The storied British game of cricket was the top sport in the United States in the mid-1800s. Now, the backers of a new league believe Americans will once again embrace professional cricket — and they are putting their dollars behind a new league to prove it.
Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan and a host of Indian American tech executives, including Microsoft Chairman Satya Nadella, are among the prominent investors in Major League Cricket, a professional league that will begin playing matches in 2022. The league originally intended to launch later this year, but it pushed back operations because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
League co-founders say they hope to tap into a market of fans — the vast majority of whom hail from South Asia and the Caribbean — who yearn for the chance to root for a local professional team.
"There is a huge amount of demand from the U.S.-based audience to consume the sport in person," said Sameer Mehta, a co-founder of Major League Cricket. Mehta said the U.S. is second only to India in terms of the number of fans who travel abroad to see matches each year and was home to one of the top five media markets for the game in the world.
Major League Cricket says it plans to begin with six teams in major cities. One team has been announced in Dallas; the other cities will be rolled out in the months ahead. "Some of them would be obvious, like the New York/New Jersey area and the San Francisco Bay Area," Major League Cricket co-founder Vijay Srinivasan said.
Mehta and Srinivasan said the intense passion fans have for cricket is evidence of the sport's unique appeal. There is "a lot of culture, history and tradition and dynamism" connected to cricket, Mehta said. "It's ingrained in people who've experienced it and have fallen in love with it as children."
Mehta said that fans sign up for highly specialized cable packages and streaming services to watch cricket matches and that the game is already being played in parks across the country.
"If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area on a Sunday morning, it's mostly tennis ball cricket being played on all the grounds, as opposed to traditionally what used to be baseball or even soccer," Mehta said. "Multitudes of fields are taken over on weekends by expats playing cricket."
American fans' enthusiasm for the game backs that up. When Shiek Mohamed, the founder of the popular news website USA Cricketers, heard about the launch of Major League Cricket, "I had to pinch myself," he said.
Mohamed, who immigrated to the New York area from Guyana in the 1990s, was inspired to begin USA Cricketers when he realized that many fans wanted to keep up with cricket news but did not have a U.S.-based source to do so. "So hearing about Major League Cricket and how it plans to become something like the Indian Premier League or other high-end tournaments was great news," he said.
For parents who grew up playing the game, having a way to pass the sport along felt particularly important. Sreekanth Kannepalli founded the Tuskers Youth Cricket Academy in Seattle so his kids and others could play cricket competitively.
"My son wanted to play, and I was, like, there's nobody to teach here, so I took it on myself," Kannepalli said. The academy quickly drew interest from families in the area; Kannepalli guessed that most of the kids who have enrolled have roots in South Asia or in Australia and New Zealand.
Kannepalli said that as a fan, he is eager for Major League Cricket to launch in the U.S.
"Most of us are very passionate about this sport," he said. "My affinity is towards the Indian national team, so I follow their games. I watch them till 3 in the morning."
The passion was evident when the new league approached potential investors.
"They saw this as a way to, one, connect with what they love," Mehta said. In addition to Nadella, the league's prominent tech investors include Shantanu Narayen, the CEO and chairman of Adobe; SQN hedge fund manager Amish Mehta; Neeraj Arora, former chief business officer of WhatsApp; and Subrah Iyar, who founded WebEx and is an investor in Zoom Video Communications, according to a news release.
If cricket were to achieve mainstream popularity in the U.S. because of the new league, it would be reclaiming part of its American past.
Until the mid-1800s, the game was equally as popular as baseball throughout the country. But as the historian George Kirsch noted in "Baseball and Cricket: The Creation of American Team Sports," cricket's pace couldn't keep up with American tastes.
"American players thought that cricket was a slow sport because they batted a few times per game, and had little action in the field," Kirsch said in an email. By contrast, baseball allowed players to bat several times a game and field a position every half-inning.
Traditional cricket is known for long matches that can span several days, but the new league will play a newer, shorter form of the game known as Twenty20, which limits matches to about three hours. "It's very fast-moving. It has a tremendous amount of action," Mehta said. "It allows players to play with a lot of freedom."
League officials say the Major League Cricket schedule will run during the summer in the U.S., which makes it ideal for attracting international talent because it doesn't overlap with most other leagues' seasons. Organizers said teams are likely to include former professional players living in the U.S. and younger players playing on college teams and with clubs.
Many former professional athletes are eager to play the game seriously again. League officials saw that when they held a minor-league tournament last fall. "We got about 4,000 people registered in the draft," Mehta said. "We looked through the names, and there were dozens upon dozens of very, very high-quality names in there."
The league is confident that with the right mix of talent, it will be able to field competitive teams for an eager fan base.
"If they could just drive a few miles away and watch top-tier international cricket with their local teams participating and get to root for a team called San Francisco or a team called New York — I think as long as we don't screw up on the product itself, it will be wonderful," Mehta said.
CORRECTION (Feb. 4, 2021, 3:37 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article mischaracterized the cricket audience in the U.S. It is second only to India in the number of fans who travel abroad to watch matches, not in overall size.