At a redesigned former minor league baseball stadium in Dallas on Thursday night, another entrant into the crowded T20 cricket market will hope to finally break into America.
It took a decade before owners of Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises started to become profitable. Given that four of the six team backers in Major League Cricket (MLC) — the first-ever professional T20 league in the US — also own IPL sides, the nascent competition has already been given rich grounding.
“Like any start-up you stay patient and keep plugging away,” Venky Harinarayan, co-owner of San Francisco Unicorns, told Yahoo Finance.
A reported $120m (£92m) has initially been pumped in to launch MLC, which has landed some heavy hitters to fund the project, not only from the IPL franchise coffers but also from technology and media sectors. Notably Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft (MSFT), who is part of the Seattle Orcas ownership group, and Adobe Inc (ADBE) CEO Shantanu Narayen.
The four IPL owners are from Delhi Capitals (Seattle Orcas), Kolkata Knight Riders (Los Angeles), Chennai Super Kings (Texas) and Mumbai Indians (New York). The other MLC teams are San Francisco Unicorns and Washington Freedom, both with Indian links.
Talks began around five years ago when the International Cricket Council (ICC) rebooted USA Cricket and cleared up the operating body after years of governance issues. American Cricket Enterprises (ACE) were also taken on as investors, with the four founders granted a license to run a T20 league.
Watch: Major League Cricket coming to Grand Prairie
Harinarayan, a partner at San Francisco Bay-based Rocketship, the early-stage venture capital fund, said: “There was interest from ICC for a T20 league to promote the sport. That factor felt like it fit really well. Ashes notwithstanding, it’s the format that’s starting to take over.
“It was clear pretty early on that it wouldn't be a case of writing a cheque and magic would happen. There was a fair amount of work at ground level to take it off the ground over the last three years.
“It’s a labour of love to some degree. I don’t think any of the owners are doing it purely from a financial outcome. All of us being business folks, the long term viability of cricket in the US and the financial outcomes are positive. In the near term it’s about being in investment mode and trying to grow the seeds.”
For now, the San Francisco Unicorns won’t be playing in California. The inaugural MLC season will be played in Dallas — starting on 13 July with a sell-out between Texas Super Kings and Los Angeles Knight Riders — with the six teams playing across 18 days at the 7,000-seater Grand Prairie Stadium and at a venue in North Carolina.
“There is a lot going for cricket in the US,” added Harinarayan, a Chennai native. “There is a big expat population with South Asian and Indian Americans. There is incredible passion from the expats and the other piece which is interesting is the pretty high per capita income as well.
“That in my mind is the business case and being able to expand to a broader market. Like every start-up you look for a beachhead. You don’t try to own everything from day one.”
The US market presents both challenges and opportunities for the team owners — and whether MLC can redirect the cricket passion to the current cities where the expats live.
“We know they are super passionate,” added Harinarayan. “We know they support cricket teams. Let’s say you are a Pakistani living in San Francisco and you support the Pakistan team. The question is whether you can support your local team.
“In an ideal world we would love to play in every city and build fan engagement. The goal is to play where the franchises are represented. There is the opportunity in the medium term and the T20 format is really well suited to an American audience.
The four IPL franchises aiming for more global riches have given the MLC a “huge shot of credibility” in its first season. However Hemant Dua, Delhi Daredevils’ former CEO, believes that the competition still has challenges in both broadcasting and infrastructure.
He said: “From a broadcast point of view, it’s not great timing for India if the games are going to happen in the evening [US time]. If you have the games in the morning, it would be beaming to India in the evening.
“They still don't have the infrastructure and it will take time to build stadiums. Once all that is done, things will probably change. So this is going to be more testing than anything else.”
The hope is that MLC will be boosted when the US host matches in next year’s T20 World Cup alongside the West Indies, while the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles may include cricket on the Games’ programme.
The MLC is also not short of world-class players: Faf du Plessis, Kieron Pollard, Wayne Parnell and Anrich Nortje are just some of the stars who will be on show this month.
Harinarayan said: “We have been energised by the interest of the top players who want to play in the US. Every one of our teams would start up pretty well against any team in any T20 league.
Former Australia captain Aaron Finch will lead the San Francisco Unicorns in the inaugural edition, alongside the likes of Aaron Finch, Liam Pllunkett and Corey Anderson. The Unicorns have also partnered with Australian body Cricket Victoria, who will provide a general manager, coach and cricket operations.
“It’s rare you get the chance to create a start-up in the world of cricket and that’s exciting,” added Harinarayan.
Watch: How cricket is gaining traction in the US