close
close
Categories crunchfx

Major League Cricket aims to capitalise on US World Cup success

The timing couldn’t be better for Major League Cricket organizers.

Following the T20 Men’s Cricket World Cup, where the American hosts achieved a historic victory over Pakistan in the group stage, the domestic cricket league is seeing momentum for further growth.

The MLC opens its second season on July 5, six days after the World Cup final, which India won. Organizers hope the United States’ success will help embed the sport, and ultimately the league, more deeply into America’s sports consciousness.

“Cricket has tried and failed in this country for probably 25, 30 years,” MLC director Justin Geale said. “This is as far as anyone can get, so we need to keep that momentum going.”

Cricket’s global popularity may shock some American sports fans.

It is the most popular sport in India, the world’s most populous country, and enjoys similar popularity in parts of the Caribbean and in countries such as the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia. The country’s top domestic T20 circuit, the Indian Premier League, has become one of the world’s most lucrative leagues; and the second most-watched sport in the world, it will return to the Olympics in 2028 after a 128-year hiatus.

Previous attempts to establish cricket in the American sports world have been unsuccessful.

The short-lived Pro Cricket operated an eight-team league in 2004. It aimed to capitalise on the emergence of professional T20 cricket in the United Kingdom, but folded after one season. (T20 or Twenty20 is a faster, shortened version of the sport.) Another T20 competition, the American Premier League, failed to launch in 2009 but eventually began in 2021.

Major League Cricket kicks off in July 2023. The league features six teams from New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Grand Prairie, Tex. (near Dallas) and competes in a T20 format. Backed by a $120 million investment, these teams feature some of the world’s best players who can play in their offseasons. Games have only been played in Texas and North Carolina, but organizers say most of the funding will be used to build or upgrade eight venues across the country.

Their goal is to grow the sport in America, ideally beyond the South Asian diaspora. They say they don’t want to compete with the NFL or NBA for sporting supremacy. The MLC aims to capitalize on the growing interest in cricket so that the league eventually becomes a more common presence in the lives of American sports fans and benefit from the more lucrative broadcast deals that expanding popularity invites.

The promising first season exceeded the league’s expectations, with games selling out at an average of more than 80% capacity at the venue outside Raleigh in Morrisville, N.C. (capacity: 3,500) and the stadium in Grand Prairie (capacity: 7,200). Saurabh Netravalkar, a shining star at the World Cup, and other players said they were pleasantly surprised by the professionalism and quality of the competition.

“We learned a lot,” Geale said. “The most gratifying thing is that it really worked. You try to plan and theorize for three years, but people actually show up, so our crowd was really positive and we couldn’t help ourselves. We’re playing in Texas in the middle of the summer.”

The league’s priority now is to build venues in other cities to connect with fans in those areas — a critical but ongoing challenge that could see teams try to secure more permanent venues instead of relying on temporary facilities like the one used in New York for the World Cup.

The Seattle Orcas are developing a stadium east of the city in Redmond, Washington, and the San Francisco Unicorns are planning a Santa Clara venue that the team hopes will be part of a larger sports and entertainment hub. The Washington Freedom had been in talks with George Mason University to build a temporary baseball and cricket stadium on the Northern Virginia school’s west campus, but plans fell through in March after students and local residents opposed the project, with the university’s president later saying it “does not meet the strategic goals and interests of our campus and community and the Washington Freedom.” Franchises in New York and Los Angeles are also looking for stadiums.

That’s why teams are playing in North Carolina and Texas, but the league is requiring each team to play at home until Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics.

“Our biggest challenge is infrastructure. If we had more places to play, we would go play, and that hinders our growth,” Geale said. “We’re looking to build stadiums as quickly as we can in all of those areas. Once we do that, I think we can grow faster, have longer seasons; really speak to the local fans and build a brand around the Washington Freedom, rather than trying to do it from a distance.”

For players, this could mean having little to no ties to their “home” city for the time being.

Last season, Freedom players attended a preseason camp in the Dallas area a few weeks before the season started in July. The first half of their schedule was in Texas, the second half in North Carolina, and then they returned to Dallas for the playoffs. Netravalkar plays for the Freedom while working as a software engineer in the Bay Area at Oracle. He said he only traveled east last year for MLC events in Texas and North Carolina.

As we enter the second year, some things will change.

MLC matches were broadcast in more than 80 countries last year and shown via Sling TV and Willow TV, which broadcasts overseas cricket events. Select matches were broadcast on CBS Sports Network. The MLC is negotiating partnerships with regional sports networks in its six cities to expand its coverage in 2024. There will be six more matches on the schedule than there were 19. Teams like the Freedom are considering how to engage with their local fans remotely — through clinics, meet-and-greets or contests where winners fly in to watch the matches in person.

Despite the stadium woes, the MLC is ready to expand. Geale said it could add two teams by 2026 and is targeting franchises in Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, New Jersey and South Florida.

The MLC has a developmental minor league where it helps develop young local talent. Over time, the idea is for professional teams and their players to become more involved in their communities through coaching, mentoring and other forms of communication.

Then there is the development of the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.

Last month’s surprise victory over 2022 T20 World Cup runners-up Pakistan saw the team reach the second round of the so-called Super Eight, where their dream run came to an end. Still, progressing means they automatically qualify for the 2026 edition of the tournament, hosted by India and Sri Lanka. Geale believes the success has brought more interest to the sport and opened the door for the league to negotiate better broadcast deals.

Netravalkar, who plays for Team USA, said the MLC has already contributed to the effort.

“I think the first season of Major League helped us a lot because it gave us the platform to play on quality pitches in the US and rub shoulders with the best cricketers from around the world in front of good crowds,” he said.

“It’s really heartening to see cricket coming,” he added. “We have planted a seed for growth and the Major League coming right after the World Cup helps a lot in sustaining that trend and making it bigger.”

Former mayor walks hundreds of miles to rebuild Keswick rugby club building

Former mayor walks hundreds of miles to rebuild Keswick rugby club building

60 Players Chasing Gold in Paris

60 Players Chasing Gold in Paris