A sell-out crowd at the Grand Prairie Stadium in Texas last week witnessed the opening match of cricket’s latest T20 league, the Major League Cricket (MLC) that is taking place in the United States.
So far, the 200-mark has been crossed twice, a side has been bowled out for 50 and the temperature has crossed the 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) barrier amid a heatwave that hit the US state.
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The MLC, founded in 2019 but launched in 2023, kicked off 16 years after the inaugural T20 World Cup and 15 years after the Indian Premier League (IPL), which is now the world’s biggest domestic T20 cricket league.
As the MLC moves from Texas to North Carolina, MLC’s co-founder Sameer Mehta spoke to Al Jazeera on how the league plans to stand out among the crowd, break into the sport-heavy US market and if cricket can win American hearts.
Al Jazeera: MLC is not the first T20 league and definitely won’t be the last. How do you plan on making it stand out in the crowd?
Sameer Mehta: From my time running Willow TV [an online subscription-based viewing service], we realised that the US is a very, very viable market for cricket. There’s a strong audience here, especially the eight million expats. Now we have immense hunger from probably the best investors in the world, we’re building our own stadiums, we’ll be playing in the summer when there’s not much cricket going on and we have the second largest salary cap in the world alongside a few other leagues.
What we really have are the 400 million people in the US that are going to discover the sport at some point. They will fall in love with the sport. For every fan we have, if we can get one more mainstream fan to be a fan of cricket, we will be the second or third biggest market in the world. That’s the ambition.
It’s not just to run a T20 league, there are plenty of those around the world, but to be up there and the mainstream Americans to follow the sport.
Al Jazeera: Mainstream Americans have plenty on their hands right now with NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS and golf, among others. How confident are you that they will take up cricket?
Mehta: It will take time. The Indians and the Pakistanis will be the first fans. It’s our first season. We’ve just launched. We want to make sure we get the product right this year. Our absolute goal is that next year, when we have a full season, we want to market very heavily to the mainstream American fans and make them fall in love with the sport.
This country is a country of franchise sport. Every sports fan here is used to following three, four, five franchise teams. Even in football, all the top teams are franchises. Cricket should be no different.
We don’t want to compete with them [MLB, NBA]. We want to thrive off them. Americans are obsessed about sport. When they follow a sport, they follow it grandly. In this country, where the economics, the revenue, the way sport is handled, the way broadcast rights are handled, the way players are treated, it is just mind-boggling. If we have a slice of it, I’m more than happy. I don’t need to compete with football or basketball. We have a beautiful bat-and-ball game and the T20 version is perfect for the US audience. The sky is the limit out here.
Al Jazeera: T20 cricket has been around for a while. Why has it taken a long time for a league to be launched in this market?
Mehta: I feel like things happen at the right time. Our view was when T20 took off and built roots, it matured to a point where it has become a world-class product.
We decided to launch the league in 2017-18. It took a little bit of time to make sure the ICC and everyone else was fully on board. We also did not want to play in makeshift stadiums. We said if we’re going to do it, we’ll do it properly. I don’t think it’s been that long, there’s no urgency to it. The sport has matured, it took T20 a decade to find its feet and now it is the dominant version of cricket in the world. T20 is where the world is shifting to and as far as the US is concerned, it’s the absolute right sport for the market.
Americans like to root for a team in the place they live in. American sport is hyper-local and that’s what you want to bring to franchise cricket.
Al Jazeera: MLC is now being seen as a product to help promote the sport in the US. How do you feel about that and what role should the governing body play?
Mehta: As I said earlier, this country is one of franchise sport. If you want to come to the US, you have to play franchise sport, otherwise the sport can go elsewhere. Here, the only way to do it is via private capital and private stadiums. The governing bodies should do what they do and should absolutely try and collaborate with us … on usage of facilities and so on for the national teams. Franchises do things differently and are willing to invest and that’s how franchise sport is so popular. Governing bodies have smaller budgets and that’s not how a sport grows in the US. Frankly, both sides need each other.
In India, Pakistan and all those countries, the governing bodies have been around for a long time and receive massive budgets. For a new country like the US, where will they get any government assistance? It won’t happen. Private capital has to do it.
Al Jazeera: What’s next for the MLC then? What will it look like post season 1?
Mehta: We’re moving very, very fast. Next year will be a full season. Right now, we’re playing at two venues. We’re hoping to expand that to four next year which is also the Cricket World Cup year in the US. That’ll bring a lot of attention to the sport and the league. Hopefully we’ll be able to share venues with the World Cup organisers and vice versa.
The plan is for each team to have a permanent home venue by 2025 or 2026. We feel pretty confident that by 2026, each team will be applying home and away. You have got to have local fans. Once we become the top three to four financial nations in the world in terms of cricket, the cricketers will follow… and the sport will grow to a point where five to seven years from now, we can be at the top.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Source: Al Jazeera