Thursday , July 7 2022

Millions of dollars are flowing into US cricket. But is there a market for the sport? | Cricket

Whenever the subject of cricket in the United States comes up, the same old questions are asked.

From the unlikely scenario of American kids swapping their NFL football for a cricket bat, to quizzical looks about the financial viability of the game in North America, skeptical eyebrows are usually raised.

Granted, there have been enough false dawns over the years to deflate even the most fervent of Stateside cricket followers – yes, they do exist – yet with the advent of Major League Cricket (MLC) in 2023, this time could well be different.

So different, in fact, that MLC is set to receive further investment of $120m put together by a wide range of investors. To add to that, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), one of the most successful and valuable Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises, are also plowing their money and reputation into the Twenty20 competition by taking control of a team in Los Angeles.

The question many would ask is: Why?

Well, KKR CEO Venky Mysore is adamant now is the time to invest in North American cricket. The businessman, who spent a large portion of his professional career in the United States, has seen a similar investment in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) pay dividends.

Millions across the world – particularly in India – have tuned in to see star performers like Andre Russell roll out for the CPL’s Trinidad Knight Riders. That’s a sure sign, according to Mysore, that a foray into the already heavily saturated US sporting market would be worth it, from an Indian perspective alone.

A sudden sporting transformation won’t happen overnight (“10 to 15 years”, according to Mysore) but cricket in the US now has a plan and the IPL powerhouse of KKR want in.

“My philosophy of how to build a franchise is based on two pillars,” Mysore says. “One is your brand, and the other one is your fanbase. And so if you have a two-month slot for a competition, how do you keep your brand alive all year round?

“My vision when I took over KKR, was that we could acquire assets around the world, which are very similar, and we build expertise in building a franchise, and making it successful and building a model there. But the next challenge was how can we take that model and replicate it around the world under the mother brand of Knight Riders? That’s what we have done in the CPL and we will do in the United States.

“On my wish list is to have a common group of sponsors who will participate with us wherever we play as Knight Riders, so that’s where MLC fits into the whole scheme of things.”

The Knight Riders are far from the first team to employ this policy. It has served Manchester City, the Premier League team who have affiliate teams all over the globe, very well indeed.

Few IPL franchises have been able to follow KKR’s lead and it remains unclear if others will take a chance with MLC, who have a number of American based sports investors to help with transition.

“There is a commonality in terms of how we built our model, our colors and our logo and the brand of cricket we play,” says Mysore. “Fans in India are able to relate to our other teams.”

On paper, the signs for MLC are encouraging. Cricket specific stadiums are planned. The most recent announcement is for one in Orange County, California, and other potential west coast venues include Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The $120m investment in MLC, which is set to start with six franchises, will primarily be dedicated to building premier cricket-specific stadia and training centers to help develop a new generation of US-born players.

The project may be coming at just the right time too, after years of missteps and false dawns: the United States was named as a co-host with the Caribbean for the 2024 T20 World Cup. Meanwhile, cricket could make its return to the Olympics in 2028 – in Los Angeles. Success, of course, isn’t guaranteed and neither is a return on some vast investment across the board unless. But Mysore is confident MLC will be sustainable.

“It’s the NFL model, where you own part of the league,” he says. “So there’s a lot of other revenue that will flow through. I make more money from the CPL in Trinidad from licensing and merchandise than most IPL teams make in India.”

Huge swathes of expat Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, English, Australians and South Africans in the US need no introduction to the grand old game. But, the multimillion dollar question is whether kids from the middle of America even know all this is happening while the NFL and NBA juggernauts keep on rolling.

“I think the short answer is no,” says Michael Naraine, who teaches sports management at Brock University in Ontario. “I mean, the easy answer is cricket is going to stay in the urban centers for a while. And when you talk to MLC, and you talk to other stakeholders in the US, this idea that we were going to proliferate these properties in major urban centers where there’s lots of expats – Philadelphia, New York, Miami, San Francisco – makes sense in the grand scheme of things.

“I think there’s opportunity, but we can’t be too facetious or naive about the situation that magically some kid in Missouri is going to pick this up. It’s a long-term play possibly culminating [with a US presence] in the Olympics in 2032. If kids are seeing Team USA spring a shock on NBC, they could start thinking about being a cricketer. “

Naraine points to how ice hockey has gained footholds in places where the sport was not traditionally popular. Five-time NHL All-Star Auston Matthews is a good example: he grew up in Phoenix but was hooked on his local team, the Coyotes, growing up and is now one of the league’s best young players.

“Phoenix only started their franchise in 1996 so 20 years on and they have their own MVP’s being produced,” says Naraine. “That’s how long it’s going to take for this thing to happen.”

A Twenty20 win for the United States team at the end of last year over Ireland was seen as a watershed moment for the game here – a triumph over a full member of the ICC. It was the kind of moment which persuaded English World Cup winning bowler Liam Plunkett to head across the Atlantic and take up a player/coach role in Philadelphia. The 37-year-old, whose wife is from the area, is slated to play for the Philadelphia franchise. Crucially, cricket in the US will also use the vastly experienced player to help work with potential stars of tomorrow.

“I feel like it’s a startup company and I want to help build cricket over here,” says Plunkett, one of 30 pro-players signed up by MLC. “I was in Houston a few weeks back with the major league guys, and there’s a lot of talent. With everything on the horizon, this definitely feels like a professional set-up now.”

Mysore agrees that the potential is there. “The US is the number one media market in the world. And you’re taking the number two most watched sport in the world,” he says. “There’s enough people in the diaspora who are hungry to consume cricket content, that’s for sure. I’ve always maintained, though, that for us to be able to scale the product in the US, you have to get the average American sports fan interested in T20 cricket. There’s no doubt it will be difficult to do – but there are ways to go about it.”

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