bat and ball cousin, baseball.
The main issue remains complex – the general market potential is unquestionable, but the game itself still doesn’t have much appeal in the US, except for the South Asian and other cricket-related diaspora, of course.
“The US is second only to India in digital consumption of cricket content. There is a huge market, perhaps initially consisting of the diaspora. The best way to describe the US market is that we are looking at the number one media market in the world combined with the second most popular sport…in the medium to long term we need to get the average American sports fan interested in T20 cricket or cricket in general,” the CEO told Livemint Knight Riders Venky Mysore.
Tom Dunmore, vice-president (marketing) at MLC, says: “The obvious No.1 target is the South Asian cricket fan, but we know that in a long-term holistic view of the game here, we need to develop a new audience. and attract new fans to the sport.
“There’s still a certain perception here that cricket is out of date, there’s no doubt about that. The biggest obstacle is that many people simply do not understand the basics of the game, the rules and how to play it.”
Information and excitement
From setting up information kiosks at the ground to reaching out to influencers on social media, cricket is trying to get the message across that it’s not some weird British pastime, but something that’s good enough to compete for eyeballs with the popular American species sport
🏗️ The first world-class MLC cricket ground in the US is currently under construction in Texas 🏟️🇺🇸
The facility will have more than 7,000 permanent seats with the possibility of expansion to 15,000 for large events 🙌
— Major League Cricket (@MLCricket) July 26, 2022
“At the Little League Finals in Morrisville, North Carolina, we were able to attract a crowd of new fans. We have told the media that this is a fun event, cricket may not be what you think, it is fast and athletic, T20 cricket is shorter than a baseball match, come and try, you love the bat It is already a ball game and the ball there is a lot at stake and it is exciting to watch,” Dunmore told The Indian Express.
“Young Americans are starting to follow more international sports, whether it’s soccer, rugby or Formula 1, and cricket fits into that diversity as the second most popular sport in the world. We’re starting to see that audience engage with the game. We also partner with YouTube influencers who know themselves in baseball; Jomboy (James O’Brien) is one of the biggest cricket fans.
“It’s also about teaching people sports. At some Little League games, we have Cricket 101 explanatory zones where fans can get information about the game and terminology.”
This battle for attention isn’t going to be won overnight, but cricket is more popular on video platforms today than it was a few decades ago, and that’s a boost. “If we can break down some of the barriers, like the terminology, and get people interested in the sport, the stars, the events, the storylines, we’ll be successful with new audiences,” says Dunmore.
Build and upgrade
The US still has only one ICC-approved international venue in Miami, where India recently played a pair of T20Is against the West Indies. MLC, under a strategic partnership agreement with USA Cricket, the game’s governing body in the country, is proposing to build new ones in the major cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Existing grounds in Morrisville and Houston will receive additional amenities and capacity, but the field envisioned as the “home of American cricket” is the AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie, Dallas.
Fittingly, this is a baseball ground being repurposed as a cricket facility after MLC acquired a long-term lease. It was the home of the Texas AirHogs, a minor league team that disbanded during the Covid pandemic.
“The flagship stadium in Grand Prairie will be ready next year. This is the first time that a baseball ground has been converted into a cricket ground. It will certainly be a fantastic option for hosting World Cup matches. We will also have upgrades in North Carolina and Houston and then of course the existing venue in Florida which has already hosted high level international cricket.
“These four are certainly good options and whether we can get any other site ready by 2024 remains to be seen. It’s definitely a tight deadline,” Dunmore says of the venues likely to host T20 World Cup games.
Earlier, Mysore also said that the MLC is likely to start at existing venues and then expand across the country as new stadiums come up gradually.
“Construction takes time, especially when you’re working with local authorities on land and development. In both San Jose, which is south of San Francisco, and Orange County in the Greater Los Angeles area, we have agreements to finalize development plans with local governments,” says Dunmore.
“We are now working diligently with them and developing our infrastructure plans and by the end of this year we hope to make some progress. The demographics around these areas are very strong for cricket.”
Apart from attracting fans and stadium equipment, another challenge is the basic requirement of cricket – the field. Natural turf surfaces are not only difficult to lay and prepare, but maintaining them throughout the season can be a nightmare, given that experienced lawn care professionals are hard to come by in the US.
Instead, MLC is going to use hybrid platforms under an agreement with an Australian company. It’s a combination of natural soil and synthetic grass that provides low maintenance, but also retains almost normal variation in how the ball behaves after being thrown.
“Test cricket won’t be played on it any time soon, but you can play professional T20 cricket and that’s very important to us. This is a huge country, so it is difficult to install lawn in dozens and dozens of places. After installation, hybrid playgrounds are much easier to maintain. This will accelerate our ability to develop the sport.”
This year, hybrids are being offered at 20 sites in the Bay Area, New Jersey, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Michigan, Seattle, Philadelphia, Dallas, Orlando, Ohio, Boston and Atlanta. After several false starts this century, cricket seems better equipped to realize the American dream.